In Los Angeles, the sports panic button is easily accessible. A two-game losing streak, a minor injury to a major star or the most minor off-court tumult -- all of those infractions can make that shiny red button beam bright. When talking D'Angelo Russell -- the Lakers' No. 2 overall pick -- let's blow up that big red button to the size of STAPLES Center.
Russell hasn't made a great impression since his selection in the June draft, struggling in almost every on-court setting. The numbers aren't pretty. During Las Vegas Summer League, Russell dropped a nice looking 11.8 points per game, but did so on just 37.7 percent shooting and a pitiful 11.8 percent from long range -- fairly horrid numbers even without considering how little defense is played in that two week stretch. With the ball as a facilitator, he wasn't much better: D'Angelo threw down 3.2 assists per contest, but against a staggering 5.2 turnovers. In his defense, it was a small five-game sample with a 19-year-old player in his first taste of professional ball with just one season of college hoops under his belt. The learning curve, no matter what the competition, would have been steep.
However, even with a full offseason of workouts and training, Russell's preseason work doesn't look a whole lot better. At just 6.9 points and 3.3 assists per game (but against just a turnover per game!) while shooting 38.6 percent and 29 percent from the arc. Moreover, he's looked overwhelmed in almost every turn. He's spent more than a handful of possessions dumping the ball off at the top of the key, happily handing the rock off in a clearing rather than taking it into traffic. Russell's shown occasional flashes of court vision and creativity, but for the most part, his passes have been run of mill ... if they're even successful. It's been very disheartening to see him struggle so mightily, even in limited minutes and accompanied by more experienced ball-handlers next to him.
It's really no surprise that Lakers fans have hit the panic button. D'Angelo is young, yes, and the preseason and Summer League are inconsequential games, to be sure. However, it's been alarming that Russell has looked overmatched on nearly every single level, even against players who do not have his level of pedigree. It's not that any of us should presume he should be setting the world on fire right out of the gate -- that's rare. After all, there are very few guys like LeBron James who are going to look like stars from the lottery gate. But the level at which Russell has been ineffective is higher than many high picks in recent memory. In fact, the last No. 2 overall pick that looked this unprepared in such limited minutes was Hasheem Thabeet. And we all know how that turned out.
But as I watch Russell more and more, there's another player that he reminds me of: '14-15 MVP runner-up James Harden.
It's hard to remember The Beard past the phenomenal run he's had from Sixth Man of the Year in Oklahoma City to the now perennial All-Star he's transformed into after being traded to the Houston Rockets. Before dropping 25 a night and being one of (if not) the league's most unstoppable scorers, Harden was in the same exact spot as Russell.
Selected out of Arizona State in the 2009 Draft with the third overall pick at the age of 19, Harden had shot up the boards drastically after a fantastic sophomore season with the Sun Devils. A lefty combo guard, he entered the NBA somewhat unprepared for the physical rigors of the league. Harden had a trying first season, especially playing behind future All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. He averaged just 9.9 points per game in 76 games but on just 40 percent shooting and a nearly 1:1 assist to turnover ratio. For all the hype with Harden as a deadly scorer and facilitator, he didn't look the part his rookie season.
Instead, he more often looked like a deer in headlights, lost in the speed and physicality of the NBA. It didn't help that Harden's unorthodox athleticism, disproportionately long arms and lefty stroke gave him at least the superficial appearance that he was slow and out of control. With more league-ready players like Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry drafted behind him, many wondered immediately if the Thunder made a huge miscalculation taking this t-shirt wearing, chubby teenager out of Arizona State.
Looking at James Harden today, it's very, very easy to forget that his first season was met with massive struggles and doubt from observers everywhere. He didn't look ready for the pros, neither strategically or physically. His selection was second guessed by fans and pundits alike, especially with more polished prospects having been available later in the draft. We're already hearing the very same criticisms about D'Angelo Russell after roughly a dozen exhibition games.
It's the same loud groans about his athleticism and body. I'm hearing the same doubt that Jahlil Okafor was the better pick. I see the very same herky-jerky athleticism and deceiving (but developing) strength. It's the same confused look that we all saw on James Harden's face six years ago.
It's easy to throw shade on the comparison. After all, wouldn't we all be fired up if Russell ended up averaging 10 points and a .403/.375/.808 shooting line in 23 minutes per game? Moreover, Harden, at 14.5 points per game and while shooting .476 during Summer League, looked much more prepared even statistically than Russell. Also, we were looking at The Beard on a Thunder team that made the playoffs -- D'Angelo won't be facing any such pressure.
Harden was one of Russell's primary comparisons coming into the 2015 Draft and if he turns into anything resembling the MVP runner-up, Lakers fans staying patient will have a tremendous payout. That's all that this is -- a projection for a best case scenario. So much went into Harden's development, including a coaching staff that proved to be very capable of fostering young talent and an offensive system that best fit his talent. And more importantly --when we're talking about James Harden, we may very well be talking about a generational talent. Who knows if even at his apex D'Angelo can mimic that.
It's extremely difficult to remain objective, especially as a fan of the team. But the truth is: He's 19 years old. Yes, 19 years old, and he won't be 20 until the All-Star break. This is an extremely young player being foisted into one of the most difficult positions in the game. He's being asked to lead an offense of inexperienced players who don't know the system, as well as veteran guys who are completely new to the team. Russell has a heap of expectations on him, one that will only become heavier and heavier as players like Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Emmanuel Mudiay look far more prepared their rookie seasons.
It's not going to be easy for D'Angelo. We're seeing that right now. But we also saw that with James Harden, and it turned out just fine.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino