The Lakers Should Feel Confident Building Around D'Angelo Russell


It feels like any article about D’Angelo Russell right now should start with the video that he took of Nick Young. That video, at least from today’s point of view, could have long-term ramifications for the Lakers regarding locker room tension and their free agency efforts. However, let’s ignore that incident for now and instead talk about happy things, such as Russell’s progression as a player throughout the season.

The main concern with Russell coming into the draft was his lack of elite athleticism and how that would affect his ability to create space on jumpers and to get to the rim. Another more minor question mark was his shooting. Three-point percentage in college is fluky, and Russell did not shoot well from the free throw line, typically an indicator for raw shooting talent. Through the first couple months of the season, these questions about his game translating to the pros seemed well founded.

At first, Russell obviously didn’t have three-point range. He also rarely got to the basket; only 12% of his shots were within seven feet of the hoop. These problems were all compounded by the fact that the Lakers don’t have any decent roll men. So what happened was D’Angelo would run off a screen and get into the lane without a rolling threat, and not being able to get to the rim, he’d pull up. That was his entire game. Through November, half of his shots were taken from midrange, and that just doesn’t cut it in today’s NBA as a first option. 

Look at these back-to-back pull-up jumpers he took in an early season game against Orlando.


 

The first thing to note is just how little attention the big on defense gives to Roy. They just drop back and clog up the lane, not afraid of Hibbert as a shooter or a roller. And he’s so slow footed that he doesn’t get into the mix for offensive rebounds. LA needs to realize that building around the P&R with Russell is their most surefire path to an above-average NBA offense, and they need to get some screeners that can either pick and pop or have some gravity running at the rim.

There’s one other thing about LA’s roster that causes these plays to break down; Julius Randle’s shooting. Notice his man in both of these plays. Play #1: Clarkson cuts as soon as DR comes off the screen. That’s a smart play; movement off the ball like that often leads to easy buckets. But Tobias Harris, Randle’s man, just slides over and stops the threat of this cut, and Randle is still standing in the midrange area without a chance to make him pay. The next play is even more egregious, given that Randle is floating at the three-point line and Aaron Gordon dropped all the way in the lane.

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Russell has no second option to go to. Julius doesn’t seem to like being the big in the P&R, so he either needs to develop a jumper or move more off the ball if he doesn’t want to be a hindrance to the Lakers offense going forward.

But back to Russell, although he’s not being helped by his teammates in this scenario, settling for a midrange pull-up isn’t the solution. The big men drop back against Russell in both of these situations, baiting him to take that midrange shot. But if he becomes a more consistent three-point shooter, he can punish defenses that drop back by taking threes instead, which are much more efficient. If that ever becomes the case for Russell, then teams have a much more difficult decision: let D’Angelo get good looks from three just by running off a screen, or have the big defender help up on him, which creates much more opportunities for the roll man. Stephen Curry is obviously the extreme example of this, but look at how he’s guarded in the pick and roll.

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Curry creates so many opportunities for the offense because it gives the roll man, in this case Draymond, room to operate. This sort of respect from defenders is part of Russell’s best-case scenario as a player, and his more recent play has shown that it’s within reach.

There have been a couple of improvements in Russell’s game that have allowed him to become a much better scorer. In my opinion the most important of these improvements has been his floater. Early in the season this aspect of his game was non-existent, now it’s essential. Because he doesn’t have elite athleticism, he needs more crafty ways to finish around the basket. Look at these two plays he makes in his 39-point performance against Brooklyn.


 

Earlier in the season he most likely would have pulled up for a long two. The first play is very similar to one I showed earlier; Randle is floating at the three point line, his man’s helping out in the lane, and Hibbert’s not a threat rolling to the rim. This time though, Russell goes straight at Lopez and drops in a pretty floater over him. The second play is a similar scenario, and again Russell shows no fear and runs right at the big, finishing over him again. This sort of confidence in the lane was a rare sight for Russell early on, but now he’s showing a combination of hesitation moves and touch that indicate he can become an above-average finisher.

In the same game, Russell took and made a couple of late game pull-up three’s, showing off his best path to becoming a very good player. If he can extend that midrange pull-up game to three without dropping a ton of percentage points, he would become one of the premier shooting threats in the league.

As the season has gone along, D’Angelo Russell has improved as a finisher and a shooter, and if those improvements continue he will be able to overcome his physical limitations and become a deadly offensive threat. The Lakers need to feel confident building around him and actually bring in some pick and roll pieces that complement his game. If they don’t get a superstar this offseason, but instead just add some competent players, we should all be prepared for a big second year jump from DLoading.   

 

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