The fact that I am writing this, this early, is a testament to the day and age we live in.
We are a whopping four games into the NBA careers of D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor, yet fans all over have drawn conclusions about what they will always be at this level, as if it is already concrete.
The Los Angeles Lakers were extremely fortunate back in May to not only retain their top-five protected pick, but to also leap to the No. 2 overall selection. Coming off the worst season in franchise history that saw them go 21-61, it was apparent that the Lakers needed serious upgrades in talent to fill gaping holes in the roster.
As expected, the consensus top prospect, Karl-Anthony Towns, went No. 1 overall to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Then the 2015 NBA Draft truly began. Russell or Okafor? It was all that Lakers fans talked about for an entire month leading up to draft day. Okafor was the guy most people expected to be wearing purple and gold this season, but general manager Mitch Kupchak elected to build his backcourt of the future, pairing Russell with last year’s surprising standout, Jordan Clarkson.
It was a move that shocked a lot of people and drew endless praise from others. In a guard-driven league, the Lakers were finally “getting with the times.” Fast forward to today, and fans are up in arms about the choice after one week’s worth of games.
The fan base will likely always compare the two current 19-year-olds, considering the team had their choice of either one. Is it fair to compare Russell and Okafor, especially this early on in their rookie campaigns? The topic may seem black and white, but there is a vast amount of gray area that illustrates why comparisons should be held off, at least for the time being.
When you look at the averages of each player, Okafor wins by a mile. The big man is pouring in 20.3 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting, along with 5.5 rebounds. Meanwhile, Russell is averaging just 8.5 points on 34.1 percent shooting, while dishing out 2.8 assists per game.
For the crowd already claiming the Lakers made the wrong pick, they will obviously continue to point to these numbers until they change. But do they tell the entire story? Let’s delve a little deeper.
You certainly have to credit Okafor for his production, and the level of efficiency that has come with it. With that being said, he is currently in a much more favorable position to produce from a statistical standpoint. Okafor is the top offensive option for the Philadelphia 76ers, due to both a lack of offensive firepower and simply because he is extremely effective as a low-post scorer. Russell, on the other hand, is the fourth option on offense in the Lakers’ starting lineup, behind Kobe Bryant, Julius Randle and Clarkson.
Their situations are clearly evidenced by some more advanced statistics. Okafor averages 33.9 minutes per game with a usage rate of 27 percent, while Russell has been given just 24.2 minutes with a usage rate of 19.9 percent. 7.1 percent might not seem like much, but when you factor in a disparity of 9.7 minutes of time on the floor per game, it is a significant difference.
For further comparison, Okafor’s usage rate ranks highest on the Sixers’ roster. Russell’s 19.9 percent usage rate is fifth-highest for the Lakers. That, of course, is excluding Robert Sacre and Anthony Brown, who both have higher usage rates than Russell but have only played four minutes this season.
Like I said, credit is certainly due to Okafor for his production through these first four games. Additionally, Russell, who has managed to take good, open looks, has to knock them down. However, the considerable gap in both playing time and usage rates has to be taken into account here. One would think that Russell’s minutes will increase over the course of the season, which will provide a more accurate statistical representation of his performance.
Byron Scott vs. Brett Brown
The Lakers’ fan base is in a familiar predicament: Upset with the team’s head coach. Outside of Phil Jackson, Los Angeles has struggled to find stability at the head coaching position for years. Mike Brown, followed by Mike D’Antoni, failed to sustain the position for at least two full seasons. Now, the masses seem to want Byron Scott fired and replaced immediately.
In Philadelphia, the lowly 76ers have not resembled a competitive basketball team since their last playoff appearance in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. However, it is unfair to blame that on current head coach, Brett Brown, who took over prior to the 2013-14 season. Seemingly every time the Sixers find a productive player, they want to trade him away in order to add to the stockpile of draft picks already in their possession. They have continuously tanked in hopes of collecting talent at the top of the draft board, which is a lengthy process.
What goes unnoticed, is that the schemes, sets and style of play implemented by Philadelphia are actually effective. The talent needed to warrant consistent results is devoid.
Brown makes a concerted effort to feed Okafor the basketball on the low-block, putting him in the best position to succeed.
The Lakers are on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of the system they run offensively, or in this case, the lack thereof. Much of the Lakers’ offense thus far has been heavy isolation basketball. Time after time, the ball gets fed to a player on the wing or in the high-post, while the other four players get out of the way and allow said player to try and beat his man for a bucket.
Now, a team can get away with that if they have enough talent, and the Lakers have some guys that can score at a high clip, but it isn’t nearly maximizing the offensive potential. The Lakers should constantly run pick-and-roll action for Russell when he is on the floor, because that is his game. In the season opener against Minnesota, Scott had Russell playing off the ball, allowing Clarkson to man the point guard spot. That’s great for the latter, but does not put both players in the best position to be successful.
Also, it may not seem like it because he is only averaging 2.8 assists, but Russell is creating open looks for his teammates. Against Denver, he tallied six assists in only 20 minutes. Against Sacramento, Russell had seven assist opportunities and only ended up with two. Russell is a savant when it comes to passing the basketball, and the proof is on tape. His impact on the game, though obviously needing improvement, goes beyond the stat sheet.
It would help if his head coach fully utilizes him with an offensive style that repeatedly puts him in scenarios that best suit his game. Okafor has had that advantage through four games. Hopefully the Lakers make the necessary adjustments.
Another aspect that is overlooked when comparing these two is the polar opposite positions they play. The current NBA has an abundance of talent at the point guard position, while adequate big men are much harder to come by. Being a point guard in today’s league is daunting, as you are seemingly matched up against a star-caliber player every night.
Okafor operates much closer to the basket, making it easier for him to score consistently. One could also certainly argue that the learning curve is steepest for point guards, given the position’s responsibility for initiating the offense and creating for others. Plus, Russell was more of a combo guard during his lone season at Ohio State.
In terms of having to adjust in college and now at the NBA level, Russell mentioned the process of it all back on the team’s media day. “I always have trouble figuring it out early, but as the season progresses I figure it out,” Russell said. “At college, being a combo guard is tough, knowing when to get guys involved and knowing when to score. As the season went along, I started to figure it all out. At this level, I feel like it’s going to be the same.”
Remember, Russell started slow in college as well, then skyrocketed up draft boards as his game evolved over the course of the season. Let’s give a 19-year-old point guard a bit of time before labeling him, shall we?
Okafor has been fantastic in the early stages of the season. Russell has certainly shown that there is a lot of room for improvement. But guess what? We have made it through four games. FOUR. He has 78 games left this season, plus a few seasons after — at the very least — to figure it all out.
Russell has had his fair share of struggles, dating back to summer league play in Las Vegas. Still, he has shown numerous flashes of brilliance, especially with his vision and passing. Those flashes show that once he pieces it all together, he is going to be a special player in this league.
Did the Lakers make the right pick? We won’t know for probably at least a couple of years. This young team wasn’t going very far this season anyways, so let’s at least try to give the youth — especially the hopeful franchise point guard — some time to develop and figure out how to be effective on a nightly basis.
Take a deep breath, and relax.
*All stats courtesy of NBA.com