Adjusting Expectations for D’Angelo Russell

About four months ago, the Los Angeles Lakers had their highest draft pick since 1982. The reward for another tumultuous and altogether miserable season, the pick had all of Laker Nation buzzing with debates raging on about who the Lakers should pick. On draft night, the Lakers threw a slight curveball at the majority of pundits and fans by selecting D’Angelo Russell ahead of Jahlil Okafor. Since then, Russell’s development (all four months of it) has been under constant scrutiny, analyzed under the most powerful of microscopes. Russell has had struggles throughout summer league and preseason and he has shown flashes of brilliance. With so much talk around the sports world about how Russell has performed in these few games, it may be important to discuss the expectations from both the fans and the team of the Lakers’ newest point guard.

Fairly or unfairly, Russell will always be compared to Okafor. The Duke center was billed by many as the surest and most pro-ready prospect out of the whole draft class. Those projections, however, were always exaggerated. Okafor showed an elite ability as a post-up player, a skill that could immediately translate to the NBA. However, even the “ready” prospect has struggled thus far, shooting 39% from the field and committing over three turnovers per game in just 19 minutes of playing time. This is not to say that Okafor is not better than Russell; he might be or might not be. Instead, it shows that nearly every rookie struggles to start their career. It takes time for these players to adjust to the speed, size, and skill of the NBA after mostly dominating the college game. If showing Okafor’s struggles was not enough to convince you of that, look at this:

The last time I checked, that Kobe guy had a pretty decent professional career, despite his early struggles. Russell is only one year older than Bryant at that point in their careers. It is fair to assume that he will also take time to adjust and become a good player.

Having said all this, it is also fair to have somewhat high expectations for the second overall pick. Russell was drafted with the vision of him becoming a future star for the Lakers, a member of a long-lasting and formidable backcourt with Jordan Clarkson. Even if he makes mistakes this season (and he will) we should have certain attainable expectations for him – namely, improving over the course of the season. In order for Russell to achieve those goals, however, he needs to be placed in positions where he can excel. He is in a good situation with the starting lineup in that he has several good offensive players and playmakers around him at all times, making his responsibilities less demanding and difficult. However, more can be done to help Russell’s development, immediately, and it all falls on the shoulders of Byron Scott.

To start, D’Angelo Russell needs to start. There has been some talk, mostly from Scott, that the rookie might not be the day-one starter at the point guard position and during parts of preseason, that talk was actually put into action. Russell needs all the game time possible to develop and he will not receive enough of it if he is constrained to a bench role. On a team that is still nowhere close to a playoff berth, there is absolutely no reason not to start him and let him gain that experience. Additionally, playing with the starters will put Russell on the court with the teams’ best players, again making it easier for him to gradually adjust to the game.

Secondly – and this relates to the first point – Russell must be allowed to play with players that supplement his skills. While watching the Lakers get blown out by the Warriors on Thursday night, I noticed Scott rolling out a frontcourt line-up of Ryan Kelly and Brandon Bass, a lineup that Russell was also featured in at times. While Scott kept playing that combination, he completely forgot about the existence of Tarik Black. Black, who is the second best center on the roster, is not a world-beater by any means, but he can give the team something that is of tremendous value: a pick and roll threat. Every big man on the roster, with perhaps the exception of Julius Randle, is exclusively a pick and pop player, always choosing to spot up for a jumper after setting a screen. That can make it extremely difficult for Russell to make plays, as that sort of action generally leads to far less scrambling out of the defense – not forcing many rotations. Black, meanwhile, is a great finisher at the rim, with athleticism and a willingness to bang inside. Russell, who was a historically elite pick and roll ball handler in college, can benefit greatly by playing with Black as it gives him both the option of passing it to the finisher on his dive to the rim, or finding open options on the weak side after defensive rotations. These are crucial confidence-building steps for a player trying his best to do everything correctly, sometimes to a fault. Without those plays, Russell has shown an aversion to making riskier plays, something that he did more often in Summer League. It’s difficult to speculate whether he is truly nervous about backlash from turning the ball over but I believe it is clear that getting some easier opportunities would build up enough confidence to get him to take those risks. Do not forget that there is a positive correlation between rookie point guards who take risks (namely piling on turnovers) and their future success.

D’Angelo Russell has struggled this summer; there’s no other way to say it. But the notion that his troubles over the course of a handful games is indicative of the type of player he can become is utterly short-sighted. He is a 19-year old kid who is playing against NBA competition for the first time. It would be more surprising if he did not struggle through the process. So while there should be discussions about what Russell can do to improve (namely, take more risks and play with confidence) and what the team should do to help him along, it should be noted and taken into account that there is plenty of time for those improvements to come along. The only thing that can be taken away from Russell’s play in his three-plus months as a professional is that he has the potential to become a seriously good player, the best point guard the Lakers have had in an incredibly long time, but it will take him a long time to get to that point.

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