LOS ANGELES — Is Los Angeles Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell a “true” point guard? Will he spend the next 8-10 years of his career running high pick-and-rolls, attacking in transition and dicing set defenses up with an effortlessly unpredictable handle and unselfish vision?
Or—in the shadows of a 39-point breakthrough performance on Tuesday night against the hapless Brooklyn Nets, followed by a 24-point outing in Denver the very next night—are his skills better served as a primary scorer? Someone who relentlessly hunts his own shot on every other touch, darts into open space whenever off the ball, jacks up tough shots and spaces the floor?
The Lakers don’t have to answer what isn’t an either/or proposition right now because multiple particles are already ingrained in Russell’s DNA. He’s a positionless gem in a league that’s sprinting away from labels, with a skill set that’s adaptable, fluid and deadly.
How high he soars from here is anybody’s guess, much less where Russell will be in five years.
Will he make an All-Star Game or two, or was his 39-point eruption against a 17-win team the ultimate tease—think about Brandon Jennings’ 55-point outing when he was a 20-year-old rookie back in 2009.
Russell’s poise, fearlessness and natural grace will make anyone who’s seen a good chunk of his career lean toward the former. A supremely gifted offensive player, with an enviable combination of size, quickness, length and intuition, the 20-year old already anticipates movement before it happens and can read a rotating defense from several different vantage points—whether he’s trying to shake his man while slithering along the baseline, or standing 30 feet from the rim about to get a high screen.
Over the past six games, the 6'5" rookie is averaging 21.8 points, 5.0 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting 52.3 percent from the floor and 55.3 percent from behind the three-point line (on 6.3 attempts per game).
And remember that whole "ice in my veins" moment? Among all players who averaged at least one three-point attempt in the fourth quarter throughout that stretch, only Jerryd Bayless and John Wall have been more accurate than Russell’s 66.7 percent, per NBA.com.
His ability to get off difficult shots in tight spaces, outside or in, over outstretched fingertips, is ridiculous:
Just about all of his recent percentages are unsustainable, but they also show what Russell is capable of doing across a modest sample size coinciding with Lakers head coach Byron Scott’s decision to reinsert Russell into the starting lineup. Fans, writers, broadcasters and knowledgeable NBA observers have been begging for this since Scott first banished his rookie to the bench back in December.
“I’ve been happy with his progress for months,” Scott said shortly after Los Angeles outscored Brooklyn by 13 points in Russell’s 35 minutes. “From my standpoint, what you’ve got to do as a player is get me to trust you. And I think as we’ve gone on, month by month, I’ve gained more trust in him to give him a much longer leash…It always takes rookies some time. For him it took a couple of months, but each month I was happier because he was getting better each month. I wouldn’t say that I’ve loosened up. I’ve probably been even more demanding of him. But I’ve also given him more freedom as well.”
Liberation is exactly what this year’s second overall pick wants, but he also understands how important it is to stay patient and ride out tough times.
“Consistency is the biggest thing,” Russell said, when asked about his career night against Brooklyn. “I would say consistency and opportunity, and taking advantage of the opportunity you get in a good way. When you got a coach, you gotta develop that trust with him, so he knows he can rely on you.”
He’s been branded as L.A.’s franchise point guard, but, to be frank, that name tag puts a ceiling on his potential. Instead, the Lakers should encourage him to float through the offense as an interchangeable weapon; they should utilize every area of his skill set in order to maximize all he has to offer.
According to Synergy Sports, Russell places in the 89.9th percentile as a cutter, and if there’s any one part of the NBA game he mastered from opening night, this is it.
Before Tuesday’s game, Brooklyn Nets guard Shane Larkin was asked what makes Russell so hard to stop.
“[Russell] is a combo guard, not a pure point guard…I watched him in high school, actually.” Larkin told Bleacher Report. “He went to [Montverde Academy] so…he was playing the 2 then, so he definitely can score the ball. And he’s a great playmaker. He makes great passes.”
Russell’s passing and high IQ already ensure a lengthy career. He’s so smooth off the bounce, so comfortable reacting to chaos and making the correct play. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Sixty games into his career, Russell has already flashed a devastating post game to create awkward situations for any defense.
Sooner than later he’ll demand regular double-teams if he catches the ball deep enough against a smaller defender.
Of course, very little of this has translated on the team level, because the Lakers are awful and would still have a negative net rating even if someone like Kevin Durant landed on their roster tomorrow.
But that's small-picture analysis. Russell's evolution is the single most important variable to get this organization back on the right track. Offensively, he may someday soon be able to handle everything the Lakers need him to do—similar to James Harden's relationship with the Houston Rockets.
Positions are meaningless. Russell is a basketball player.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.