For someone who’s had maturity questions follow him around the way they have for D’Angelo Russell, he certainly has no problem calling himself out when his play calls for it. After Tuesday night’s loss to the Denver Nuggets, he once again answered with the some impressive frankness about how he’s played over the last few games.
When asked about his play recently, he definitely did not hold back about himself.
“It’s been shitty. Been real shitty,” Russell told Bill Oram of the Orange County Register of his play.
Well okay then.
The numbers recently back this statement up. Per NBA.com, Russell has the worst net rating on the Lakers roster of any player who has played more than 10 minutes per game over the team’s last five games.
When Russell returned from injury, it was promising to see that the Lakers were significantly better whenever he led the offense. This was evident in both the eye test and statistically. For whatever reason (and we’ll get to that in a second), his play has fallen off a cliff, but it’s good to see he’s acknowledging that fact.
Russell’s self-deprecation is obviously noteworthy from the standpoint of no problem can even start to get fixed if those involved don’t admit that there is, indeed, a problem. That said, this sentiment has come up before, if not with such language. The hope is that he’s acknowledging an issue, but doing so not just in post-game scrums, but to himself. The latter is really all the matters, frankly.
If we take his word for it and grant that he is legitimately aware how bad he’s been, the question then begs asking: why has he played so poorly?
For starters — and this probably won’t make people particularly happy -- he is still very young and trying to learn arguably the league’s toughest position on the fly. Youth can tend to seem like an excuse, but in this (and most) case, it’s an explanation. Ignoring that to criticize anyone is pretty lazy.
As far as his actual play, it seemed he was having success as a more aggressive penetrator in the pick-and-roll. This is the NBA, though, and anytime a player has success with a particular move, there’s a really good chance opposing teams scout that out and make sure he doesn’t do that against them. In the aforementioned previous five games, he’s gone against the Spurs and Clippers, two very smart teams who would do such scouting.
When driving is taken away, that means teams are giving up the outside shot. Russell simply hasn’t made them pay for such defensive strategy. Over those last five games, he’s two for 18 from three.
So if on offense you aren’t having success driving or shooting from outside, chances are you aren’t playing very well overall, as has been the case of late for Russell.
It’s also worth pointing out that Russell’s spot in the rotation doesn’t seem ideal. He often sits for long stretches at a time in each half, which takes away from any chance at rhythm upon re-entry into the game. Again, commenters might say this sounds like an excuse for Russell, but if we’re going to micro-analyze his game, we should do so with proper context.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton’s strategy of riding the hot hand is fine in a vacuum, but it also risks recency bias. Russell was absolutely deserving of being benched Tuesday night. He admitted as such. But Walton also has to be wary of losing focus on what really matters this season. If he’s going to play vets with the intention of winning games over developing players, the Lakers had better actually win some of these games.
Also, how is Russell going to prove himself worthy of fourth quarter minutes if he never actually plays consistent fourth quarter minutes? It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg conversation.
Russell is still only in his second year. Young players tend to experience more exaggerated extremes than veterans. It’s why coaches tend to lean on veterans. But as Russell as admitted to there being a problem, and seems willing to fix said problem, he and his coach need to do more to get things right.