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Guard| 6’5 | 195 | Ohio State
Projected: Top 5
Best Case: James Harden
Most Likely: Jamal Crawford
Worst Case: OJ Mayo
D’Angelo Russell is a chimera. The flair with which he whips passes around is Manu-like. His ability to create space playing at his own pace is distinctly reminiscent of Roy. Most of all, his ball-handling and volume shooting at Ohio State made for a pretty good proxy of Harden’s play with the Rockets this season. Pretty impressive combo, right? So what’s the downside?
Despite the comparisons I’ve made to shooting guards, most scouting sites have Russell firmly as a point guard. I certainly agree that he can initiate offense and should be the primary ball-handler for whichever teams drafts him but asking him to bring the ball up all game and defend point guards on the other end seems like a misuse of his considerable talents. He’ll get killed in matchups against the elite athletes playing point guard in the league today, for reasons I’ll go into later.
Whichever guard spot he ends up at, Russell should prove an exceptional pick and roll player. During his freshman season he showed an ability to turn the corner, using his handles to create smart shots, or get it to the roll man if that was the better play. Despite being an elite scorer, there isn’t any selfishness to Russell’s game – he’s always willing to give the ball up whether it’s in transition, driving and dishing or in the pick and roll. He has the overt confidence of a Harden or Westbrook type, but seems to get as much joy from threading a great pass as he does from making a big shot. He is not an amazing athlete, so most of his flashy plays come from his ball-handling and shot-making ability – much like you see from Kyrie Irving. In the end, there isn’t much you’d look for in an offensive prospect that Russell can’t do.
The defensive end is where it falls apart a bit for me. He was a high usage offensive player, which provides a means of excusing poor defense for some, but nevertheless he had some Harden-esque lowlights as a freshman. Much like the bearded one, Russell has the length and intelligence to be a serviceable defender, even if the lack of lateral quickness prevents either from having elite potential on that end. In the end it’s about how much he wants it – he can be a lazy defender like Jamal Crawford or gamble and save himself for the offensive end like Harden but it won’t serve him or his new team well. If he’s put in a situation to succeed (which means not defending at the point of attack initially and possibly being hidden on weaker players until he picks up the speed of the game) then Russell should be able to work towards becoming a competent team defender who doesn’t get embarrassed one on one. Something about his demeanour makes me feel like he might not want to work for that, though.
So that’s D’Angelo Russell – the total offensive package with the lacklustre defense to match. I’ve actually cooled on Russell a lot during the pre-draft build up just because I see the potential for him to become a flashy player who doesn’t provide a lot of value – Crawford being exhibit A for that type. It’s also worth noting that in Fivethirtyeight’s ranking of the top 50 prospects of 2015, Russell came out as both the most likely superstar in draft and the most likely to bust of the top 25 prospects. That’s a statistical oddity but also speaks to the wide range of outcomes I can see for him as an NBA player. I hope he’s good, as the league can always use more of that Roy, Irving, Harden style crafty creativity off the dribble. If he can bring that without adding the defensive lapses and foul baiting, all the better.