Declaring which player's are the "busts" and "steals" of each NBA draft has been a national past time for about as long as people cared about the NBA draft. Our 24/7 sports talk cycle has just led to this process being more of a rush than usual. Not even a quarter of a way into their rookie campaigns, some analysts are rushing to judge which teams made the "right" and "wrong" draft picks.
This rush to judgement has left the Los Angeles Lakers' D'Angelo Russell in a bit of a tough spot. Not playing heavy minutes and having the ball taken out of his hands by the numerous veteran guards on the Lakers, while also having his on-court role yanked around, has not led to a statistically impressive season for the highly touted rookie. Making matters worse, Emmanuel Mudiay, the next point guard selected after Russell, has put up solid averages in his rookie season, leading some to already declare the Lakers made the wrong choice.
If you dig into the numbers, you can see things are not quite that simple. Emmanuel Mudiay has been given the full keys to the Denver Nuggets' offense, leading the team in usage rate with a whopping 27.1 percentage of Denver's possessions ending in a shot, assist, turnover, or drawn foul from him while he is on the floor. The next closest Nugget is Danilo Gallinari (21.4). Denver head coach Mike Malone is going to ride or die with Mudiay's mistakes while giving him space to develop.
Compare that to Lakers head coach Byron Scott, who has openly talked about putting wins ahead of the development of his young players. If Malone has given Mudiay the freedom to drive the Nuggets offense wherever he sees fit, Scott has barely given Russell his learner's permit.
While Mudiay leads his team in usage rate, Russell (20.4 percent) ranks fifth among Lakers who have played in more than one game while playing the majority of his minutes with three of the four guys ahead of him. Mudiay has a usage rate close to Kobe Bryant (28.3), while Russell has been used marginally less than Will Barton (20.9). Russell averages 24.8 minutes per game and has been benched through entire fourth quarters of four of the Lakers 11 games so far, while Mudiay is averaging 30.4 minutes and has played in the fourth quarter of all 12 of his team's games.
Scott even said the Lakers didn't think Mudiay was a "true point guard," but has instead treated Russell, the prospect he once said had "superstar potential" and compared to Magic Johnson on draft night like a game manager.
The elephant in the room is of course Kobe, whom Scott has given freedom to do whatever he wants in what will likely be his final season in the league. The Nuggets feature no other player of that pedigree, making for an easier locker room for Malone to manage. Still, it's hard not to think the Lakers could allocate a few more possessions per game for the player they hand-picked as their franchise centerpiece as the Nuggets have done for Mudiay.
Yes, these very different situations have still led to somewhat comparable per game statistics for the the two lottery pick point guards (via NBA.com):
Mudiay is averaging more assists than Russell, and also assisting on a higher percentage of his team's possessions (24.9% to 18.9%). Russell has been more efficient than Mudiay, though, with a lower turnover ratio (10.7% of his possessions end in a turnover compared to 16.5% for Mudiay), and a higher field goal percentage (39.3% to 30.5%) and three-point percentage (31% to 27.3%). Neither of their shot charts look particularly stellar, but Russell has at least dialed in on his patented pull-up from his preferred left elbow area, while Mudiay has shown more promise on the right side of the floor:
After watching film of all of Russell and Mudiay's turnovers and assists thus far, a few similarities and differences stick out in regards to their playmaking abilities. When not shooting, both are prone to making passes that aren't there:
Or can be just a tad late:
Another thing of note on turnovers, a bizarre three of Russell's seventeen total turnovers have come on mistimed lead passes on the break to Jordan Clarkson, something that can probably be corrected with more time to play together between the two:
Mudiay seems to be a bit more troubled by ball pressure and defensive traffic around the ball than Russell, although this could be a function of playing against better competition in a higher-usage role with less offensive weapons to distract the other team. You know, just tiny caveats:
Russell has shown himself capable of surveying the floor and making simple passes to shooters within the offense:
But on their successful assists, Russell is more often a showman, slinging passes with flair to the currently flame-throwing from deep Clarkson:
This may seem like faint praise, but Mudiay more often just makes the simple (and right) pass the offense asks of him, a less flashy but still highly-valuable skill. Mudiay has already mastered the pocket pass out of a pick-and-roll:
But he can still make pinpoint passes for highlights of his own:
Both of these guys are only 19-years old, and will presumably continue to improve. It's just important to note that while the common narrative is that Mudiay has been playing much better than Russell, the reality is that the gap based off of the sample size we have right now is really not that great. Mudiay has unquestionably been given more opportunities, but after spending last year professionally in China playing against men while Russell took the more traditional NCAA route, he may also be more ready. We are less than a quarter of the way into the rookie seasons of two players who both of their teams hope will peak much higher than their current play.
Patience is sometimes less fun than playing the guessing game of which teams made the right and wrong picks, but Tyreke Evans rode a higher usage rate and better counting stats to a 2009-10 Rookie of the Year award, and while Stephen Curry gave Evans a battle for that title down the stretch, the Golden State Warriors had to wait just a little longer for Curry to truly break out. That is not to say Mudiay or Russell is Curry or Evans, but it illustrates that we don't even know which rookie will be best after their first season, much less their first 11 or 12 games.
All statistics via NBA.com, and you can follow this author on Twitter @hmfaigen