It has been said that the NBA is currently in a golden age of point guards, with maestros like Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook leading a new breed of multifaceted guards. Curry gave validity to this notion when his Golden State Warriors hoisted the championship trophy, but perhaps the greatest indicator of the shift towards guard play was the historically center-centric Lakers selecting guard D’Angelo Russell over Jahlil Okafor and his enormous hands.
It should be noted, however, that Russell’s selection has more to do with who he is as a player than the position he plays. In a league where spacing, ball movement, and shooting are king, Russell checks all the boxes with elite-level potential.
He can be a wizard with the basketball, using his court vision to deliver passes to teammates before they even realize they are open. The spin and force that he uses to pass the ball were the subject of an ESPN Sport Science investigation; that’s how unique his passing ability is. If guys don’t have their hands up and ready when Russell has the ball they are going to receive free “Spalding” tattoos.
That said, at just 19 years old, Russell still has a lot to learn before he can ascend to the throne of superstardom. Summer League was particularly challenging, and the adjustment to running a team full-time was a jarring one that resulted in a whopping 5.2 turnovers per game. He would deliver a brilliant pass on one play only to turn it over on the next, often trying too hard to thread the needle as though he was attempting to live up to his reputation on every play.
In order to get to the level that the Lakers will ultimately need Russell to be at, he is going to have adapt to the NBA game and learn how to pick his spots. His quickness and athleticism aren’t off the charts, which means that he is going to have to become a master at using his positioning to get past defenders. The training sessions that he has planned with Steve Nash should be a big help in this area.
Like Randle, Russell also needs to work on developing his right hand, both when attacking the basket and passing. He can get by with a dominant left hand, but if he wants to be truly great, he will need to bring the right up to speed.
Defensively, he can get caught ball watching, and needs better awareness overall, but his long wingspan and size (6’5”) help to mitigate his deficiencies. He’s also a fantastic rebounder for a point guard, which helps fuel Jim Buss’ vision of recreating Showtime with Russell or Randle grabbing the board and instantly starting the fast break.
Out of the Lakers young three, the development of D’Angelo Russell has to have the utmost importance. He has the highest ceiling of the group, and his ability to deliver the ball to the right spot at the right time will be a major draw for free agents. He won’t be an All-Star right out of the gates, but the upside that he has is absolutely massive, and if he can fulfill that potential the Lakers will be well on their way to returning to prominence.
The times may be changing, but superstars are still a necessity to win in the NBA. The trouble is that the whales are attracted to winning teams, which creates a paradoxical environment where in order to win in free agency teams first have to win on the court, and in order to win on the court they have to win in free agency.
For teams super-glued to the bottom of the standings that leaves little opportunity for fast-tracked improvement, save for the rare super-friends team up that Miami enjoyed when LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach. The best way out of the cellar is to turn draft picks into stars, build from the ground up, and then use the lure of a winning team to complete the core via free agency. As a great movie once said, if you build it, they will come.
It may not be the reality that the Lakers are used to, but the team is stuck in the mire, and it’s going to be up to young guns Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, and D’Angelo Russell to pull them out. Let’s hope they are up to the challenge.