Heading into the NBA season, D’Angelo Russell was a chic pick for a breakout campaign, with some even saying he might be a candidate for most improved player. Freed from former head coach Byron Scott, no longer forced to defer to Kobe Bryant, and with an offseason to address his deficiencies, Russell looked primed to fly off of the blocks like Usain Bolt in his sophomore season.
Four games into the 2015-16 campaign, Russell hadn't gotten off of the starting line just yet. The sophomore guard was leading the team in scoring with 15 points per game, but shooting just 33 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from three while turning the ball over three times per game.
Russell didn’t fix the turnover issue against Atlanta (he coughed up the ball to the Hawks four times), but he did have his best overall offensive game of the season with 23 points on 9-19 shooting to go with eight assists and four rebounds.
“That's the way we see him playing the point guard position,” said Lakers head coach Luke Walton following the game. “He was in control of the game, and it wasn't just from scoring. It was the plays he was calling, he was getting people touches, he had the defense guessing where he was going to be going, and that was good to see.”
Other than the four turnovers that mostly came when he tried to get too fancy, it’s easy to see what Walton was talking about. Russell was making simple but effective passed all night, like this one out of a pick-and-roll to set up Larry Nance Jr.:
As Uncle Drew’s buddy Wes would say, “that’s a pocket pass!” It’s also not the only type Russell has in his arsenal.
Despite taking criticism in some circles for how often he looks to score, Russell is a more than capable playmaker, which showed through on Wednesday night. When defenses help down to far on those pick-and-rolls with Nance, Russell can make them pay, like he did on Nick Young’s dagger at the end of the game:
The young floor general is also more than happy to do his damage in transition, like when he busted out this filthy feed for a #SwaggyThree in transition:
“We got some killers on our team,” Russell told Mark Medina of the O.C. Register following the game. “I tried to do a good job in keeping everybody balanced and getting the ball to the guys that were hot and the open guy. That made it easy for me.”
In this case the “it” Russell referred to as being easier for him was to score, not that he always needs the assistance. There were possessions where Russell’s willingness as a facilitator and cutter gave him easier buckets, but he’s also capable of getting them the hard way. The charred remains of Dennis Schröder can testify to that:
Can Russell sustain this level of play? Probably not, at least not yet. As a 20-year old in his second NBA season, Russell is going to take his lumps at times this year, but they’ll be intermixed with efforts like this far more often than they were last season.
Russell said he was “tired of losing” in his postgame interview with Mike Trudell following the win. With more efforts like Wednesday’s, Russell may feel that pain a bit less this year, as well as getting back on track for the type of year many predicted for him over the summer.
All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet unless otherwise cited. All stats per NBA.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.