New Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson, has his hands full the rest of the season evaluating the team’s talent going into what promises to be a busy offseason. The player with the most to win, or lose, is D’Angelo Russell, as he is sure to draw the most scrutiny of all from Johnson, a former, legendary point guard himself. The truth is, the remainder of this season is crunch time for Russell, and he needs to shake off whatever is holding him back and rise to the occasion.
The Lakers are not having the season most fans hoped for, and the same could be said for Russell. He entered the year as the undisputed leader of the team, bursting with energy and excitement over the hiring of head coach Luke Walton. Russell, who struggled in his rookie season, was anxious to show why he was the No. 2 pick in the draft.
Instead, Russell’s season has mirrored the see-saw year the Lakers have endured. He has struggled most of the time, in part because of uneven minutes, in part because of injuries, and in part due to his youth and inexperience. While some are quick to point out that he just turned 21 and deserves more time, he is losing the support of key members of the media who are starting to come right out and say that they have seen enough and decided Russell is not a very good basketball player.
Even if he doesn’t fit the conventional mold of an NBA point guard, the Lakers have still been better when Russell is healthy and playing. Unfortunately, he missed 17 games due to injuries. His absence for two lengthy stints hurt the team, in no small part because the front office failed to sign a viable backup.
The only options behind Russell have been Marcelo Huertas and Jose Calderon, thus most believed Russell would lead the team in minutes played. Many of his top-rated peers are playing well over 30 minutes a night, including Karl-Anthony Towns (36.5), Andrew Wiggins (37.2), Zach LaVine (37.2), Justise Winslow (34.7), Devin Booker (34.5), Kristaps Porzingis (33.1), and Myles Turner (30.9).
Russell, in contrast, is averaging a meager 26.5 minutes per game – down from the 28.2 minutes he averaged his rookie year when the coaching staff was roundly criticized for not playing him more.
How is it possible that Russell is playing only the fifth-most minutes on the team, and one player he trails is Luol Deng? Of the league’s 30 starting point guards, Russell ranks 27th in minutes played, and the only three behind him are in the twilight of their careers. Of the top 20 point guards in the league, none is playing fewer than 30 minutes per contest, and most are playing around 35 minutes a night.
Unless Russell is still hurt and the team is keeping quiet about it, there is no viable reason why he has not played more. It ‘s not a good idea for your young point guard to be sitting on the bench, especially for long stretches of the fourth quarter, missing an opportunity to gain valuable experience.
Although turnovers continue to be a problem, in Russell’s defense, his playmaking has improved this season. He is averaging 4.8 assists per game, which is not great but still shows improvement from last year. His playmaking is getting better as the season goes on. He recently had the first double-digit assist game of his career, and the next game he had double-digit assists again.
The bigger problem is his increasingly docile attitude and his declining shooting statistics. Russell’s shooting percentage has declined from a modest 41 percent last year to an unacceptable 39 percent this season, and the percentage is declining the past month. Rookies are expected to struggle with their shot – just look at Brandon Ingram’s season – but for someone who is being counted on to become a star, Russel’s poor shooting percentage towards the end of his second full season is not promising.
In contrast, while Julius Randle has also been inconsistent, one positive is that his shooting percentage has risen from 43 percent last season to 48 percent this year, which is very good progress. Jordan Clarkson is making 45 percent of his shots, which is a good percentage. In contrast, Russell is shooting below 40 percent, and that percentage is declining.
Three of the top five scorers in the league this year are playing point guard for their teams: Russell Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas, and James Harden. The expectation was that Russell would be averaging at least 18 points per game this season, but instead, he is averaging only 14.2, a mere one point improvement over last year, and this number is likewise declining.
Where is the guy who proclaimed, “You ain’t seen nothing yet” after dropping a then career-high 27 points in a game against the Sacramento Kings last year? Or the guy who made his famous “ice in the veins” gesture after scoring 39 points against the Brooklyn Nets?
That player seems to have disappeared. The swagger has not been on display. He seems disconnected, less confident and less aggressive. When his shot is not falling, which has happened often, it looks like he gives up on defense.
Some of the blame must be attributed to Russell himself and some due to injuries. But a lot of his struggles are attributable to the modest and uneven minutes he has gotten all year under Walton, playing mostly in a starting unit with Deng, Mozgov, and Young, which makes it hard to get into a good rhythm. Walton has played the same head games that Scott played last year, confirming recently that Russell would have to earn his minutes before he will play in the fourth quarter.
It cannot be lost on Russell or Johnson that two of the top three draft choices this summer are projected to be point guards. It may be unfair, but in today’s fast-paced society, people form judgments very quickly, and right now Russell’s star is flickering. It is imperative that he make a statement on the court the rest of the season and finally show that he is the player the Lakers thought they were drafting in 2015. If we see more of the same from him, his future with the team may be in jeopardy as Johnson no doubt recognizes that the Lakers need a dynamic point guard going forward.