NBA Rookie Progress Meter: D'Angelo Russell Thriving in Return to Starting 5

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterMarch 5, 2016

Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell celebrates after hitting a 3-point shot during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 107-101. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

March can be a tricky time for NBA rookies.

On the one hand, they're grinding through the dog days of the league's 82-game schedule, doing their darndest to avoid the proverbial rookie wall—assuming they haven't already crashed into it. On the other hand, for the recent collegians out there, the approach of the NCAA tournament must be bittersweet, what with all the excitement of March Madness and nostalgia for the pomp and circumstance that surrounds it (overseas rookies aside).

You could understand, then, if some first-years were to lose focus from time to time. Then again, between playoff pushes for those on competitive clubs and bigger minutes for those headed to the lottery, there's plenty to occupy everyone's full attention and effort.

And that's before factoring in the climb up our rookie ladder, which has shifted considerably since our last update.

Speaking of which, here's a look at how the top 15 picks from the 2015 NBA draft are faring as the campaign approaches its stretch run.

Totally Lost

Frank Kaminsky, C, No. 9 Pick, Charlotte Hornets

Feb 24, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov (20) defends Charlotte Hornets center Frank Kaminsky III (44) during the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Frank Kaminsky has been playing consistently for the Charlotte Hornets, but he's still searching for the range on his jumper. Since our last edition on Feb. 5, the reigning College Player of the Year has shot just 36.7 percent, including 29 percent of his three-point attempts.

That doesn't mean Frank the Tank has forgotten how to shoot or that he's abandoned the playmaking skills that set him apart from so many of his fellow 7-footers. Rather, the Wisconsin grad has to continue to adapt his game to fit the stiffer competition and more complex schemes he's facing night in and night out in the NBA.

As Kaminsky told Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin:

I'm comfortable with it. That's what I did in college. I was able to put the ball on the floor, make plays. In situations like that, I just try to set screens for guys, create action to help. Defenses are different. The way an NBA team rotates, there's a lot more traps off ball screens, things like that. So when I catch the ball and I see someone coming at me, that obviously means the next person's open. I just try to make the right play.

Cameron Payne, PG, No. 14 Pick, Oklahoma City Thunder

The trade deadline can be a cruel mistress for NBA youngsters on title contenders. Just ask Cameron Payne.

Before the All-Star break, Payne was getting quality minutes as Russell Westbrook's backup for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Once the regular season resumed, the rookie out of Murray State found himself buried on the depth chart behind Randy Foye, whom the Thunder acquired from the Denver Nuggets.

Since then, Payne has racked up three DNPs and averaged a paltry 6.3 minutes per game across five appearances. By the looks of it, he may have to watch OKC's playoff push from the pine and wait for his time to come again next season.

Kelly Oubre Jr., SF, No. 15 Pick, Washington Wizards

The trade deadline didn't do too much to change Kelly Oubre Jr.'s circumstances. He'd hardly played for the Washington Wizards from late January onward and has only seen his minutes evaporate since the front office brought Markieff Morris aboard and Alan Anderson made his season debut.

In Washington's first nine games after the All-Star break, Oubre notched four DNPs and garnered fewer than 25 minutes combined in the other five.

Like Payne in OKC, Oubre will probably be observing the rest of the Wizards' pursuit of a postseason berth from a comfortable seat at the end of the bench.

Glimmers of Hope

Mario Hezonja, SF, No. 5 Pick, Orlando Magic

Willie J. Allen/Associated Press

Evan Fournier's wrist injury afforded Mario Hezonja a three-game window to strut his stuff for the Orlando Magic.

And strut his stuff he did. Though he struggled (two points on 1-of-6 shooting) during a loss in Dallas, the Croatian import poured in 13 points during a win over the Philadelphia 76ers prior to that and exploded for a career-high 21 points to help the Magic beat the Chicago Bulls after.

Hezonja showed off an impressive offensive arsenal against Chicago, including his ability to drain jumpers from well behind the three-point line.

As Magic.com's Josh Cohen revealed, Hezonja puts plenty of effort into extending his range:

With guys like Steph Curry changing the way the game is played, there will be added value to players who can make shots well beyond the 3-point line. Hezonja has made and taken more shots from 25-29 feet out than he has 20-24 feet out. He practices long distance shots regularly during his workouts (like Curry does).

In time, he could become the marksman the Magic need to open up the floor for Nikola Vucevic's post-ups and drives by non-threatening shooters like Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon.

Willie Cauley-Stein, C, No. 6 Pick, Sacramento Kings

No matter what he does, Willie Cauley-Stein can't seem to keep his minutes from slipping away.

After averaging 8.2 points and 6.6 rebounds across 15 straight starts for the Sacramento Kings between January and February, the Kentucky product was demoted back to the bench. He responded by chipping in 10.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.7 combined blocks and steals in those first three games as a reserve.

Since then, his playing time has continued to dwindle, despite dunking all over Zach Randolph.

SB Nation's Tony Xypteras wondered if Cauley-Stein's disappearance has had anything to do with George Karl's desire to win now rather than develop his team's young talent for the future:

This speaks to the long-term dangers of employing a short-term coach. I think Willie Cauley-Stein is a better player than Quincy Acy right now, but a coach with a little more job security might be willing to put more faith in a rookie with the season on the line, realizing it will be better for the organization long-term.

