D'Angelo Russell had arguably his best game as a pro on Tuesday night. While his stat line would not jump out on a casual perusal of the box score, he had 6 points and 7 assists with only 1 turnover. Russell could have shot more efficiently (only 3-11), but overall it was a stronger showing for the rookie as he went against his fellow first-year point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay (12 points and 10 assists on 3-13 shooting).
This was not enough for Russell to get minutes down the stretch in a Lakers loss that was closer than the 120-109 final score would lead you to believe. Russell played zero minutes in the fourth quarter, something starkly contrasted with Mudiay playing 6 minutes in crunch time to close out a Nuggets win. Scott told reporters after the game that Russell would have come back in if Lou Williams (24 points on 4-11 shooting) was not playing so well, but the time on the bench still left the rookie guard confused:
Frustrated D'Angelo Russell was asked what he needs to do to get on the court in 4Q. "I have no idea. ... Something I got to deal with."— Bill Oram (@billoram) November 4, 2015
Russell may have not liked being on the bench, but he at least attempted to use the time productively by picking the brain of veteran mentor and former Defensive Player of the Year, Metta World Peace:
Not exactly what he envisioned, but Russell has spent 4th Q's listening to Metta's tips about spacing & how to get stops— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) November 4, 2015
The Lakers' offense did appear to run more effectively tonight when Russell was on the floor, which the numbers back up. According to NBA.com, Russell had the third best offensive rating on the team tonight, with the Lakers scoring 118.6 points per 100 possessions with the rookie on the floor. Russell may have had the team's third worst defensive rating (122.6), but due to his offensive prowess he actually possessed the second best net rating on the team (-4), second to Roy Hibbert's +7. Neither saw the court in the fourth quarter.
Clarkson, who was the recipient of three of Russell's six assists as part of his tied career high of 30 points, seemed pleased with Russell's floor time:
Clarkson tied a career high with 30 points tonight. Told me, "I was just getting open shots. D'Angelo made that (stuff) easy for me."— Bill Oram (@billoram) November 4, 2015
Clarkson's first basket of the game serves as a great example of how Russell can make things easier on his teammates. After pushing the ball and getting the Nuggets defense to collapse in semi-transition, Russell whipped this pass across the floor for an easy Clarkson spot-up three:
Or this similar read off of a Russell-Brandon Bass pick and roll, where Russell again found Clarkson open on the wing after forcing his man to collapse towards the paint:
Or how about this Russell-Tarik Black pick and roll, where the rookie again sucked in the defense before whipping a pass across his body to an open Clarkson on the wing?
These were all great reads by Russell, and it's not a coincidence they came when he had the freedom to either push things in transition or off of a pick and roll, which are his two biggest strong suits offensively right now. Russell is not perfect, but there is reason to believe he could have helped the Lakers down the stretch. Even if he couldn't, he would still learn valuable lessons in the crucible of actual, real NBA crunch time. Watching from the bench and story time with Metta is great, but as Russell said after the game:
When asked about inexperience on defensive reads, Russell: "I don't know. I was just watching. It's different when you're out there."— Shahan Ahmed (@shahanLA) November 4, 2015
In a season with nothing but development to play for, it would be nice if he could actually be out there.