It's no secret that D'Angelo Russell of the Los Angeles Lakers struggled at Las Vegas Summer League. Despite his 11.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, Los Angeles stumbled to a 1-4 record.
More alarming, however, was Russell's penchant for coughing up the ball—he turned the ball over on 27.4 percent of his possessions, according to Synergy Sports, the sixth-highest rate among all players across all 2015 NBA Summer Leagues (minimum 50 possessions used ending in a field-goal attempt, drawn foul or turnover).
However, there's context here that cannot be ignored. Starting in the backcourt with Jordan Clarkson, Russell faced a looming pressure to make plays with his touches. Clarkson, for all the promise he showed as a rookie last season, wasn't in a particularly ball-sharing mood.
Russell is also a rookie in the truest sense of the word; he only played one year of college basketball, and Las Vegas Summer League was his first venture on the professional level.
And then there's the inordinate amount of pressure he's facing. Not only was he the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft, but he was taken by one of the most historic franchises in league history that is looking for its next great player. Not to mention that he was taken ahead of Jahlil Okafor, a controversial decision in its own right.
Lakers head coach Byron Scott understands that his development is a process that will take time, according to the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus:
Let's make this very clear, Russell is not Magic Johnson. Magic came on the scene, and instantly he's a Hall-of-Famer. D'Angelo has a way to go, there's no doubt about that.
Sometimes when you come out here and you're the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 pick, you expect to come out here and tear the league up. When guys kind of eat your lunch every now in then, it brings you back down to earth and lets you know that you still have a long way to go. In the long run, this might be the best thing that ever happened to him.
No one expected stardom from the jump, but no one expected a turnover machine either. Reading into summer league stats in any meaningful capacity is a fruitless exercise, but 5.2 turnovers per game is more than a minor blip on the radar.
So, what do we make of these numbers then? Turnovers as a statistic can be broken down into several subcategories, most of which depend on the prism through which they are analyzed. Live-ball turnovers—turnovers in which the opposing team gains possession without a stoppage in play—are inherently more dangerous because they can lead to transition opportunities.
This is opposed to dead-ball turnovers—when the ball must be taken out of bounds, therefore initiating half-court offense against a set defense—which include offensive charges, traveling violations and moving screens.
Controlling turnovers in this stylistic manner is obviously impossible. What can be monitored and altered is the manner in which turnovers are committed.
If we divide the turnover statistic into "aggressive" and "passive," we can shed a bit of light on whether a player's tendency to lose possession can be corrected.
A turnover is termed as "aggressive" if it occurs while an offensive player is trying to make a play. Maybe he's driving to the rim and gets stripped; maybe he gets in deep and tries to thread the needle but the ball gets poked away. These turnovers, while harmful because they take away possession, stem from a player's ability and willingness to create points for his team.
A "passive" turnover is just the opposite: a lazy pass on the perimeter, for example, or a player who gets his pocket picked by a defender who is clearly dominating his space. Passive turnovers are generally mental mistakes or instances of defensive superiority over the offensive player.
Of Russell's 26 turnovers at summer league, 17 were aggressive. Most of those 17 derived from his passing, and, in particular, trying to fit the ball into tight spaces.
Russell's ball distribution is one of the most attractive parts of his game. His ability to both see and create passing angles is remarkably advanced for such a young player. But the consequence of this talent is being turnover prone, and part of Russell's development will be understanding when to unleash his talents.
On a recently assembled Lakers summer league team, he played with teammates that were not used to his style.
Drew Garrison over at Silver Screen and Roll addressed this problem:
[Russell] made several pinpoint passes that didn't even seem possible, only to watch his teammates fail to finish or even get more than a few fingertips on the ball. There were at least two sequences in every game that he set the table beautifully without any payoff. That should hopefully change with better talent around him, and with the Lakers getting familiar with the kinds of passes they need to be ready for.
Familiarity will certainly cure some of this. Take this play from the Lakers' matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, when Tarik Black executes a dribble handoff with Russell. Black sets a nice screen to free Russell, forcing Okafor to pick up the ball while Arsalan Kazemi rotates to quickly bump the rolling Black:
Kazemi is in a tough situation, as he has to cover both Black and Larry Nance Jr. on the perimeter. Russell recognizes this dilemma and sets his gaze on Nance. Kazemi reacts accordingly, abandoning Black to recover back to Nance.
But Russell is being tricky here, as he actually throws a no-look pass to Black. Because he's able to move Kazemi with his eyes, Black should have an easy dunk.
The only problem is that Russell's eyes fool Black as well. Black doesn't expect the pass, and it sails right by his head and out of bounds:
Over time, Russell's Lakers teammates will learn to expect a pass at any moment. It's always difficult to anticipate no-look passes in tight quarters, but you can be sure Black had his head on a swivel from that point forward.
The only drawback of such uncommon skill is its overuse. At summer league, Russell repeatedly tried to hit home runs when the simple play was the better choice.
On this transition break against the Dallas Mavericks, Russell pushes the ball up the floor at pace and under control. After beating Jeremy Tyler with a crossover to gain access to the middle of the floor, Russell finds himself bearing down on Dwight Powell and surrounded by four Mavericks:
At this point in the sequence, he only has two options: hit the cutting Clarkson or finish himself. But Clarkson isn't exactly open. Kevin Pangos realizes there's a tiny window through which Russell could slide a pass, so he lurches toward it in anticipation.
Although the pass is nearly completed, Pangos gets enough of a hand on it to knock it away:
It's hard not to love Russell's aggression and willingness to give the ball up on this play. But the smarter move would have been to either throw the ball up for a lob—as Clarkson runs the wing, we can actually see him call for one—or attack Powell and try to finish himself.
Operating at such a high rate of speed comes with its own set of advantages and challenges. The next step in Russell's evolution is to realize the consequences of his choices. More speed means less control; less control means less accuracy and hurried decision-making; hurried decision-making leads to turnovers.
If he's going to turn on the jets, he has to know that it's for his own scoring or with a predetermined plan in mind. Very few players in the league can make pinpoint passes at top gear.
Over five games in Las Vegas, Russell was rarely forced into turnovers. That he committed turnovers in this aggressive style means that he is more than capable of toning it down.
While you can never fault a player for trying to make a play, part of the learning curve for rookies is the realization that defenders are quicker, stronger and smarter. Passing windows in the NBA are smaller and close faster.
Experience will be Russell's best teacher. His outing at summer league showed flashes of his immense potential, and Lakers fans should be excited for the All-Star potential waiting to be unlocked.