D'Angelo Russell's college basketball premiere was in an empty gym at West Virginia.
Russell didn't know it then, but he was going up against a full-court-pressing defense that is now forcing turnovers at a higher rate than any defense has in years. Before tipoff in the secret preseason scrimmage, Russell's old high school teammate and starting center for West Virginia, Devin Williams, approached the freshman guard and delivered a message.
We're coming after you.
Russell was about to deliver his own message.
You can't stop me.
"Oh my god," Russell says months later. "That was a welcome-to-college experience. I felt like I got beat up every possession."
Only it was the Mountaineers who suffered.
Russell carved up their pressure. The 6'5" guard dribbled through double-teams, nailed threes and delivered pinpoint passes to his teammates. He dropped 33 points, had four assists and four steals, and the Buckeyes won.
"He never got sped up," Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals told Bleacher Report. "From that point on, you knew he was going to be able to handle pressure. To see the poise he had as a freshman playing against his first Division I opponent was pretty impressive."
It was just a preview of what was to come. Russell was already a known commodity—sort of.
He was a McDonald's All-American. After his freshman year of high school in his hometown of Louisville, his family sent him off to a high school basketball powerhouse, Montverde Academy in Florida, where he won back-to-back mythical national titles playing alongside some of the best prospects in the country.
In the 2014 class, he was ranked as high as No. 13 by Scout.com and ESPN.com, and as low No. 18 by Rivals.com. That's the ranking of a guy expected to be a really good college player, but he's not a can't-miss prospect who has NBA scouts evaluating his every dribble and breath. One NBA scout last week wondered aloud if Russell was even at the Nike Hoops Summit in Portland last April (he wasn't).
As the season has worn on, Russell has transitioned from being Ohio State's star freshman to arguably the best guard in college basketball to a surefire top pick in this June's NBA draft. He averages 19.0 points and 5.4 assists. He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He delivers bounce passes that circulate the Internet like crazy cat videos.
The Buckeyes have leaned on him so heavily—he uses 29.4 percent of their possessions—and he's been incredibly efficient with a 118.0 offensive rating. In fact, when you search kenpom.com for a similar season over the last 10 years in college basketball with that kind of usage (above 28 percent) and that kind of offensive rating (above 115.0), only two names turn up: James Harden and Stephen Curry.
Those are two of the best players on the planet, but back when they were freshmen, no one had any idea that they would someday be MVP candidates in the NBA.
|Highest offensive rating for freshman guards in last 10 years|
|1. D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State||29.4||118.0|
|2. Stephen Curry, Davidson||28.5||116.9|
|3. James Harden, Arizona St.||28.3||115.7|
Russell's numbers have gotten everyone's attention, but are they telling us something beyond that the Ohio State freshman should be an All-American and one of the first picks in the NBA draft?
Could Russell be the next Harden or Curry?
Just like Harden...
Antonio Russell's first memories of realizing his son could be something special date back to youth leagues when D'Angelo was seven years old. He played on the same team as his older brother, Antonio, who was nine at the time. D'Angelo was the point guard, and Antonio played center.
"He just loved to pass," Antonio said of his younger son. "Get it to his brother in the middle who had the mismatch."
D'Angelo would feed his brother five straight times, his father remembers, and then he'd go get a bucket for himself. But he was always a pass-first guy, his dad says.
This season at Ohio State is a drastic change from what he'd become accustomed to in high school. At Montverde as a junior, he played on a team that had current Florida point guard Kasey Hill, Kentucky big man Dakari Johnson and West Virginia's Williams as seniors.
Last year at Montverde, he was joined by Ben Simmons, who is the top-rated prospect in the 2015 class, according to ESPN. Russell's numbers were solid—he averaged 19.3 points per game—but Simmons was the star, winning MVP of the Dick Sporting Goods High School National Tournament, while Russell wasn't even on the all-tourney team.
Now when you watch the Buckeyes, Russell shares no spotlight. There is no doubt who coach Thad Matta wants taking the shots. Most possessions, Russell either has the ball in his hands or is running around screens trying to get free for a shot.
"It's actually the first time," Russell says when asked if he's ever been the go-to guy.
Current Rice assistant coach Scott Pera was the head coach at Artesia High School in Lakewood, California, for Harden's first three years in school and then was an assistant coach at Arizona State for Harden's two years there. Pera helped develop Harden's game and was the man who helped get him to Arizona State. And when he first coached him as a high school freshman, "He was a standstill corner shooter," Pera says.
Harden evolved into something much more as Hera helped him become a playmaker with the ball in his hands. But the aggressive star we see now who leads the NBA in scoring was not what Harden was in high school. Like Russell, he wanted to facilitate.
"James' mindset wasn't as a scorer in high school," Pera said. "His mindset now is totally different, even though he's a terrific passer and unselfish teammate. In high school, he was so deferral. He scored 18 points a game; he could have averaged 30. Eighteen points a game in high school—18!—as a junior and senior."
The ability to pass and the threat of it makes scoring easier for both Russell and Harden. Sometimes the best way to slow a great scorer is by shadowing him with help defenders or simply running double-teams at him when he has the ball.
