Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash. Stephen Curry. James Harden. Chris Paul. The player comparisons to D'Angelo Russell seemed to always have a new All-Star guard to measure him against. It's understandable that after the Los Angeles Lakers' worst finish in franchise history, fans and pundits are feverishly trying to envision which NBA star the team's highly touted second-overall pick will morph into. When asked how he deals with the infinite contrasts to Hall of Fame caliber guards, Russell was decisive about wanting to carve his own identity.
"I'm not those guys. They made their own stamp in this league," Russell responded during his media day interview with Time Warner Cable SportsNet's Chris McGee and James Worthy. "I'm honored just to get compared to those guys, honestly. To make my own stamp, the sooner the better."
For all of D'Angelo's gifts, his unwavering confidence and patience might be most important. It requires a special type of maturity to believe in your talent's ability to develop on its own timeline and into its own unique form. It's this steady self assurance that can pave the way for Russell to leave his own mark on the league.
This isn't the first time Russell has exhibited this brand of innate confidence either. Russell spent half the time in the run up to the 2015 NBA Draft reminding any media member who would listen that he felt he was the best player in the draft. When asked if he really believed in that self-assessment he responded, "It's not even a question." And why shouldn't Russell exude this level of confidence? His production at Ohio State wasn't just good last season, but historically elite across several years of players in the Big Ten and the NCAA.
Russell's 3.3 projected-WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) rating was the highest among any draft prospect from the 2015 NBA draft, according to ESPN's Kevin Pelton. More importantly, he was incredibly efficient despite an equally high usage rate. Russell's 26.6 PER ranked third in the Big Ten last season as did his 30.2 percent usage rate.
He made the most three-point field goals in the Big Ten last season while also putting up the second-highest three-point percentage in the conference at 41.1 percent. D'Angelo also had the best defensive rebound rate of any college point guard at 15.4 percent, and the fifth-highest win share rating in the Big Ten. In short, the data heads of the basketball community loved Russell heading into the draft. His measurables and physical stature are equally impressive against the competition. Russell's in game height stands at 6'5, ideal for a combo guard, and his 6'9.75 wingspan is the 12th-longest of any point guard measured at the combine dating back to 2000.
The Lakers' blue chip prospect is immensely talented and has the physical profile needed to dominate. Beyond the data and the measurements, his tenure at Ohio State memorably produced Stephen Curry-like viral content showcasing his dynamic playmaking ability. His ball handling put overzealous defenders on all fours during the NCAA Tournament, his passing found teammates from impossible angles, and his shot was pristine from distance.
Russell will have an immense network of support to help nurture his burgeoning talent going into his maiden NBA season. To Russell's credit, he's been doing his part to become a sponge soaking in knowledge, even asking for his locker to be next to Kobe's. "I don't know how much longer he's going to be around," Russell said when he explained his decision. "To have the opportunity to pick his brain a little bit every day, I don't have to make it weird by walking to his locker. I'll just look to my right and there he is."
Osmosis alone won't make D'Angelo actualize his enormous potential, though. He also needs the collective patience of the Lakers' front office, coaching staff, and city of Los Angeles itself. Yes, Russell did set the world ablaze at Ohio State, but it's worth remembering that he got off to a slow start. He looked out of sync at the beginning of the season, similar to some of his troubled outings at Las Vegas Summer League. Russell is keenly aware that it will be a process adapting to totally new teammates, new offensive and defensive schemes, a new professional league, and a new city.
"It's a balance. I always have trouble figuring it out early, but as the season progresses I kind of figure it out. In college, being a combo guard it's tough knowing when to get guys involved and knowing when to score," Russell said. "As the season went along I started to figure it out, and at this level I feel like it's going to be the same."
While the Lakers fan base is eager to return to glory, it will have to steel itself for some bumps along the road. Russell will have some games where he simply plays poorly. He's prepared for the lows and it will be important to accept those rough patches as teachable moments for the budding star. The opportunity to fail and grow from those experiences will be vital in his development.
He has the intrinsic confidence and tools needed to excel at the next level. Maximizing his potential will require support from teammates, patience, and the space to allow Russell to grow into his own. Those observing Russell's performance and eager to watch him develop shouldn't pigeonhole his game within the frameworks of existing or past superstars in the NBA. He is a player of many talents and achievements that wants to create his own identity within the league.
D'Angelo Russell won't end up being Harden, Curry, CP3, or Kobe. That's OK, and that's how it should be. He's his own player with his own style, with weaknesses and strengths that will define his game. Given patience to develop through what are sure to be some initial growing pains, the Lakers may have a star on their hands unlike any we've seen before.