D'Angelo Russell looked every bit a 19-year old playing against men for the first time when he debuted this season. The rookie struggled with his shooting, making just 40.8% of his shots over the first month. But Russell (as most highly touted rookies do) has started to turn it around as his debut season rolls along.
Russell has shot 46.8% in January, which is just the tip of the iceberg on what has been a strong month. Russell has also made 37% of his three-pointers in the new year, with his smooth stroke finally finding pay dirt with more consistency as he adjusts to NBA range. On the season Russell is using 23.6% of the team's possessions while on the floor, but in January that has bumped up to 26.8%.
All of this has been indicative of an increasingly confident Russell taking the wheel and trying to make something happen in an offense that has most closely resembled a traffic jam on the 405 freeway for the majority of the 2015-16 season.
Over the Lakers' back-to-back against the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, Russell has looked even better... with one caveat. The front office's hoped for point guard of the future has played just 26.3 minutes per game over the team's last two, sadly right in line with the 27 minutes per game he's averaging for the season, and a significant amount of his time has come when the score was out of reach.
"It's kind of irrelevant," Russell said of his production over the Lakers' past two contests, "because by the time I'm doing it the game's over."
Despite the situation, Russell has made the most of his "irrelevant" floor time, averaging an eye-popping 19.5 points per game on 72.7% shooting overall while making three of his four three-pointers and using 27% of the team's possession. Be careful with his shot chart, it could burn out your monitor:
"I try to grow every game," said Russell. "I kind of do stuff that I surprise myself with. I tell myself before the game that 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this,' but by the time I get out there it's just all feel and I just kind of surprise myself."
Russell saying he's surprised belies how smooth and under control his game has been. Instead of waiting for plays to develop, Russell has looked to score immediately after taking screens, demonstrating a growing understanding that an open shot for him is often the team's best option:
(As an aside, why was Russell so open for that second jumper? The hard roll to the basket from a certain Tarik Black, which forced Spurs man-mountain Boban Marjanovic to put a body on him. In a related note, Black was the only active Laker to receive a DNP-CD against the Blazers).
Russell is also utilizing the classic old-man move of throwing his back side and hips around to give himself space, ala Chris Paul. He has done this both on the break when using change of pace to throw off the defense:
or out of his bread and butter pick and roll sets:
Or to get right into the restricted area and finish through contact:
Grade A move by D'Angelo Russell. pic.twitter.com/GBT0VSD7Zu— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) January 24, 2016
When he gets a solid screen that leaves his man in pursuit, Russell has also flashed some herky jerky dribbling to get a big man off balance, which creates the space necessary to get into the paint for the little flip shots he loves:
Another great move by Russell. pic.twitter.com/5MeTIvjuW5— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) January 24, 2016
It's a small sample size, but over the past two games Russell has the second highest offensive rating (113.5) of Lakers playing more than 10 minutes, which backs up the eye test that the team looks much better when trying to score with the rookie on the floor. The only blight against Russell? The other end of the floor.
"I thought he was okay," Lakers head coach Byron Scott said when asked to evaluate Russell's efforts over the past two contests. "I'm not so much worried about [the offensive] end of the floor. It's the other end." To his credit, Russell understands that is an area where he must improve.
"When young guys come into the league the hardest thing is to guard. You got to know guys personnel," said Russell. However, Russell was justifiably not willing to take all of the blame for the Lakers' defensive issues, even against the guards that Scott lamented the team's inability to contain.
"The whole team has to be on a string when it comes to stopping a lot of the All-Star guards in this conference," said Russell. "So you can just compete, and try and make it as tough as possible for them."
Russell's not wrong, and he wasn't abdicating himself of responsibility either.
"This is my first time going around and playing against these guys a few times, so I feel like when I get another year or two or three under my belt I'll have a better feel for guys. It's all experience."
That experience will come from time on the floor, time that as mentioned earlier, he is not receiving. Russell ranks fourth on the team in minutes both over the last two games and for the season, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
If Scott wants to cite defense as his main criticism of Russell, that's fine. But if that's his issue, than it really makes no sense to play Lou Williams more minutes than him. Not only is he an established commodity as a veteran in his 11th season, but he is worse (or at best even with Russell) defensively as well. Defensive rating is not a perfect stat, but Williams ranks worse than Russell in it both for the season (111 vs 107.9) and in the last two games (125.6 vs. 121.1), according to NBA.com.
If you don't like stats, here is an example of the type of defense one can expect from Williams from the game against Portland:
Pointless lunges and ball-watching leading to backdoor cuts or open threes have basically been the story of sweet Lou's season on defense. This isn't to pile on Williams, that just is who he is, has been, and likely always will be on that end of the floor, so to criticize Russell's defense while playing Lou more minutes than him sends an incredibly mixed message.
This is not a case of advocating throwing a kid into the fire just for the sake of doing it. Russell has legitimately earned more minutes on a terrible Lakers team that has nothing to play for but the development of its youth anyway. The team's offense looks significantly improved when Russell is running the show, and this team is fairly hopeless on defense anyway given it's personnel. Additionally, the guys getting more minutes than Russell this season (Jordan Clarkson, Kobe Bryant, and Williams) have all been worse than Russell on defense.
If this season has taught us anything, it's that Kobe is going to play his minutes and get his shots no matter what as the team gives him his retirement tour. Clarkson is another young player worth developing, and so it appears Lou should be the odd man out here. If Russell is not averaging more minutes than Williams by the end of the season, it would be just one more thing for basketball historians to add to the list of things that made no sense about the 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers.
All stats per NBA.com. All quotes transcribed via Time Warner Cable Sportsnet. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.