D'Angelo Russell did not play a single second in the fourth quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers' loss to the Miami Heat Tuesday night, their sixth loss in their first seven games. Despite the Lakers having very little to gain from this season other than the development of their young players, Russell played just 21 minutes on the night, the lowest of any of the team's starters.
When Russell left the game in the third quarter, the Lakers were only down by 5, 65-60. The game quickly got away from the team, and the Lakers fell 101-88. During this Heat run to close out the game, did Byron Scott even consider putting D'Angelo Russell back in?
Why? According to Serena Winters of Lakers Nation, it was because Miami's lead got too big. That would not be a problem, except Scott is refusing to play Russell down the stretch of close games as well. In fact, Scott is refusing to use Russell much in the fourth quarter of games no matter the situation, with Russell ranking 11th on the team in average playing time in the fourth quarter in the games he does manage to get in, behind such names as Ryan Kelly, Marcelo Huertas, and Larry Nance, Jr. Maybe Scott just misread the memo about which rookie he was supposed to be playing in the fourth.
To some degree this is an issue of small sample size, in all likelihood Russell will be inside the top-10 Lakers in this stat by the end of the year. But it's not just how much Russell is playing, it's how he is being used while on the floor. Against the Heat Russell was only fifth in usage rate (the percentage of a team's possessions a player uses while on the court) among Lakers who played more than 20 minutes with 18.5, even on a night when Kobe Bryant sat out with back issues. That is still somehow lower than his season average of 18.8. Instead of redistributing some of Kobe's possessions to Russell, the Lakers instead gave 24 shots to (an admittedly hot) Nick Young and (a decidedly not) Lou Williams.
The most frustrating aspect of this for fans of the Lakers is of course the fear that Russell's development will be stunted by this handcuffing. But Russell has actually been pretty good for a 19-year old rookie playing in his first NBA games. Let's compare his per-36 minutes numbers to two other similarly aged rookie guards:
First takeaway from this? Man, Kobe was special even early. Secondly, Russell's shooting efficiency is not too far off from those two, and he managed to keep his turnovers lower. That sounds nice, but it is at least in part due to Russell's lower usage, as both Westbrook and Bryant's rookie usage rates (per Basketball Reference, which calculates the stat slightly differently than NBA.com) were significantly higher, 25.8 and 24.7 respectively, than Russell's 19.2. The Thunder were awful during Westbrook's rookie year, and the Thunder coaching staff let Westbrook rack up turnovers so that he could learn from those mistakes. Bryant's Lakers were on the other end of the spectrum having just signed Shaquille O'Neal, but a staff trying to win games lived with the mistakes of a talented rookie because of the positives he could create.
Russell has not been a rookie Bryant, but he has show positive flashes when the ball is put in his hands and he is given a screen to work with, like the first of his two buckets against the Heat:
Russell took the dribble handoff from Roy Hibbert and calmly splashed his jumper when he saw Hassan Whiteside conceding space by hanging back to protect the rim. Smooth stuff.
On this possession, Russell again used a Hibbert screen, used his pump fake to suck in Whiteside and capture the attention of Dwyane Wade for just a second, allowing Clarkson to dart into the paint for an easy bucket.
Russell is again allowed to use a ball screen, and again makes the right read.
Where Russell still has to improve is recognizing and taking advantage of a mismatch. Here he takes Dragic straight to the hoop:
But earlier in the game, Russell took a couple of dribbles and then pulled up instead of going right at Chris Bosh when he got a switch:
Of Russell's four misses, this was the only one that could really be characterized as a bad shot, and both of Russell's turnovers came on transition miscues with Clarkson, both things that can be corrected with more floor time to develop. The problem is, Russell is unsure of how he can earn that playing time:
D'Angelo Russell on playing late in games: "I've got to figure out what I'm doing wrong so I can correct it." Byron explain why? "No."— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) November 11, 2015
Scott does not get to be Goldilocks with a team this talent starved. He does not get to wait until the situation is juuuust right to play Russell. Wins are going to come few and far between this season, which means there is no reason to not let the rookie get his reps. The only real victories this year are visible steps forward from the young players, and the sooner Scott realizes that, the better.