Ohio State coach Thad Matta was asked on Monday's Big Ten conference call the difference between superstar freshman guard D'Angelo Russell when he's scoring and when he's not.
"This is going to sound as simple as simple can be, but the ball going in the basket helps a lot," Matta said.
That's the answer of a coach who has a weapon who controls his own destiny.
Halfway into the season, Russell is putting up numbers that put him in a company of players who fit in the "otherworldly" talent category.
The hard numbers are impressive enough. He is averaging 17.9 points, 4.9 assists, shooting 44.6 percent from deep and leads all freshmen with 45 three-pointers. But it's the advanced numbers that really show how special he's been.
Russell has an offensive rating of 114.5—that's a number used to quantify points generated per 100 possessions—and he's using 29 percent of Ohio State's possessions when he's on the floor, per kenpom.com (subscription required).
In the last 10 years, there have been two freshman perimeter players with an offensive rating that high who have used at least 28 percent of their team's possessions: Stephen Curry and James Harden.
|Highest offensive rating for freshman guards in last 10 years|
|Off. rating||Rank (min. 28% usage rate)|
|Steph Curry, Davidson||116.9||4th|
|James Harden, Arizona State||115.7||11th|
|D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State||114.5||9th|
"Anybody who has followed D'Angelo is not surprised by how he's playing," Indiana coach Tom Crean said on Monday's conference call. "He takes the game very, very serious. And he's got so many dimensions to his game. The bottom line is you can never lose him. And I know that sounds simple, but it's easier said than done."
The Hoosiers became one of the few teams who can puff their chest knowing that they at least contained Russell. They held him to 13 points on 15 shots in Saturday's three-point win in Bloomington.
What Indiana did, as Crean said, was stay connected to Russell. If you give him space, he has as quick a trigger as there is in the country. There's no wasted motion when he shoots. He needs no time to catch and gather. It's simply catch, and he's right into his shot.
Russell also has a really quick trigger off the dribble, and his ability to create his own offense is why he's been so effective as a primary scorer.
Russell has been assisted on only 47.6 percent of his buckets, according to Hoop-Math.com (subscription required). He's been assisted on 61.4 percent of his threes, which illustrates his ability to go get his own shot. As a comparison, Michigan's Zak Irvin, who is second in the Big Ten in three-pointers made, is assisted on 97.6 percent of his threes.
The Buckeyes set Russell up with a lot of ball screens, and he's extremely advanced in his ability to read a screen. Try to cheat by overplaying, and he's off to the basket. When the screener's man soft hedges—meaning he temporarily switches but sags back—Russell is automatic in unloading a three.
"Ohio State takes a backseat to nobody on the way they screen and get people open," Crean said. "Not only do you have to be aware of it, but you have to navigate so many things and be locked into what you're trying to do."
The other way Russell gets a lot of his baskets is in transition. Point guard Shannon Scott is always looking for him, and transition opportunities are typically when the defense has a hard time keeping track of Russell.
On Jan. 6, he scored 25 of his 27 points in the first half against Minnesota, and 11 of those points came in transition.
"You can never lose him," Crean said. "You've got to make sure that you're not giving him very much space. And you've got to understand that he can hurt you from so many different places."
The final part of the Russell equation that makes him so tough to play against is his ability to pass the ball. When he's been double-teamed, he's found open teammates. He often leads the break and is looking for teammates in transition as often as he's hunting his own shots.
Russell has played some point guard. But he's mostly played shooting guard, and his assist rate (28 percent) is extremely high for that position. Just look at how it compares to Curry and Harden as freshmen, two very gifted passers who also played shooting guard as freshmen.
But just like those two great talents, Russell is most valuable to the Buckeyes when he's scoring the ball, and they need him to make shots to win games. See how his shooting numbers in wins compared to losses.
|Russell shooting numbers (wins vs. losses)|
|2pt FG%||3pt FG%||eFG%|
"There's been some games where he's struggled to hit some shots," Matta said. "We obviously need him to play well for us."
As for how far Russell can take the Buckeyes this season, they're currently 13-4 and 2-2 in the Big Ten with Michigan coming to town on Tuesday. They're fortunate that they play the two highest-ranked teams in the Big Ten (Wisconsin and Maryland) only once and both games are at home.
Ohio State's defense has not been as stingy as typical Matta teams, but this group is currently adapting to a switch from zone to man-to-man. The defense will likely return to typical Matta form.
So it comes down to how far the Buckeyes can ride Russell. As a freshman, Curry helped Davidson get to the NCAA tourney for the first time in four years before losing in the opening round to Maryland. He took the Wildcats to an Elite Eight as a sophomore. Harden got his team to the NIT as a freshman and then the NCAA tournament as a sophomore.
Russell obviously has better parts around him than those two, but the Buckeyes' ceiling is probably a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight with the right breaks. They lack the interior presence that Matta's best teams have had.
But if Russell gets hot, who knows? He's going to find a way to get his shots. It's all about whether those shots are going through the basket or not.
It's that simple.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.