The Los Angeles Lakers wouldn’t be the Los Angeles Lakers without an endless debate over the shot selection of their primary ball-handler, or at least that’s the way things have been for the last 20-plus years.
It started with Kobe Bryant, whose shooting was argued about since he airballed those shots in the playoffs in Utah. For the rest of his career the media essentially doubled as Goldilocks in regards to his shot selection. Bryant was a selfish player who shot too much to win until he won, and if he shot slightly less, then it was because the legendary “facilitator mode” Kobe had made his one appearance of the year to give people fuel for their columns and radio shows.
D’Angelo Russell is not Kobe Bryant (breaking news), but the two are similar in how the media and fans have discussed them. The latest instance came as Russell fired up 11 3-pointers against the New Orleans Pelicans while only canning two of them. He and his head coach were asked about it after the game:
D'Angelo on missed 3's: "I could see it if I was forcing ones or whatever. I feel like I missed a lot of wide open ones."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) March 6, 2017
Luke Walton with a measured & detailed read on how he wants D'Angelo Russell handling his 3-point shot pic.twitter.com/B7OHp96xAg— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) March 6, 2017
Through three quarters against the Pelicans, Russell was indeed struggling, having missed all seven of his 3-point attempts while shooting just 4-14 overall. The fourth quarter was a different story, however, with Russell shooting 50 percent from both the field and from three to score eight points in the final frame as the Lakers mounted a furious comeback.
The game was a microcosm of a season in which Russell has shown sporadic flashes of greatness amidst stretches of mediocrity. Is he taking bad shots? NBA.com doesn’t have a stat for that, but his shot chart isn’t very pretty:
Walton also specifically mentioned that he wanted Russell’s shots to come out of ball movement more often, something that hasn’t happened a great deal this year. 76.8 percent of Russell’s field goals made this season have been unassisted, and 64.6 percent of his 3-pointers have been unassisted as well.
While that doesn’t necessarily always mean Russell is playing hero ball, it does demonstrate that he’s either had to or chosen to create for himself a lot this season, and whatever the reason for it, it’s something Walton clearly wants to change.
Getting another capable primary ball-handler would help, but the Lakers are running a little short on those. Russell is shooting very well from the corners, and getting another ball-handler would allow Los Angeles to free him up for more of those looks.
Russell mentioned missing open looks against the Pelicans, something he hasn’t done a lot of this season. Russell is shooting 56.1 percent on shots considered wide open by NBA.com, and 38.4 percent on open threes.
The rub is that only 13.8 percent of Russell’s threes have fallen into that category, some of which falls on him for jacking heat checks, and some of which falls on roster construction for not having enough players to create more of those looks for him.
To say Russell would benefit from another player handling the ball at times also doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t play point guard going forward. It just means that (like most players) he can score more efficiently when not constantly serving as the focal point of an offense. Allowing him to get opportunities for easier shots would help both his own numbers and, if his percentages hold, the Lakers’ offense as well.