Russell's vision makes defenses pay for that kind of cheating. He's excellent at finding the roll man when defenses try to trap him in pick-and-rolls. He also has a knack for noticing a defender creeping his way and then delivering no-look passes on time and on target to shooters.
"He sees the game differently, sees plays evolving before they happen," said Boals, the Ohio State assistant.
Russell also has a great feel for picking his spots. After he put up 25 points in the first half at Minnesota last month, the Gophers responded by trying to keep the ball out of his hands in the second half or bringing a double-team at him each time he touched it. Russell had only two points after halftime, but he had four of his five assists, and the Buckeyes won in overtime.
"He led us with his passing skills and his IQ," Boals said. "He's one of the few guys that can dominate a game without scoring a point. He wants to make the right play, and if you're open, he's going to pass you the ball. Our guys understand he's going to draw and demand a lot of attention. If they do their job, he's going to find them when they're open."
Russell is not just able to find guys when they're open; he sees that they're going to be open before anyone else does. There are two passes, in particular, that come to mind. Against Iowa on Jan. 17, Russell debuted a left-handed bounce pass with backspin that found Sam Thompson in stride:
Five days later at Northwestern, he threw the same pass, and this time with a better result:
"It's kind of the it factor," Boals says. "D'Angelo has it. It's always the special ones who see things happen before they happen."
You just don't see anyone else in the college game throwing passes like that, and the people who have been around the game a long time realize they're witnessing a rarity.
Legendary analyst Bill Raftery was calling Ohio State's game against Michigan this past Sunday, and after Russell whipped an underhanded, no-look pass as casually as if he were throwing a chest pass, Raftery commented: "Russell's got a little (Pete) Maravich in him, doesn't he?"
Harden's got that same kind of casual wizardry. He does things that look simple until you rewind the tape and slow it down. One of his signature "who else does that" passes is a one-handed between-the-opponent’s-legs delivery.
Speaking of both Russell and Harden, an NBA Eastern Conference scout told B/R: "Their control of the ball and understanding of the floor and being able to get the ball (there) as guys arrive, that's something that's a rare trait to have, not passing where guys are but passing where guys are going to be before they're there. That's something that, again, indicates a guy has special talent."
Russell has become obsessed with watching tape, helping him anticipate the angles based on what he's already seen. After an Ohio State road game, he'll re-watch the game on his iPad on the flight back. He says he watches every game three or four times.
"I look at it as fun," he says.
He says he also watches games of upcoming opponents, which suggests a maturation from earlier in the season when after dropping 32 points on Sacred Heart, he told reporters: "I didn't honestly know who the opponent was, just prepared the best way I could. And I just told myself whoever was guarding me, I was going to destroy them."
Russell has kept destroying—he's averaged more points in Big Ten games (20.1 PPG) than he did in nonconference play (17.7 PPG)—but now he's studying the tendencies of defenses and the guys he will match up against to get an edge.
Russell internalizes how his upcoming opponents guard ball screens or how they guard down screens set for shooters—the Buckeyes are known as one of the best screening teams in the country, and they set a lot of them for Russell. But when you demand as much attention as Russell does, there's only so much a coaching staff can do to get him good looks. He often has to create for himself.
Most scorers have go-to moves in isolation, and they go to those moves no matter what the defense does. Russell's thought process has become much more complex.
"If I'm bringing the ball up and I know I'm about to cross over, I know (by surveying the defender) if I can get this crossover move going," he says. "If a guy sits on the crossover and doesn't go for the hesitation, I might just stutter step and keep the ball and make the hesitation move instead of making a crossover move and getting my pocket picked."
This approach is very Harden-esque. No one in basketball is better at reading a defender's positioning and getting to where he wants to go than Harden.
"We used to always talk about footwork, balance," Pera said. "He's tremendous at reading the balance points of his defenders that are in front of him. That's what people don't understand. He would ball-fake, hip-fake, shoulder-fake, and at any point if he felt the guy in front of him was off-balance, he'd just blow by him. It didn't matter which way."
Russell isn't as aggressive of a driver as Harden, who averaged 6.6 free-throw attempts per game as an Arizona State freshman, compared to just 4.1 for Russell. Russell takes only 20.1 percent of his field-goal attempts at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com, but he's shown the ability to be able to get there when he wants.
A Western Conference scout told B/R that Russell doesn't have "out-of-this-world athleticism," but he can still get by defenders because he "changes direction so easily with the ball and has such a tight handle." At this point, however, Russell is more prone to opt for a jumper than get to the basket.
But when you see Russell navigating his way through traffic in the open floor, that's when it's like you're watching Harden.
"(Russell's) got a good pace to him, and I think he's got great vision, and I think those two things are comparable no doubt," Pera says.
"The kid sees the floor at an outstanding rate, plays the game at a pace where I don't think people rush him into mistakes, and if you're able to do that and play in your mind at your own speed while everyone else is running around like crazy and you have everything be that slow to you, you're a really good player."
Just like Curry...
"Welcome to the Big Ten."
