A sweetener in a salary dump, albeit one of the toughest salary dumps in the NBA (three years of Timofey Mozgov for $48 million). That was D’Angelo Russell this summer, when the Los Angeles Lakers decided to go all-in with Lonzo Ball and cap space to pursue LeBron James and as many superstars as possible in 2018.
Well, it’s the Lakers’ loss at this point. Russell is only two years removed from being a No. 2 overall pick, and he has joined an ideal system and great coaching in the form of Kenny Atkinson to coax out all the talent he has to offer, the talent that was never fully unleashed or nurtured in LA. (Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour and painful coaching from the likes of Byron Scott were never recipes for success.)
So far, the Brooklyn Nets rank third in 3-point attempts per game at 32.8 (seventh in makes at 11.2) and lead the league in pace. Atkinson’s team plays hard, plays fast and runs (I won’t dive into the woeful defense right now), which is exactly what Russell has needed around him.
He’s playing more freely than ever, especially with Jeremy Lin again out with injury. It’s worse for Russell in terms of not having a supporting ball handler, and it’s not good for the team, of course. However, it heightens Russell’s usage and individual opportunity to thrive. He’s averaging career-highs across the board, scoring 21.1 points per game with 44.4 percent shooting to go along with his nightly 4.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. On top of that, he’s improved from a negative Box Plus/Minus of minus-0.5 last season to plus-0.5, including a leap from a 1.1 Offensive BPM to 2.5.
Thanks to his strong shooting start inside the arc and a career-high free-throw rate with five attempts per game (up from three a year ago), Russell has taken a notable jump in efficiency overall: He’s shattering his former PER high of 15.3 to the new tune of 19.3, and his true shooting percentage has climbed from a previous career-high of 51.8 to 52.9. (It would have sounded much better as the 56 it was before he went cold against the Lakers on Friday night. Alas, this is what happens with small sample sizes.)
This kind of progress in efficiency, even at this early stage, is promising. It’s particularly encouraging when you take into account how new he is to carrying this kind of load. For a player to show notable improvement at 21 years of age while ranking third in the NBA in usage percentage (34.1) is quite something. He has been thrust into an even greater challenge without Lin’s help and is stepping up.
Some of Russell’s early success is a result of him doing more with the talent he has always had. His jump shot has always been silky smooth. And despite a 29.5 percent 3-point shot at the moment, he can work off the ball in Brooklyn and use the shooting around him to attack closeouts as defenses shift and find space off the dribble (57.9 percent shooting from between 16 feet and the arc is unsustainable but serves as a reminder of what he can do).
Russell simply has a good feel for the game. He uses his vision, crafty ballhandling and soft touch to score inside and get to the line to help overcome a lack of elite explosiveness. As you can see here, he doesn’t blow past his man, Taurean Prince, but he positions himself and juts out his hip to help create distance before dropping in a floater over the defense:
Having more shooting and movement around him helps create lanes for Russell to attack the basket. And he deserves credit for being aggressive to do just that; he’s taking 5.9 drives per game (far more than his average of 2.4 from 2016-17 and high enough to rank seventh in the NBA right now) and scoring on a decent 46.8 percent of them.
If Russell maintains increased penetration and trips to the charity stripe as a key feature of his offensive arsenal, the extra dose of diversity to accompany his jumper makes him that much tougher for defenses to handle. He can keep defenders on their toes and punish them to a harsher degree when they get too close or stumble off-balance.
You can see that in the following clip. The 3-to-10-foot range is a sweet spot for Russell with his gentle floaters over big men, and it accompanies his career-high shooting percentage of 61.1 percent within 3 feet of the basket. A head fake and a pair of hesitation moves to freeze Nikola Vucevic’s feet allowed Russell to accelerate past with a burst of speed for a strong finish:
Again, extra shooting is always nice to have. Forwards like Quincy Acy and DeMarre Carroll being able to pop effectively from 3 adds a little more breathing room than guys such as Julius Randle did in L.A., and the Nets dabbling with super small lineups — featuring a combination of five guards and wings (and ideally four or five shooters) — can help even more.
As a playmaker, Russell has been utilizing his talents well so far in Brooklyn. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his 3.8 turnovers per game decrease as he gets used to a bigger role, and his average of 6.8 assists per 36 minutes — not to mention ranking 10th in assist percentage at 34.7 — is impressive.
This pass out of a pick-and-roll wasn’t very complicated, but it’s a good example of 1) Russell reading the floor and looking for shooters, and 2) how well Allen Crabbe moves off the ball, recognizing that Marco Belinelli would have prevented a pass to him near the top of the arc. Crabbe drops to the corner to find more space and creates a clear passing lane for Russell:
There are going to be ups and downs for all young players, especially those hurled into major new roles with lofty expectations and ones with such little supporting talent around them. Given his situation, though, Russell’s performance has been nothing but encouraging so far. The shooting and pace of Atkinson’s system should hopefully ensure Russell doesn’t seek out his shot too many and ignore others at times, too.
And in time, as he develops and others around him such as Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson continue to grow, Russell will be even better.
He’s just getting started.
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