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Breaking down D'Angelo Russell's steady improvement

Russell is not done growing, but he has looked better in recent games.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Before the 2015 NBA Draft, many noted that Ohio State guard D'Angelo Russell would have an adjustment period coming into the league. The speed and skill on display in an NBA game is unequaled in basketball, and a 19-year old with a slight build and lack of overwhelming athleticism attempting to play the most demanding position in the sport was always going to be headed for an up and down start.

Russell definitely began with some downs, averaging 8.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.8 assist over his first four games while shooting 34.1% from the field. There were brief flashes of the player the Lakers hoped Russell would become, but for the majority of the time Russell looked like one would expect a kid just over a year removed from high school playing against professional, grown men for the first time to look.

The good news is that after those downs, Russell's last two games have been ups. Russell has averaged 15 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists with 2.5 turnovers on 42.3% shooting. Perhaps more importantly he has played 34.7 minutes per game and only marginally increased his usage rate from 20.9% to 22%. He should probably have the ball in his hands more, but it is encouraging he has managed to increase his production so significantly without a meaningful increase in opportunities.

It would be overly optimistic to expect Russell to go the rest of the year without going through more slumps or bumps in the road, but things are looking up. It's a small sample size, but Russell is showing signs of adjusting to shooting three-pointers from the NBA line, shooting 45.5% on threes over the Lakers' last two games:

On the first of Russell's two made threes against the Blazers, Damian Lillard did not step out quickly enough on Russell, and the rookie squared up and fired with confidence.

After calling for the ball on an extended Julius Randle post up, Russell was able to move and get wide open from the opposite wing off of the scramble for the rebound. Russell was once again given time to step into his release, which seems like it will be a key factor in how many he makes. When Russell is rushed, like most players, his jumper has been less accurate. But if given time, he should be able to continue to knock these down and help create spacing for a clogged Lakers offense.

Against Portland on Sunday night, Russell also tied his career high in assists with 6. After the game, Russell said the he had started "figuring out a little bit as far as how to get guys going." One teammate Russell has certainly figured out how to set up is Roy Hibbert. The screens of the Lakers' mountainous center have done more to benefit Russell than any other teammate, and in recent games Russell has started to return the favor.

Ball screens have been Russell's bread and butter this year. On this play Russell makes a simple read after taking the screen when he sees Damian Lillard fall down, forcing Mason Plumlee to leave Hibbert's roll to the basket unguarded. As soon as he steps out on Russell, the rookie hits Hibbert with a pass for an easy dunk.

Here Russell again takes the screen, which Lillard attempts to fight over but is still left behind. Plumlee stays back to protect the rim, and Russell again makes a snap decision, quickly dropping a pocket pass to Hibbert, who knocks down a weird little floater. These are the types of quick reads Russell will have to continue to make if he is going to continue on an upward trajectory.

Russell was far from flawless against Portland. He still had 3 turnovers, and will have to do a better job protecting the ball.

If Lillard (far from the most talented or engaged defender) can just pick his pocket like this then it is going to be rough sledding for Russell. In an encouraging sign for Lakers fans, Russell has shown improvement on that end himself.

Lillard's step-back lost Russell for a second, but he did a good job recovering to make the shot more difficult.

Hibbert was here helping Russell cut off the middle (more help from the big man for his rookie point guard) but Russell did a decent job funneling him towards the behemoth before recovering. Lillard made this, but that's what he does. Russell's process was good here. He needs to do a better job moving laterally, but there is hope he can become a better defender.

Lillard thinks so too, offering praise for Russell after the game:

Lillard is right that Russell absolutely needs more experience. Encouragingly, he has started to see an uptick in minutes recently; his amount of time on the floor has increased each of the last three games. He is not ready to step in and fully run a team just yet, but Lillard is right in that Russell has shown signs that he can get there one day.

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