LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers had several sensible reasons to select D’Angelo Russell with the second overall pick in last June’s draft. One being that the road to success no longer travels through the post, and the most successful NBA franchises are now stocked with playmakers who comfortably create offense for themselves and others.
Spacing is more important than ever too. Half-court offenses must navigate through dense forests that are packed with the longest (and fastest) trees the sport has ever seen. It's a bit easier said than done, but the best way to unclog a crowd is with three-point shooting so potent that help defenders wouldn’t dare leave it alone.
Forget about his brilliant vision and latitudinal control; Russell’s outside shot—he nailed 41.1 percent of his threes in college, on 6.6 attempts per game—is enough to seduce any talent evaluator trying to build a successful team.
The mechanics are an aesthetic delight, capped by a release that’s quicker than water from a faucet. Envisioning him as a nightly threat from deep was so easy; Russell could space the floor when he didn’t have the ball, and strike directly off the dribble.
But early on, things didn’t materialize as many thought they would. Stuck below an exceptionally harsh magnifying glass that’s only reserved for lottery picks hand-selected by one of the sport’s most recognizable brand names, Russell struggled. In the early going, his aggression was reserved for mid-range pull-ups out of the pick-and-roll (the very shot most opponents allow by design), and his allergic reaction to the paint was worrisome. Both troubled Lakers fans, but neither was worth more concern than his faulty outside shot.
One of Russell’s greatest strengths was reduced to a weakness; the court’s outer edge was, suddenly and surprisingly, beyond his comfort zone. Through his first 10 games, Russell made only 30.8 percent of his threes despite just under 75 percent of them being uncontested, per SportVU. It’s obviously a small sample size, but Russell’s inability to knock down open shots played a (relatively minuscule) role in Los Angeles’ overall tribulation.
For this and other issues, Lakers head coach Byron Scott responded by benching the franchise’s most prized asset in numerous late-game scenarios before removing him from the starting lineup altogether.
It was all very alarming and fueled borderline-irrational worry about Russell’s ceiling as an NBA prospect. Small sample size or not, if defenses don’t respect his outside shot, there’s a slim to nil chance L.A. (or anybody else) can build its future around his skill set. But recently, Russell’s started to look like the weapon he was advertised to be.
“[Lately] it’s much better,” Scott said. “The whole season? [It’s] OK. I mean, he got off to a shaky start, obviously, but his field-goal percentage and three-point percentage have improved, so hopefully that’s a good sign for us.” In his last seven games, Russell’s shooting 37.8 percent from behind the three-point line—41 percent when uncontested.
Was there any particular reason for the uptick? Did Russell’s role in the offense change? Were his struggles simply those of a teenager slowly acclimating himself to a harsher environment? The answer is simple, according to Russell. “Repetition,” he said. “Just getting reps in. Every chance. After practice, early, before shootaround. All that.”
The 19-year-old’s response was clipped, like he knew what to say before the question was even asked. Players go through slumps, and perhaps that’s all this was. Or maybe the conditions around Russell really did affect his output. He needed to adjust from what life was like as an Ohio State freshman, and, slowly but surely, he did.
“I think he can be a 40 percent three-point shooter,” Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals told Bleacher Report. “It’ll be a matter of just getting the repetition, getting a feel for the offense, where his shots are going to come from.
"You know sometimes, watching the Lakers, their offense is pretty complex, and sometimes the shots, whether it’s lack of ball movement or, you know, quick shots, sometimes you’re not in a rhythm. And I think the longer he goes the more comfortable he’ll be and the more shots he’ll make.”
The work that goes into cementing consistent form has never been an issue for Russell. After poor shooting practices in college, he’d spend 30 to 60 minutes afterward working on it. Shot after shot after shot.
“He worked on his pull-ups, he worked on his catch-and-shoot threes, he worked on his drives to the basket,” Boals said. “The kid is one of the hardest workers we’ve had here.”
According to Lakers assistant coach Larry Lewis, that work ethic has carried over into the NBA, and the first few weeks of his career were more of a physical adjustment than anything else.
“This is not an easy transition for anyone in his position, so he just needed some strength in the legs and his body,” Lewis said. “You’re not going to shoot [threes] the same as you would from 15 feet. The ball has to get there with accuracy, and sometimes the vision of that shot, being a little further away, some kids are intimidated by that and they change things in their body and in their shot and follow-through.”
Mechanically, Russell was OK, but with regard to improving his three-point shot, L.A.’s coaches still wanted him to work on his conditioning. It's a challenge the rookie gladly accepted. “He’s taken it seriously. The stronger he gets in the weight room, the more body control he has,” Lewis said. “The stronger his base is, the better off he’ll be, especially when he’s fatigued. That’s really what we focus on: shooting when we’re tired. It’s different than just shooting nice and relaxed, but fatigued shooting is where a player improves for game situations, in my opinion.”
The Lakers offense is currently ranked 28th. There’s very little ball movement, and it isolates more frequently than any other team in the league, per Synergy Sports. This can potentially throw a young player off course; it’s draining to scamper away from the action, in a ready position, and not get the ball:
Of course, not all of Russell’s early-season struggle was any one individual’s fault. But the blame game is besides the point; shooters who don’t demand respect lead to an offense that can’t survive—on the year, the Lakers are never more efficient than when their franchise point guard is on the bench, per NBA.com.
There are numerous variables that go into why that is, but an important one is the absence of fear opposing guards feel when they abandon Russell.
In this second example, Julius Randle is just as much of a culprit as Russell. Both of their men are in the paint while Jordan Clarkson and Roy Hibbert try to run a pick-and-roll, and it crushes Los Angeles' spacing.
Breaking a reputation is so tough once it hardens, but it's way too early for that to happen with Russell. Before a Dec. 15 win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Jason Kidd was more than aware of how the Lakers guard was recently shooting.
“He’s a young player, has a lot of skill, and you can see he puts a lot of pressure on the defense,” the Bucks head coach said. “One by passing the ball, two by being able to stretch the defense by shooting the ball. So, for a young player, he’s playing at a very high level.”
To reach his full potential, Russell must be able to attack from all over the court, but particularly behind the three-point line. Point guards who lack true marksmanship instead rely on a surreal combination of speed and athleticism Russell might not have. But after a slow start beyond the arc, he appears headed in the right direction.
"I don't think there's any limit to the type of shooter he can be," Lewis said. "And when I say that I mean as a spot-up shooter and off the dribble...I don’t think anyone’s seen him shoot the way we will see him shoot."
It’s a positive development for an organization that desperately needs one.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.