Lakers Summer League: D’Angelo Russell’s Learning Curve

By Eric Yee

First off, I’d like to take a page out of Aaron Rodgers’ book and advise Lakers fans to “RELAX.” While I’m tired of the, “it’s just summer league,” excuses, I’m equally frustrated by the amount of fans overreacting, saying that D’Angelo Russell doesn’t look like a number two pick. Little do they know, ironically, with the amount of disappointments that have been drafted second overall, Russell is doing his darnedest to fit in.

Yes, Jahlil Okafor looks a lot better than him right now, he’s supposed to. Hell, even Kristaps Porzingis has looked great, but when the Lakers picked Russell second overall it was not because of the player he was, instead for the player he could potentially become.

Regardless, the Lakers have made their bed and must now lie in it, but before jumping to conclusions, there are some things fans need to understand.

The Learning Curve

Every level a basketball player progresses is exponentially different/more difficult than the previous. If the window for getting a pocket pass to a teammate in high school is 3 seconds, the window for that same pass in college is around a second and a half, and in the NBA the margin for error is even smaller. NBA players are bigger, stronger, longer, and smarter than college players and D’Angelo Russell and Lakers fans are quickly learning this together.

Through five summer league games Russell averaged a sub-stellar 11.8 points, 5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1 steal and 5.2 turnovers a game, on 38% shooting in about 30 minutes a game. I believe his struggles are due mainly to him getting used to the new speed and size of the game. As mentioned earlier, windows for passes that used to be readily available in the NCAA aren’t there anymore, and if they are, they’re only there for a fraction of a second, Russell’s 5.2 turnovers a game can attest to this. This learning curve was obvious in his first few games where he had multiple passes to Jordan Clarkson and Tarik Black that were a split second from being highlight plays.

Russell spoke about his turnovers and the adjustment period in the following interview:

Late Bloomer Status

At one point during the above interview a reporter asked, “Is this a similar transition when you went from high school to college?” Russell responded by saying,

You go back to college, I remember struggling a little bit in the beginning… I mean this is just summer league it’s not the real, but I’m glad I’m getting it out now so I know what to prepare for when season comes

Further, in an article by Chad Ford, Russell’s late bloomer status was affirmed after Ford revealed that Russell didn’t even start playing basketball until he was 12 and was never a Top 10 high school player. Moreover, Ford explained that in college,

Russell didn’t make the initial cut in the Top 30 in July and didn’t crack the top 10 until December. In our latest Big Board 10.0, Towns is now the No. 1 prospect. Russell is at No. 3.

That said, the same grace period should be expected for his transition to the NBA.

The Silver Lining

While his struggles are apparent, Russell’s performance in Las Vegas was not all bad. For instance, people aren’t talking about his efficiency from midrange, surprising rebounding ability, his smooth change of pace dribbles, or his on point 60 foot outlet passes. Lakers fans want to win and want to win now, but in Russell’s case, time and patience are paramount. That said, working with one of the league’s greatest point guards ever in Steve Nash will prove to be a huge catalyst towards his development.

One thing Russell mentions in his video interview is that often times his teammates aren’t expecting the passes he’s throwing them. This was shown on multiple occasions when he tried to throw alley oops to Jordan Clarkson who just couldn’t convert. That said, these issues will only be solved with time and practice. Magic Johnson used to fire balls at his teammates’ heads if they weren’t looking for passes in practice and if these problems persist, Russell may find value in this method.

For me, the play below encapsulates who I believe D’Angelo Russell could become, more Steve Nash than James Harden or Stephen Curry. He stops on a dime, then, completely poised and under control, weighs his options, and proceeds to make the correct decision. Doesn’t this remind you of what Steve Nash did in Phoenix with Jason Richardson, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire as his running mates? Can Julius Randle not be the Amare to his Nash?

I often marveled at the fact that Steve Nash had the patience to wait a play out when most players would force the issue or reset the offense, and I see this same quality in D’Angelo Russell. Both have the uncanny ability to slightly pause, seemingly stopping time, causing the crowd to hold their breath for a split second because they know that they might just witness something amazing. Watch his brief hesitation then bounce pass to Tony Mitchell or the jump pass to Tarik Black to see what I mean.

Steve Nash was always in control of the game, and in time I believe that Russell will be able do the same. He’s not the greatest athlete, and he knows this, but every game he’ll be one of the smartest players on the floor and he’ll use this to his advantage. Similar to Nash, Russell is significantly more effective in the pick and roll or out on the break than in the traditional Princeton Offense, which is something the Lakers staff should take notice of.

The Lakers may have gotten unlucky when Steve Nash went down with injury, but could we be witnessing the next Nash in the making? We will just have to wait and see, but I have high hopes for D’Angelo Russell, and you should too.

Twitter: @ericdyee

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