Even in my new-ish role overseeing the entire SB Nation NBA network, the team I watch the most frequently is still the one I came up blogging about and was raised rooting for: The Los Angeles Lakers. So while I obviously have a decent familiarity with the game of our old friend D’Angelo Russell — and to a lesser degree, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt — no one knows players from the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz better than our friends over at Canis Hoopus and SLC Dunk, respectively.
With that in mind, I asked the site managers at both places — Jack Borman at Canis, and James Hansen over in SLC — for some thoughts on the Lakers’ new acquisitions who they’ve watched far more closely than I have as of late.
Here’s what they had to say.
How has D’Angelo played this season?
Jack Borman: Russell has largely been very good offensively so far this season. Since Dec. 1 (shortly after Karl-Anthony Towns was injured), the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft has averaged 20.3 points on 48.9/42.9/90.3 shooting splits, 5.8 assists to 2.8 turnovers and 2.8 rebounds in 34.1 minutes per game across 32 contests.
This is easily the most efficient season of his career (60.4% TS; 56.7% eFG) thanks to his efficiency at all three levels; D’Lo is finishing 66% at the rim (68th percentile league-wide, per Dunks and Threes), and shooting 48% from the mid-range (82nd percentile) and 39.1% from deep (77th percentile). All that has come while Wolves head coach Chris Finch increased Russell’s frequency off-ball so that Anthony Edwards and Kyle Anderson could initiate more of the offense.
Where D’Lo fell short this year is in his fit with Rudy Gobert. Although Russell became much better at using Gobert’s screening to his advantage in the New Year, his passing efficiency to the three-time All-Star never really improved, whether it was in the pick-and-roll or in the flow of random, unscripted offense. Although his playmaking was largely good for extended stretches, his casualness led to turnovers in bad moments and he struggled to get things organized in clutch time — something he won’t have to worry about next to LeBron James.
As you could expect, Russell has been a poor defender this year. He was most often tasked with defending shooters and slower wings in order to keep him off-ball as often as possible. Even in that role, his frequent lapses in concentration and, simply put, awful defensive awareness were problematic even for a Wolves defense with two of the top defenders in the league in Gobert and Jaden McDaniels.
2) Why were the Wolves willing to trade him?
Borman: To put it kindly, Russell wasn’t exactly the model teammate or a good example for Edwards to follow. D’Lo reportedly openly complained about Gobert in front of teammates and coaches, even while media was in the locker room, and wore his dislike of Rudy Gobert “on his sleeve,” according to Jon Kraczynski of The Athletic. The way he carried himself certainly didn’t bode well for developing chemistry with Gobert, or his long-term prospects in Minnesota.
Beyond that, he clearly didn’t have a strong relationship with Finch, who wasn’t afraid to bench Russell down the stretch of games if he felt Anderson, Jaylen Nowell, Jordan McLaughlin or Taurean Prince gave the team a better chance to win. Finch continually got frustrated with Russell’s turnovers, the casual pace at which Russell played, and his point guard’s general lack of a sense of urgency, which undoubtedly contributed to the team’s disappointing first half, even without Towns. Minnesota has lost to Detroit twice, San Antonio twice, Utah twice, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Charlotte, Houston and a JV Miami team playing without Adebayo and Butler, and has blown too many significant leads in the second halves of games.
Another key factor was his inability to provide stability and organization on the offensive end down the stretch of close games. Finch began using Anderson as the team’s crunch-time point guard and it paid dividends.
It is reasonable to expect these issues will be corrected with Mike Conley running the show. He is a consummate professional who has won the NBA’s 2019 Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award and a three-time NBA Sportsmanship Award winner, and was by all accounts universally beloved by his teammates from his stops in Memphis and Utah. Conley is also much more of a floor general point guard — whereas Russell is more of a combo guard — which will help in terms of making sure his teammates are in the right spots and that the team executes better down the stretch of games.
3) Do you think he can help the Lakers?
Borman: Absolutely. Gobert won’t be one of his teammates in Los Angeles, which is a plus for those hoping he’ll get along better with his new team (Editor’s Note: It’s also just a plus in just, you know, not having Gobert. Sorry, Jack).
In Los Angeles, Russell will be tasked with being more of a scorer alongside LeBron and Anthony Davis rather than a playmaker who needs to direct the show. The Lakers desperately need shooting and, as I mentioned above, Russell has shot the lights out for the better part of two months while playing off-ball. He’ll play a similar role in L.A., which gives Lakers fans more reason to believe it will continue. Not to mention he has great familiarity with Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt, both of whom played for the Wolves from 2020-2022 and were part of the team’s run to the playoffs last season.
Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt
How have Beasley and Vanderbilt played this season?
James Hansen: Beasley has been a little up and down this season, but his impact is undeniable. After just half a season watching him play, it’s clear to me he’s one of the most underrated shooters in the league. He’s not just a guy that will take an open spot-up three, but he’ll also shoot with movement, or he can dribble into a mid-range pull-up that he’ll knock down. He’s perfect as a sixth man that can come in and either play off your stars, or can even create his own offense at times. He’s also not a bad defender.
Vanderbilt is a swiss army knife of a player. He’s a versatile defender that can guard 1-4. He’s also a high-energy rebounder. At times you’ll find yourself wanting a little bit more in terms of blocked shots, though, so don’t expect too much from him as a rim protector.
On the offensive end, Vanderbilt is a guy that gets most of his points with dunks. For some reason, his touch around the rim isn’t all that great. He’s started taking corner threes here and there and has actually knocked them down at a surprisingly good percentage, but he doesn’t seem very confident in that yet. But it does look like a skill he can continue to develop with time.
Why were the Jazz willing to trade them?
Hansen: The Jazz have won too many games this year. The beginning of the season was a surprise for everyone, but ever since they hit the No. 1 spot, they’ve had a losing record.
(Editor’s Note: Having a team that was better than expected? Sorry James, that must have suuuuuucked.)
Squeaking into a play-in game was not going to do the Jazz any good this year, especially after jettisoning their star players, Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, for a haul of draft picks over the offseason. The last thing the Jazz need is to find themselves in the middle of the league spinning their wheels. Trading these players ensures them a good shot at a pick in the draft somewhere from 5-8, and a better chance at winning the lottery.
Do you think they can help the Lakers?
Hansen: Absolutely. Beasley will spread the floor and Vanderbilt will help fill gaps on both ends. Neither of them are star players, but they are high-level role players that will definitely contribute to the Lakers making a run for the playoffs. They’re also great guys that will be welcome additions to the locker room.
These are the types of insights you can only get on players from someone who talks about and watches them daily, so a big thanks to Jack and James for taking some time out to help us familiarize ourselves with the three biggest names the Lakers acquired.