D’Angelo Russell was once a man amongst boys in the Big Ten. His famed side-spin pass looked like a rock skipping across a pond. Scouts even likened his herky-jerky, finesse lefty game to Manu Ginobili and James Harden. Everyone and their mother assured he was ready for the next level.
His swift collegiate success led to the Lakers selecting him second overall, ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, Justise Winslow, and Devin Booker, to name a few.
If anything it was too much, too soon. Despite looking like a future star in summer league — once again proving summer league is futile grounds — he got off to a rocky start in the league. He didn’t have his work cut out for him in La-La land.
In the starting lineup, he played next to Kobe Bryant — who, at age 38, was notorious for rookie dislike and pin-balling jumpers. And when he shifted to the second team, Russell grouped with a variety of D-League caliber players (Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre ring any bells?). Yet he flashed enough potential to bide time.
Going down the road of D’angelo Russell means discussing the fork in it.
Russell dipped his toes into boiling hot water when a video leaked off his phone. During it, Nick Young admitted to cheating. If you can recall, all hell broke loose. Clearly, Russell jeopardized two relationships — Nick Young’s matrimony and his own with the the Lakers organization. If players on his team did not technically isolate the guard, they at least watched their words. Such an incident led to the demise of his Lakers career.
The Lakers never buried the hatchet and so the recording twisted the knife in Russell’s future as a Laker. The former second pick coupled with Timofey Mozgov’s putrid contract turned into a late first-rounder (what became Kyle Kuzma) and a solid-big man (Brook Lopez) — suggestive to bottomed-out stock and underwhelming play. In an alternate universe, a trio of Russell-Tatum-Lebron exists in 2018.
In real time, Russell treads water in Brooklyn while Kuzma is coming off an outstanding rookie season. Nevertheless, the two should not be linked to perceive Russell’s strengths and weaknesses within the confines of the Nets system.
While rarely featured in off-ball movement — which is surprising since the Nets had 2,378 point guards — Russell excels at cutting. Playing beside a nifty passer in Spencer Dinwiddie, Russell can become the player we thought he would be. All things considered, forcing him to switch now would be a tall task. He’s been a featured point guard all his career, with 91% of his minutes having been spent at the point.
The fact that a quick search of D’angelo Russell cut to the basket evoked zero results is evidence that Kenny Atkinson barely features him as an off-ball threat. That fact is furthered by Synergy, who counted just 0.3 possessions per game. Nonetheless, he placed in the 92.3 percentile, shooting 75% when he cut to the hoop.
Further, his inside shots, according to Basketball Reference, (0–3 feet) improved from 57.5% his first two seasons to 63.6% this past season. Finding opportunities for Russell to move without the ball benefits both sides.
Here’s Russell cutting to the hoop when he notices his defender’s head turned. By finding an opportune time to cut and a gaping hole in the defense, Russell pops up like the mole in whac-a-mole.
The key to Atkinson’s engine — who is a renowned player developer — is to get young players the ball early and often. So to say Russell should shoot less is short sighted and unrealistic. Rather, playing to his strengths could jump-start the Nets.
Pick and Roll and Isolation
In college; droves of up and unders, ball on a string step-backs, and dodgy head fakes made ends meet. In the NBA, the athletes are beefier and quicker. While Russell isn’t slow-mo, his lateral movement suppresses his isolation and pick and roll game.
The increase of isolation possessions — from 1.4 to 2.2 — coincided with a dip in PPP, effective field goal percentage, and overall percentile. It also triggered an uptick in turnover percentage. Being on Brooklyn means driving the Brooklyn car. He has the reins to run plays for himself, something he would not be able to do anywhere else.
Albeit, his peers were more refined in almost every category. Caris LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead (who now plays overseas), and forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were better isolated and as ball-handlers in screens.
When it’s all said and done, moving him to the passenger’s seat makes the most sense.
On the flip side, he was better in the pick and roll with an increase in possessions. The Nets run a variety of Spain pick and rolls. The alignment of their team gives the defense a few looks. A 4-out offense gives Russell operating room. And when Quincy Acy* began firing from deep, basically everyone on the team had to be respected from behind the arc.
*4.2 out of Acy’s 5.2 shots per game were three’s. He made 34.9% of such shots, lending towards an atrocious 35.6% field goal clip.
It’s no secret Russell is hunting for his own shot. His 30.8 usage rate was by far the highest number on the team. The 14 shots per game were the most in his career — a 41.4% field goal does not warrant that kind of excess. Likewise, he shot just 32.4% on 5.8 three-pointers. That’s just the ship Atkinson hopes to run though.
A quick realization materialized on the Lakers. His inability to blow by defenders stifled his passing ability. His 4.3 turnovers per game are cause for concern. Here, he tries to force the issue when nothing’s there.
Sometimes he takes the lackadaisical approach.
That pass was the real life version of a 2k glitch.
There is valid reason Atkinson chose to restrain Russell’s fury in certain sets. He struggles off-screens, in transition, and in handoff sets.
His slow foot speed gets exposed on the break. Unable to slither past longer and faster defenders, Russell struggles mightily in transition. On two-on-one or three-on-one fast breaks, Russell is indecisive — his 23.9% turnover frequency was 5th for players with two or more possessions in transition.
How Brooklyn can unleash his powers
What the Nets do great is filling the lanes in transition. With an 18.3% transition frequency (per CleaningtheGlass), their best plays are often the most simple. Mozgov spots Turner settled in the lane and sets an ‘on the go’ screen for a patient Caris LeVert. If Russell waits for a screen like LeVert does here, he will start scoring more buckets in transition.