Those were the words that Minnesota guard Andre Hollins said to Russell—or, at least, the part of the trash talk Russell was willing to share—right before his third Big Ten game.
"We've played all these games, and nobody's said anything to me yet," Russell said. "And he said something to me, and I was just like, 'All right.'"
Russell proceeded to drop 25 points on Hollins in the first half that night, and if you go back and watch the tape, you'll see him smiling. A lot.
"Because I was thinking, 'Are you kidding me? Really?'" Russell recalls. "There was a couple possessions where he was leaving me open like letting me score, and I was like, 'Man, you shouldn't have done that.'"
Russell is not a big trash-talker on the floor, but his body language delivers plenty of messages.
"I've seen him at shootaround, and he exudes confidence," the Western Conference scout said. "It's borderline cocky. But when the ball is tipped and he gets on the court, he backs it up."
D'Angelo's dad laughs when asked about his son's swagger.
"That's a Russell thing," he says. "We're all very confident."
This is where the comparison to Curry starts. To take and make some of the shots that Curry takes and makes, you have to be confident, right? Curry made headlines this past summer when he told Dan Patrick that he was a better offensive player than LeBron James.
Appalachian State coach Jim Fox, who was an assistant at Davidson for Curry's teams, remembers back to the first game Curry ever played in college.
Curry always wanted to make home run plays—and he believed he could make those plays—but the Davidson staff had to bottle that up some when he came out and had 13 turnovers in his debut.
"We showed him on film, and Steph always wanted to be Brett Favre a little bit, and he's still a little like that now," Fox said. "But he took it to heart that, when he turned the ball over, we don't get a shot, and our offense is pretty darn good, and it hurts us. So he really took that to heart."
In Curry's second collegiate game the following day, he had just three turnovers against Michigan and scored 32 points.
"He's the most incredible guy with the next-play mentality," Fox said. "He can come down the floor and miss three shots in a row. Let me tell you something, if you think he's hesitating to take the fourth, you're nuts."
The ability to mess up and move on was apparent at the beginning of this season for Russell, too. In his second game, he had only six points against seven turnovers against Marquette. The next time out, he scored 32 and had just two turnovers.
Russell's belief in his ability is obvious when he's asked if anyone can stop him.
"Heck no. No, not at all," he said. "They may get lucky if it's not my night, but I wouldn't say anybody is up to that task."
Russell was then asked what the scouting report on him would be if he was giving it: "I would probably say try to rip my jersey and pray to God that my shots don't fall and I'm not able to take control of the game."
No one ever ripped Curry's jersey in college, but Fox says opposing defenders tried everything from trash talk to beating "the crap out of him" to holding his jersey.
In the NIT in 2008, Loyola even tried a Triangle-and-2, and they put "the 2" on Curry. As Davidson's coaches tried to design ways to get him the ball, Curry came to the sideline to tell his coaches he was just going to stand in the corner and let his teammates "dice 'em up."
"Steph was so confident, he said, 'you know what, I'm just going to stand over in the corner and talk to you two guys, and my teammates are going to beat you by 50,'" Fox remembers.
Davidson won by 30, and Curry did not score a point.
It takes a defense that drastic to keep Curry or Russell from getting their looks, because they both share a special trait in the ability to shoot off the dribble.
"There's very few guys that can take it off the bounce and get it off as quickly and accurately as D'Angelo and Steph," the Eastern Conference scout said.
"If you make the wrong play for a nanosecond, Steph's getting his shot off, man," Fox said. "He's getting his shot off."
That's the part of Russell's game that has allowed him to score so consistently this season. If a defender goes under a screen or gives him any kind of space, a shot is going up.
Only 37.9 percent of his baskets have been assisted this season, according to Hoop-Math.com, so a majority of his shots are his own creation.
"(Russell) doesn't need a ball screen to get past his guy," the Western Conference scout said. "He can just shake guys one-on-one. How many guys can really do that anymore? Not many. He can really do that."
Ellis Myles, Russell’s former AAU coach, is on the phone, and he’s trying to come up with a comparison for the freshman star. The names of Curry or Harden have not come up yet, but those are the first two suggestions he throws out.
He’s then told about the offensive rating stat that ties the three players together.
“I was just throwing those two guys out as a comparison,” Myles says, laughing. “Wow.”
Comparisons to great players are usually never fair and sometimes forced, but NBA people pay a lot more attention to advanced statistics these days.
That’s why it helps Russell that not only is he in an exclusive statistical club with Harden and Curry but also what those guys have become is working in his favor.
The consensus since this season started has been that Duke big man Jahlil Okafor would be the No. 1 pick in June. It’s still what most believe. He’s a once-in-a-generation talent as a back-to-the-basket scorer.
But it’s Russell, not Okafor, whom the Western Conference scout says he believes is the surest bet to become an All-Star. And if you want an idea of how special Russell has been or what NBA people are starting to believe he can be, it’s this: The No. 1 pick isn’t as clear-cut as it once was.
“To me, if we have the No. 1 pick,” the scout said, “he's a hard guy to pass up on.”
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @CJMooreBR.