Scoring ball-handlers are on the rise. The NBA has come to accept and value the combo guard's versatility.
We just saw the Los Angeles Lakers take D'Angelo Russell No. 2 last year over bigs Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis. Meanwhile, Kentucky's Jamal Murray is in the process of making a top-five case of his own, having emerged as one of the most potent guards in college hoops. He's currently on a tear, averaging 25.8 points through six games in February, while Russell was just named the Los Angeles Lakers' starting point guard from here on out, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Baxter Holmes.
The appeal to both players stems from their abilities to generate offense, whether it's off the dribble or off the ball. They share 2-guard size with sharp skills that compensate for average athleticism.
So who's the better long-term option?
With the same February 23 birthdays, Russell is exactly one year older than Murray, who's already listed at 12 pounds heavier. Murray has the stronger frame and a little extra bounce, which we've seen on some recent highlight dunks.
Still, despite lacking explosiveness, Russell has actually surprised in the NBA paint, where he's shooting an average 58.5 percent in the restricted area and an above-average 46.4 percent outside of it (in the paint), according to NBA.com. He's also over three inches longer than Murray, whose wingspan is on the short side for a 2-guard.
They're scorers, whether you consider them point guards, shooting guards or combos. Russell led all freshmen in scoring a year ago at Ohio State with 19.3 points per game, which is exactly what Murray is averaging for Kentucky.
Their first-year college numbers (tied to scoring) are also similar:
|Points per game||FG Pct. at rim||Two-point FG pct.||3PM per game||3pt pct.|
Russell's go-to weapon in the arsenal is the pull-up jumper, which he takes 5.2 times per game and sinks at a 36.3 percent clip. It hasn't been accurate through 55 career games, but it's a shot he's comfortable with and one that seems likely to keep improving.
Russell came in with a lot of practice, particularly from deep, where only 46.8 percent of his 95 three-point makes were unassisted at Ohio State. In comparison, 9.6 percent of Murray's threes are unassisted. Russell loves to stop and pop, whether it's in transition or off a ball screen.
And becoming a top pull-up shooter has worked out well for others. Of 14 NBA players making at least three pull-ups a game, nine were All-Stars this year.
Murray has spent a lot of time spotting up or running off screens for threes. Half (50.6 percent) of his field-goal attempts this season have come from behind the arc, where 90.4 percent of his makes are assisted.
Murray doesn't have Russell's in-between game, but he's terrific at freeing himself and converting deep, catch-and-shoot opportunities. That's a skill that should allow him to fit right into an NBA lineup, considering his future coach isn't likely to immediately appoint him primary ball-handler.
On the downside for Murray, he's streaky. He shot 1-of-10 from three against NJIT, 2-of-9 against Eastern Kentucky, 1-of-7 against Arkansas and 2-of-7 against Kansas. Earlier this month, just after making three of 12 threes against Tennessee, he went off to hit eight of 10 threes against Florida and six of 10 threes against Georgia back-to-back.
Murray is dangerous from the perimeter, but having seen him attempt over 100 more threes than free throws, it's fair to question his shot selection and projected efficiency.
And streakiness could really lower a player's value. Bench scorers like Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith, Dion Waiters and Lou Williams could go off for 20-plus points on any given day. But not frequently enough. And off scoring nights for them typically equate to little or negative impact, which is why teams have deemed them expendable and not worth paying the big bucks for.
Still, Murray's ability to handle the ball, improvise and make unorthodox shots you don't typically practice—like lefty runners off the wrong foot or crafty scoops around defenders—translates to buckets off half-court drives and slashes. He can hit every shot in the book, and that makes it possible for him to take over games.
The question is how well this will all translate, given his lack of length and burst. He doesn't get great separation one-on-one and leans heavily on difficult shot-making.
For Russell, despite the slower start (compared to other top picks), it's encouraging to know he's averaging 12.2 points (fourth among rookies) while shooting just 37.0 percent on spot-ups, a number that's bound to go up.
He's flashed the ability to convert from all three levels, having made 70 shots within five feet (57.4 percent), 61 in the mid-range (38.6 percent) and 83 threes (33.6 percent), per NBA.com.
If there is a fear attached to Russell, it's the fact he doesn't get much elevation when attempting a shot, making it easier to challenge. And he doesn't put too much pressure on the rim, given his 1.8 free-throw attempts per game. Like Murray, Russell should also end up reliant on his perimeter game.
Russell dished out five assists per game at Ohio State, and that was alongside Shannon Scott, who was the team's true point guard and averaged 5.9 assists of his own. He's an exceptional passer, a skill likely to result in assists regardless of what position he plays.
But he's struggled in the pick-and-roll game with 0.74 points per play and an ugly 21.2 percent turnover frequency. With more reps, this is an area he can improve. The bigger concern is that without blow-by jets, he's averaging just 0.2 assists per game off drives.
Russell's vision and court savvy are tremendous; it's his playmaking and breakdown ability that are in question.
Murray hasn't showcased much playmaking, either, with more turnovers (66) than assists (58) on the season. To his credit, his role for the Wildcats is to score—not necessarily facilitate—next to Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe.
In the past, particularly this summer at the Pan American Games, we've seen Murray set up teammates off ball screens and penetration. But it's clear that he's more of a natural scorer than distributor, and based on everything we've seen, it just doesn't seem Murray is wired to become a team's No. 1 decision-maker.
For that reason, I'm expecting him to play a lot more 2-guard than point guard. I'd imagine his NBA role will actually be similar to his current one at Kentucky, which calls for him to make shots and provide firepower.
Russell will take over at point guard for the Lakers, though it wouldn't be surprising to see him spend time off the ball throughout his career. Still, I'd rather have him running my offense than Murray.
"Each month he [Russell] has seemed to get better," coach Byron Scott told Holmes. "He's really starting to understand what this game is all about. He still needs to pick it up at times. Obviously on both ends he needs to continue to work, but I like what I saw [Sunday], and I like what I've been seeing from him over the last couple months."
Neither player projects as a defensive asset. They'll each be looking to avoid being a weak link in the chain and a revolving door around the perimeter.
Russell can appear nonchalant without getting low enough in his stance. Murray gets beat too easily and could have trouble challenging opposing 2-guards, most of whom will be much longer.
They both have their moments, which typically are highlight steals. But with below-average quickness for point guards and unexciting athleticism for 2-guards, their defensive upsides are limited.
Russell vs. Murray
Russell has underwhelmed compared to Karl-Anthony Towns, the top pick in 2015, and Kristaps Porzingis, who went No. 4. But the No. 2 pick was never handed the keys and a chance to take over at the point...until now. Though the height of his ceiling doesn't appear to be as high as it looked 12 months ago, he'll have a better shot to figure things out as he builds more reps and confidence.
Who becomes the better NBA player long term?
I'll stop short of pegging him a future All-Star, but I see Russell developing into a starter coaches can move around their backcourt, given his balance of shooting, mid-range scoring and passing.
I've got Murray falling under the category of sixth-man microwave. I expect his value to lie within his ability to put up points in spurts and bunches.
There is no question his shooting and shot-making should translate. And his basement floor looks high. In a weak 2016 field, Murray seems to be one of the safer bets. I'm just skeptical of a guard who relies mostly on jumpers, passes second and struggles defensively.
Instead, I'll gamble on the more complete player in Russell, who's bound to have a much bigger second half of his rookie year.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com, Hoop-Math.com and Sports-Reference.com