Like most of the league, Brooklyn uses strong sets to initiate their offense. As the Synergy table above portrays, Russell is not spectacular coming off screens. He is in the 22.9 percentile in such plays, but the Nets are more an Atkinson experiment than a structured team. One more year of exerted effort towards improving a 22-year old can not hurt.
If Russell denies the screen and fades, he can spot-up for a three. His 34.2% was a tick below the 36.5% he shot on catch and shoots, but he has improved his finishing. His 46.2% on 9.6 drives this season skyrocketed from 43.2% on 6.3 drives as a Laker. His willingness to drive to the rim and ability to finish shots improved, which will only serve him well moving forward.
On spot-up shots, he shot 55.8% effective field goal, scoring 1.1 PPP (77.3 percentile, for good measure). That’s extremely high and employing his creative instincts could add an alternative facet to an already enthralling team.
If he comes off the screen and doesn’t get an immediate open shot, he can wait for a ball screen. In those situations, Russell isn’t a master but has shown improvement. For players with a 40% frequency, 7 possessions per game, and 0.8 PPP, Russell rated sixth. That puts him in a high-usage, high-scoring category in the pick and roll along the likes of; Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Reggie Jackson, and Dennis Schroder.
Although in his best games, Russell attacked at every angle. His best quarter saw him swish three-pointers in a myriad of ways; isolations, pick and rolls, spot-ups, and transition plays.
In full swing, he is an All-Star caliber player, especially in a softened Eastern Conference. Russell was forging a comeback story before he got hurt. Courtesy of Basketball-Reference, here were his first 11 games in the Black and White.
What lineups should Brooklyn use?
Even if Russell has potential oozing in his veins, the Nets flourish with him off the court. In shortened minutes, their best lineup consisted of Dinwiddie-Crabbe-RHJ-Carroll-Acy. In a fast paced Atkinson offense, that lineup had an outstanding 116.2 offensive rating.
Throw Russell in the mix and, offensively, the team downgraded. A lineup of Russell-Crabbe-Carroll-RHJ-Allen donned a 112.3 offensive rating. Although they did have a 96.6 defensive rating.
Playing next to Allen — who some believe will take a huge leap next season — aides Russell defensively. Allen’s staunch rim protection negates Russell slow footwork on the perimeter. If a player beats Russell off the dribble, Allen is the perfect second line of defense.
It’s not like a lineup of Russell-Dinwiddie-Crabbe-Carroll-Allen was an indestructible force, with a 111.3 offensive rating. But their 73% assist rate stood out — 5th for lineups that played upwards of 100 minutes together. That lineup is the most talented top to bottom and will probably be the most played lineup, with Joe Harris relieving either guard.
The roster could be a different beast next year though.
How Brooklyn approaches Free Agency is Essential to Russell’s Future
After all, the Nets intend on buying in ensuing free agency periods. The big four of oft-injured Deron Williams, trying Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and extravagant Joe Johnson, proved a massive failure. The trade was like Justice League — throwing a band of misfits into superhero suits and expecting huge box-office numbers.
Of course, commanding those big names was going to cost assets. In the trades for the former Jazz point guard and Celtic forwards, Brooklyn gave up three first-round picks (2014, 2016 and 2018), plus the right to swap first-rounders in 2017, Brooklyn’s 2012 first-round pick this year, and Golden State’s 2012 first-rounder.
If giving up a smorgasbord of assets for aging players seemed aimless, then picking up Andrei Kirilenko and trading for Gerald Wallace showed a deep-rooted adherence for an experienced core (and a team that would dominate in 2007). That team was set to challenge LeBron, like a reverse 2018 Boston Celtics. In lieu, the team collapsed like any DC movie, proving superheroes were only as good as their script.
The win-at-all-cost trades mitigated future success. Backed up cap space has restricted the Nets from making big-money moves on free agents. A few questions remain unanswered: How do players feel about Brooklyn as a destination? Can players trust ownership to make sound decisions (and not bribe players)?
How the team approaches next season’s free agency — and whether players view it as a rendezvous point — could trigger the end of the D’Angelo Russell experiment.
Plenty of young players excel right out the gate and deservedly grab the headlines. But behind the cloud of recency is a layer of roses that take time to rise from the concrete. Just like Victor Oladipo and Kyle Lowry before him, Russell could be the case of a late-bloomer. For that reason, the Nets haven’t given up on him quite yet.
Although headed into his 4th season, Russell is embarking on the twilight zone of his career. Time is running out for him to let loose the pent up potential.
How Russell fits in
The NBA is a copycat league. When Mike D’antoni began the 7-second craze in Phoenix, the idea that three’s were the summit to success was written off as ludicrous. Except impersonators started shuffling in, opening the door to new age thought. Three’s — and getting them up at a ridiculous rate — were suddenly more important than layups.
The Nets are mimickers of the now sought-after gimmick. All told, 43.6% of the team’s shots were from deep, second in the league. And even though the team was not uber-efficient, Atkinson’s offense is predicated on pushing the ball to catch the defense off-guard. Last season, their 101.07 pace was 7th in the NBA.
Russell is a cog in that machine. His downsides correspond with Brooklyn’s: overly sped up, inconsistent, and trigger-happy. His upsides symbolize the peak of the Nets’ imaginary mountain, mainly knockdown shooting, deft passing, and enormous offensive potential.
With time running out, the Nets have a decision to make. Russell will have to show why he was the second pick in the draft. If he doesn’t, he might find himself treading water in a different city next year. By then, the former Ohio State guard will be another team’s reclamation project.