Summer League is like strapping into a roller coaster blindfolded and hoping for the best. Watching a young prospect like D'Angelo Russell do exactly what he's projected to do in scouting reports is a rush, but the reality of how far these kids have to go is a reminder that gets pounded into your head every other possession.
Covering Los Angeles Lakers games from the Thomas and Mack Center became challenging not because of the often-frustrating basketball product groups of undrafted players put together, though. It was Wi-Fi struggles that left me slamming my laptop closed and relying on an old friend: Handwritten notes.
Here are a few observations on Russell I made through the week on-paper that never made it elsewhere.
Russell's passing will set him apart
D'Angelo's passing is incredibly impressive in person. There's something about watching the instantaneous decisions and angles he makes and takes that stands out. The placement of his passes is on-target. The flow in the way he conducts the offense is natural. His mentality through the first four games of play looked like that of a floor general who wants to make THIS kind of pass ....
.... more than make a highlight reel for sizzling out of the pick-and-roll as he did against the Utah Jazz. The fact that he has the capability of being both of those things at the same time, and so much more, should leave Lakers fans satisfied with his performances in Vegas. Think about how far along he'll be by Year 3 once he progresses physically while gaining crucial in-game experience.
He made several pinpoint passes that didn't even seem possible, only to watch his teammates fail to finish or even get more than a few fingertips on the ball. There were at least two sequences in every game that he set the table beautifully without any payoff. That should hopefully change with better talent around him, and with the Lakers getting familiar with the kinds of passes they need to be ready for.
Passes like this in transition:
Should make life easy for the Lakers' shooters, so long as they're ready for it.
Banana split the defense
Russell struggled splitting defenders several times, resulting in the kinds of turnovers he knows he has to cut out at the professional level. "Just trying to force the issue to get guys involved, and for myself forcing the issue on the offensive end trying to get something out of nothing when it's not there," Russell said of his difficulties taking care of the ball following one of his turnover-laden games.
His ability to be a threat with the ball in his hands in various ways is going to be key in him reaching his potential, but he's the type of player that knows where he makes mistakes and wants to improve on it. Splitting defenders is an important facet of his game that he'll have to figure out. If a team puts pressure on him on-ball and he gets caught in a crowd, he needs to be able to handle and navigate his way through it.
Finding ways to maneuver through situations like this is one of the many steps he'll have to take to be an elite player:
The paint and driving lines being clogged will clear up when defenses aren't focusing on D'Angelo while he's on the floor, and having a better understanding of where his teammates will be as outlets when a defense digs in to close his lanes should also help. Against NBA-level opponents -- not Summer League -- it might only get tougher before he starts breaking through those sequences cleanly.
I'll drop this Mark Price compilation that's a clinic on what a guard can do when he can split through at will:
Stepping back into space
Space is going to be a problem for the Lakers as a team, and Russell as an individual. Because he doesn't have the kind of burst a player like Jordan Clarkson has, his ability to create space will largely come out of the pick-and-roll, or off-ball movement.
His best individual move at creating space is his stepback jumper. He used it several times, and it always gave him the kind of room he needed to get a shot off, even if it didn't go down:
It's hard to judge makes and misses for someone barely getting their feet wet in the NBA, but looking at his skillset, this move is one we should expect to see plenty of through his career. Right now this looks like his go-to move.
Let's get defensive
Speaking of areas he can improve, defensively two things stood out. He's a solid on-ball defender; much more than he received credit for heading into draft night. He may not have the kind of foot speed needed to be a top tier on-ball defender, but he can move laterally, has great length and size that makes him daunting to drive around, and can defend multiple positions if he needs to rotate. Mark Madsen was impressed, mentioning Russell's on-ball defense "was very-very good," following the Lakers' loss to the Utah Jazz.
Here's a (shrunken down because it's a lengthy sequence) GIF of Russell making an impact on defense against Dallas:
The second note, however, is that he's prone to defensive mistakes. Not just the being in the wrong place variety, but the ball-watching and letting his man do the cabbage patch all the way to the rim kind of lapses. Young players often fall victim to this, which makes the Roy Hibbert acquisition very important to their development.
Russell was aware of the mistakes he made and didn't shy away from taking responsibility for "falling asleep" at times. NBA veterans will eat him alive if he gets caught snoozing.
Overall there was a lot to like out of what Russell showed over this small sample size of games. The Lakers' struggles as a team might overshadow what he showed as an individual, but there were plenty of flashes to be excited about.
Considering he's barely 19, the fact that he's this advanced in both his passing instincts and execution, pick-and-roll navigation and on-ball defense are all great signs his future.