In 2015, the Los Angeles Lakers believed that they had found their point guard of the future when they went against the grain and drafted D’Angelo Russell. The thought-process was clear: in a rapidly changing NBA, guards have become more valuable than traditional, back-to-the-basket bigs, like Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, who they were widely expected to select.
The Lakers had, perhaps rightly, been accused of being living in their glorious past, so this move was a positive sign that they were ready to embrace the new reality of the modern NBA. It also didn’t hurt that, if one squinted hard enough, elements of James Harden, Stephen Curry, and Manu Ginobili were visible in Russell’s game, making him too attractive of a prospect to pass up.
Now we are finding out that, while Russell may indeed be a great player in the future, he might not actually be the point guard the Lakers thought they were getting.
During the predraft process, Russell appeared to have just about everything that a team could ask for in a ball handler. He is crafty off the dribble, has excellent court vision, passing flair, and can shoot from just about anywhere. While he isn’t an explosive athlete, he does have excellent size for his position at 6’5”, which he uses to his advantage against smaller defenders.
However, making the leap to the NBA exposed some issues with Russell’s game. He has been prone to turning the ball over, spending portions of his rookie year trying to thread the needle on passes that weren’t there. Then-coach Byron Scott made the mistake of comparing Russell to Lakers legend – and greatest point guard of all-time – Magic Johnson, and it appeared that Russell felt the pressure to live up to his passing ability.
As a result, he was bounced in and out of the lineup, much to the dismay of fans eager to see a new star ascend to the throne that would be vacated by the retiring Kobe Bryant. Russell occasionally showed flashes of brilliance (and ice in his veins) but was clearly nowhere near the level of first overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and (more painfully) fourth-overall pick Kristaps Porzingis.
Russell hit his stride a bit more in his sophomore campaign, and certainly showed improvement, but struggled with consistency. His effort level seems tethered to his shooting percentage on any given night, which needs to be rectified if Russell is going to ever reach his full potential. The talent is clearly there, but it just hasn’t all risen to the surface just yet.
Over the course of a difficult season, rookie head coach Luke Walton experimented with different lineups, though Russell spent nearly the entire season as the team’s primary ball handler. It wasn’t until Walton controversially shifted Russell to the bench and Jordan Clarkson to the starting point guard position that he may have stumbled upon Russell’s true role in the NBA: shooting guard.
After a two-game demotion to the bench, starting two-guard Nick Young was suspended for an altercation with Malcolm Brogdon and Greg Monroe of the Milwaukee Bucks. The most obvious replacement would have been Clarkson, who had been the team’s reserve shooting guard, but he was adjusting well to the point guard role, so to switch him at that moment would have been counter-productive.
Instead, Walton tabbed Russell for the job and threw him into the fire against the reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers. It should have been a slaughter, but Russell broke out with a whopping 40 points (including seven threes) and six assists in 41 minutes.
The Lakers lost a close game, but Russell’s success in his new role was far more important than the final score.
With the team long eliminated from playoff contention, Walton is gladly continuing the experiment with Russell as the team’s shooting guard. After all, when the Lakers drafted Russell, the hope was that he and Clarkson would form a dynamic duo in the team’s backcourt, albeit with Russell as the point guard and Clarkson as the off-ball shooting guard.
With Clarkson acting as the primary ball handler, Russell has had more freedom to attack off the wing. He has still had the ball in his hands enough to be a factor with his playmaking, but having another maestro on the court to help him as opposed to a shooter like Young appears to have taken some of the burden off and allowed Russell to take his game to the next level.
Of course, Russell has long held that he’s just a basketball player when on the court regardless of what spot he is in. This is especially true as the NBA is morphing into a position-less league, but role absolutely matters, as does who Russell has on the court alongside him.
In eight games starting at shooting guard alongside Clarkson, Russell has posted impressive per-36 minute numbers of 20.5 points, 5.5 assists, and 1.5 steals while hitting 2.7 threes per game. His steals and assists dropped slightly compared to when he was the lone ball-handler but so has his usage rate and turnovers.
Meanwhile, his scoring efficiency has improved. Russell has the ball in his hands less, yet is actually scoring more than ever before.
He’s finding ways to pop free for open looks or sniffing out seams in the defense to slither into the paint, where he’s finishing at a 63 percent clip, a big jump from the 52 percent he was converting as a point guard. Attacking from the wing has certainly made a difference in that regard, as has the threat of Clarkson’s slippery cuts to the basket when Russell has the ball in his hands.
The eye test also confirms the benefits of moving Russell to shooting guard. He always looked a bit out of his element at point guard, like Tom Haverford on a hunting trip. Russell has still had a few tough outings as a shooting guard, including a two-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers, but overall he has looked much more comfortable.
Moreover, Russell’s success at the two gives Lakers fans a tantalizing preview of what next year’s team could look like if the basketball gods smile upon Los Angeles and allow them to retain their top-three protected draft pick. With talented point guards like Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball at the top of the draft class, Russell’s ability to play off the ball could become a key component to the team’s future success.
The sample size is still small, but it appears that the Lakers point guard of the future may be at his best when he isn’t playing point guard.