Try as hard as you might, there is no speeding up D’Angelo Russell.
Regardless of the defensive intensity, scheme or situation he's faced with, the point guard zigs and zags across the floor with a level of comfort and leisure the Sleepytime Bear would be envious of. Mister ice in his veins himself, Russell thrives when playing at his own pace. Cool, composed and in control.
Although Lakers’ fans are already familiar with Russell’s game given his previous tenure in purple and gold, the radical difference in point-guarding between he and that of Russell Westbrook, continues to be a striking development for the team.
Despite the faults of the team’s season not resting entirely on Westbrook’s shoulders, it became abundantly clear the Lakers were ready to go in a different direction at the trade deadline. And in Russell, they arguably went as far humanly possible in changing course.
Take this transition possession below for example:
If this were Westbrook, it’s full steam ahead. This is not a transition chance in his eyes, but a perceived sprint — a race between he and the defense that he was going to win regardless of the odds.
If there was a body that dared to pick up him up along the way, Westbrook would take it as a slight and make damn sure they knew it.
While Westbrook always sets his aims forward and relies on otherworldly athleticism, Russell instead scans the entire court and carves up compromised defenses with craft.
As he crosses halfcourt on this possession notice he's not only in a jog, but tactically extends his arm backward to keep the trail defender at bay before gently dishing the basketball off to LeBron James as if it were a porcelain bowl.
If Westbrook is the basketball equivalent of a Lamborghini, then Russell is a Prius. Energy efficient, stealth and far more malleable.
To be clear, both approaches can work. But for the Lakers, it is the preciseness and care of the latter that feels like a breath of fresh air as they attempt to claw their way into the postseason.
A big reason for this boils down to Russell’s skillset, as despite only having a few games under his belt with his new team, the 26-year-old is already proving to be a cleaner fit next to the team’s stars.
Unafraid of soaking up usage himself, Russell has also more importantly shown to be open to defer, make the extra pass and is effective being a cog within the offense instead of the entire engine.
To highlight the difference in role and process, Westbrook averaged team-highs in both seconds (5.24) and dribbles (4.87) per touch with the Lakers this season according to the league’s tracking data. In contrast, Russell is currently averaging just 4.01 seconds and 3.39 dribbles per opportunity.
There is also the case of utilization, and how the Lakers’ former and new point guard will largely differ.
While Westbrook did find teammates out of the pick-and-roll and got the Lakers out in transition, his breakneck approach also was offset by 203 isolation possessions alone this year. For context, that number is 160 more than Russell has been allotted this season.
Russell’s ability to operate off the ball and slot around the likes of James and Anthony Davis instead of them having to adjust, is where his value ultimately lies. This comes in large part through his ability to fling it from all over the court, and effectively.
Posting a career high 56.9% eFG% (92nd percentile among point guards) with the Minnesota Timberwolves prior to being traded, Russell is on track to have his most efficient shooting season to date.
His outside jumper in particular will be a critical asset to his star teammates, as the mere threat of his shot could change of the geometry of the floor for Los Angeles — forcing defenders to chase over screens, and if they don’t, his pull-up ability is bonafide drop-killer.
Before making his way back to the Lakers, Russell canned 63 pull-up threes with the Timberwolves this year, converting his chances at a 39.3% clip. In comparison, the trio of Dennis Schröder, Patrick Beverley and Westbrook made only a combined 34 attempts (27.4%).
While Russell’s outside shooting should make the lives of James and Davis easier when it comes to unclogging driving lanes and keeping defenses honest, the newly formed relationship will also likely be mutually beneficial.
Despite putting up aforementioned efficient numbers this year, Russell has had to do so in suboptimal opportunities.
According to the BBall-Index, Russell has ranked in just the 6th percentile in the league this season in terms of “openness rating” (how open a player’s 3PT attempts are on average). Westbrook on the other hand, has landed in the 94th percentile.
While the latter’s shooting limitations is a big contributor to this as the opposition simply continues to choose to sag off, playing beside the likes of James and Davis also helped and should theoretically do the same for Russell.
Although the early returns have been positive with the change in the backcourt, like the team’s offense humming, the improved spacing and the Lakers being a +10.6 with Russell on the floor, there also will be the eventual growing pains in players adjusting to a point guard who is more craft dependent, than that of one with force.
Going from a player who cannonballs into the pool to one who tip-toes and tests the waters with a dribble-probe before submerging, will assuringly take time.
While both styles ultimately have their merits, and the Lakers will miss Westbrook’s physicality and speed, their choice to let their foot off the gas is already proving to pay dividends.
As Russell is showing, sometimes slowing down, being deft and simply fitting in is exactly what helps win the race.
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