The Next Generation: D’Angelo Russell

Jan 5, 2017; Portland, OR, USA;Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) looks on during free throws during the first quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 5, 2017; Portland, OR, USA;Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) looks on during free throws during the first quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports /

Every season the draft brings a fresh infusion of talent to the NBA. In theory this is an even, steady process. In practice, hindsight and historical perspective show that there are borders and boundaries — talent doesn’t just arrive in the NBA, it arrives in generational waves. Sometimes we can’t see these aesthetic dividing lines for decades, sometimes you simply can’t miss them.

The present day NBA appears to be on the cusp of welcoming a remarkable new generation to its forefront — players who are not just incredible but incredibly unique. Players who will not just excel but transform the roles and responsibilities of basketball players as we understand them. Over the course of this week, The Step Back will be examining many of the players who could figure prominently in The Next Generation. Not every player we turn our attention to is destined to be a star, but all could play a role in defining the future of the NBA. Read the whole series here.

Art by Matthew Hollister
Art by Matthew Hollister /

The Next Generation: D’Angelo Russell

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when, after a promising rookie season and a dazzling performance in the Las Vegas Summer League, the 2015 No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell struggled to start the 2016-17 season. After all, the draft is supposed to be harder than that. Player and team are not supposed to make so much sense, so high in the draft. Young players shouldn’t be so impressive immediately. And the Lakers, really?

Los Angeles was blessed in June of 2015 — there’s no other way to spin it. Faced with the possibility of giving up their pick to the Philadelphia 76ers by way of the Phoenix Suns as a result of the Steve Nash trade (a pick that still has not conveyed), the Lakers needed a top-5 lottery finish to maintain rights to their selection. With the fourth worst record in the league, they actually hopped past the Knicks and Sixers to the second spot, keeping their pick and earning the right to pick among any non-Karl Anthony-Towns prospect available.

Having drafted Julius Randle the year before and with the young Tarik Black already on their roster as well, the Lakers might have been hesitant to pull the trigger on Jahlil Okafor or Kristaps Porzingis had they been picking lower. Instead, a team who cycled through Jeremy Lin, Ronnie Price and a rookie Jordan Clarkson at point guard the season prior, selected Russell with the second overall pick.

Read More: The Next Generation — Markelle Fultz is on his way

During the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour, the rookie point guard averaged just under 17 points per 36 minutes, along with 4 rebounds and 4 assists. Russell shot just below league average on 3s, played the passing lanes and stayed out of everyone’s way. He struggled on defense, but it happens. When a rookie plays this well, you look toward next season and start plotting his takeover.

The icy-veined star’s sophomore breakout campaign could not have been scripted better — Empowering new coach, slick new system, new veteran teammates.

Not so fast. After starring in a key montage from the first half hour of 30 for 30’s documentary feature, “The Baby Lakers” (scheduled to air in 2021 after the Lakers’ inevitable rise from the ashes), detailing the magnificence of Nov. 2016, Russell fell flat. There are a variety of reasons for that, and most of them stem from the sticky transition out of Byron Scott’s strict, Kobe-centric system into Luke Walton’s free-flowing, hippy-flippy shootaround.

Let’s start here — this year, only 24.7 percent of Russell’s minutes have come next to combo guard Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers’ most well-rounded offensive guard, compared with the 58.1 percent Byron Scott wrested from a less-talented roster last season. Many of his struggles acclimating to the give-and-go rhythm of Walton’s offense can be dialed down to playing as the only ball-dominate guard on offense. Clearly, he has a green light almost as bright as Stephen Curry’s was under Walton last season, but Russell has simply struggled to find and take advantage of open space.

Russell has a 27 percent usage rate this year, up three percent from last year, but his scoring and efficiency have not jumped equivalently. He’s basically been the same or worse from all three shooting spots, a situation helped only by the fact he’s shooting an extra 3 per game (plus some) and has maintained his mid-thirties effectiveness from deep.

As Laker Film Room notes in the video linked above, many of the shot-making problems stem from timing and footwork issues. On his best nights, Russell is making a difference by initiating sets quickly and making good decisions when the ball the gets back to him. He can make damn near any shot when his feet are set, and when he relaxes into the burden of creativity instead of stubbing his toe on it, he looks a lot like the player the Lakers wanted when they chose Russell in 2015.

In his second season, Russell has launced his catch-and-shoot efficiency to the next level, hitting 41.1 percent of the 3s he takes off the catch and posting a 58.6 percent effective field goal percentage overall, per tracking data. However, he’s gotten worse inside 10 feet and on pull-ups. Transition remains his bread and butter as 15 percent of Russell’s shots are taken with between 22 and 18 seconds left on the shot clock, and he’s making 51 percent of those shots. Per, the Lakers have similar numbers as a team, but Russell shines above the rest.

He is one of the growing number of players in the league with the potential to knock down the Bang! BANG! 3s in transition that make Walton’s old team, the Warriors, so dangerous. To use that shot to his advantage, he’ll have to undergo a similar filling-out process (both physically and creatively) to the one Curry underwent, making opponents fear him physically and from every other angle so Russell’s ability to beat defenders becomes a matter of which way instead of when he’ll try. The fun is just beginning.

It would be silly of me to gallivant through a celebration of Russell’s potential without bringing up the tails-side of the coin for him which is defense. The Lakers’ defense this year has been almost a full point worse per 100 possessions with Russell on the court, per nbawowy. Over his two-season career, however, there has been a full point swing defensively from when he’s on the court to when he’s off. With how terrible the Lakers have been these last couple years, especially on defense, those numbers are effectively too noisy to take much out of to evaluate Russell’s individual impact.

The entire roster has flipped since last season. Lou Williams and Nick Young were both out there leading up to the trade deadline, with Williams being traded; the veteran contracts are already ruining the Lakers’ future financial flexibility; the front office is in disarray. This whole mess (as well as a crazy young roster) is the real problem, not Russell’s defense, which has been better lately.

The point guard has the foot speed to stay in front of the quickest ball-handlers in the league and switch onto big men, someday. He suffers from lapses he should be able to avoid this far into his career considering the minutes he’s played, but he causes problems when his attention is in the right place. His nearly two steals per 36 minutes portend feistiness once the jitterbug settles down.

All this considered, there are just as many questions about D’Angelo Russell now as there were in June 2015. Could Russell have been the endgame of The Process? Sure — and he looks like a mighty nice triangle point guard as well. But there is a huge difference in how things seem and what they actually are. The million variables between liking a player and turning him into the player you need him to be are impossible to calculate for.

Lots of people are already scaring themselves about the Lakers — how one of the league’s marquee franchises might have already botched its rebuild by failing to find a star after three consecutive selections at the top of the draft. Many of those same people point to Russell as the star who should have been. These draft truthers seem to see team-building (and player development) as perfectly linear and one-size-fits-all.

Russell’s development curve is one to track, if simply as a way to understand the massive grey area existing between these two schools of thought. Players simply improving, regressing positively, and gaining chemistry are impossible to account for, just like Russell’s negative regression this year was unforeseen.

He’s an unfinished project, as are the Lakers and our perceptions of how to be successful in the NBA.