The Los Angeles Lakers don’t have much to play for other than the development of their young players as they enter the home stretch of their season. Fittingly, that is exactly what D’Angelo Russell said he’s focused on as the campaign comes to a close.
"Individually, I want to compete,” Russell told reporters after the Lakers’ 97-81 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers (as transcribed by Serena Winters of Lakers Nation). “Take it to another level these last nine games and get something out of that."
Russell’s recent 40 point explosion against the Cleveland Cavaliers aside, he has struggled at times to find his stride in a new role in which he plays primarily off the ball with Jordan Clarkson as the Lakers’ nominal “point guard.”
It’s the latest issue in a mostly up-and-down sophomore season for Russell, but even with the caveat that he’s been inconsistent, he’s still put up more impressive statistics than most mainstream narratives would have fans think.
Don’t believe me? I’ll let Lakers blogging Godfather Darius Soriano take it from here:
D'Angelo Russell's per/36 numbers this year (his age 20 season): 19.9 pts, 4.6 rebs, 6.1 assists, 1.8 steals.— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) March 23, 2017
LeBron is the only player in NBA history to reach/surpass those thresholds in those stats in his age 20 season. https://t.co/XMEr62evis— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) March 23, 2017
So now that we’ve established that Russell
is as good as LeBron James has not struggled as badly as many believe, what should observers be looking for as the next level for him to take his game? Lakers head coach Luke Walton had a few compliments on what he’s done well, and some suggestions on what he could do better:
Luke Walton says D'Angelo Russell "did so nice things off the ball" and "getting "comfortable" off the ball. #Lakers— Bob Garcia IV (@bgarcia90) March 27, 2017
Luke Walton on D'Angelo Russell: "When he is off ball we want him looking for his shot. When he is on ball we want him facilitating more."— Bob Garcia IV (@bgarcia90) March 27, 2017
Russell has actually done a pretty good job facilitating, assisting on 27.1 percent of the Lakers’ baskets while on the floor, the highest rate of any player on the team. However, Russell has still turned the ball over on 11.8 percent of his possessions, and could do with a slight reduction there.
As far as playing off-the-ball, Russell has actually mostly done a good job of leveraging the threat of his 3-point shooting to create space for his teammates or attack as a secondary option.
The biggest area in which Russell could take his game to another level is as a defender, where he’s looked disinterested or unaware at times. Russell has a tendency to get caught in the no-man’s land between the player he’s supposed to be guarding and a player he could help on, but is too far away to do so, as big of a reason as any why the Lakers have allowed 113 points per 100 possessions while Russell plays.
More so than any offensive changes, taking his defense to another level could really help show the Lakers they have something special in Russell as they enter a critical offseason. It will be interesting to see if that’s what he meant.
All stats per NBA.com. and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.