Not that Karl should care. With all of the drama behind the curtains in Sacramento, the coach may soon be kicked to the curb if the Kings don't make the playoffs, regardless of how often Cauley-Stein sees the floor.

Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, No. 7 Pick, Denver Nuggets

The Mile High roller-coaster ride continues for Emmanuel Mudiay. He came out with 22 points, seven assists and a 117-107 win for his Denver Nuggets while dueling with Los Angeles Lakers rookie D'Angelo Russell.

Against more veteran competition, though, Muday hasn't fared so well. He finished with 11 points (on 5-of-13 shooting) and four assists opposite Sacramento's Rajon Rondo, was held to 1-of-12 shooting by the Clippers' Chris Paul, had as many turnovers as points (four) against Dallas' Deron Williams and shot 3-of-9 from the floor while matched up with Memphis' Mike Conley.

Mudiay can torch debutantes to his heart's content, but until he can hold his own against the best players at his position, he'll still be a liability for the Nuggets more often than not.

Trey Lyles, PF, No. 12 Pick, Utah Jazz

Trey Lyles had gone more than a month without playing as many as 20 minutes in a game. Then, with Trevor Booker attending to family matters in South Carolina, the Utah Jazz called on Lyles to play major minutes.

He responded by scoring 18 points—more than he had in his previous seven appearances combined—and grabbing 10 boards for his first NBA double-double, albeit in a 100-95 loss to the Boston Celtics.

"He was really aggressive," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said, per the Salt Lake Tribune's Aaron Falk. "I think, particularly for a player that they haven't seen as much of, I think that surprised them. It surprised everybody."

Booker has since returned to the rotation, but that didn't stop the Canadian from snagging 25 minutes of playing time on his home turf against the Toronto Raptors. Could this be the beginning of bigger things to come for Lyles?

Figuring It Out

Stanley Johnson, SF, No. 8 Pick, Detroit Pistons

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

These are not the best of times for the Stanimal. The rookie out of Arizona has been out of action since straining his shoulder during the Detroit Pistons' 96-88 win in Cleveland and could be sidelined for a while longer.

"He hasn't really progressed the way we would like," head coach Stan Van Gundy said, per the Detroit Free Press' Mike Brudenell. "He's feeling discomfort. There's nothing in terms of when (doctors) look in there -- there's nothing more going on—but he's not feeling comfortable. That's really where it is right now."

The Pistons will survive without Stanley Johnson just fine now that Tobias Harris has settled into the starting lineup. But the timing of the injury is unfortunate for Johnson, who had averaged 11.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists in the 12 games leading up to his exit.

Justise Winslow, SF, No. 10 Pick, Miami Heat

Justise Winslow fits the definition of a winning player as well as anyone in his draft class. He doesn't have to score or even have the ball in his hands to positively impact the Miami Heat from game to game.

Case in point: During a 98-81 win over the New York Knicks, Winslow didn't score a single point in nearly 36 minutes, but he found other ways to help—from dishing four dimes to grabbing a team-high 13 rebounds to playing a part in Carmelo Anthony's 9-of-24 shooting night. 

With Joe Johnson joining Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Luol Deng in South Beach, the Heat don't need Winslow to fill it up. So long as he devotes his energy to being a menace in every other way, Miami should be just fine with Winslow putting up donuts on the scoreboard.

Fully Arrived

Karl-Anthony Towns, C, No. 1 Pick, Minnesota Timberwolves

Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

Here's something else Karl-Anthony Towns has in common with Andrew Wiggins, aside from being a No. 1 pick who plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves: He's now been named Western Conference Rookie of the Month four times in a row, just as his teammate was last season.

And where so many rookies seem to have run into a wall by now, Towns, like Wiggins before him, has gotten stronger as the campaign has rolled on:

Towns' terrific February featured a 30-point, 15-rebound romp to help the Wolves beat the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans in New Orleans, 112-110. For Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry, Towns' dominance from the jump this season has put him on par with the Brow among the NBA's best building blocks.

"They’re on a really, really short list," Gentry said of the Kentucky tandem, per Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer. "If you’re looking around our league now—obviously with LeBron’s age, if you’re starting a franchise (now), that may be a little bit different (than several years ago)—but those two guys are two of the best players in the league right now, as a 22-year-old and a 20-year-old."

D'Angelo Russell, G, No. 2 Pick, Los Angeles Lakers

It's official: The top four picks in the 2015 NBA draft have all survived the trek through the Molasses Swamp on the way to Candy Land.

D'Angelo Russell is the last of that quartet to join the party, but he certainly isn't the least. His 39-point explosion during the Los Angeles Lakers' 107-101 win over the Brooklyn Nets set the high-water mark for all rookies this season—not to mention for every newbie who's suited up for this squad since it fled Minneapolis in 1960.

Well, in the regular season, anyway. Magic Johnson's 42-point virtuoso in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals still stands as the best of any L.A. Lakers rookie regardless of time and place.

Russell still has a looooooong way to go before he can so much as sniff Magic in Lakers lore. But the 20-year-old out of Ohio State is starting to look like the franchise cornerstone for which he was pegged during predraft workouts. Since Byron Scott stuck Russell back into the starting lineup on Feb. 21, the Louisville native has poured in 21.8 points and five assists while draining 52.3 percent of his field goals, including a scorching 55.3 percent of his threes.

While Russell is still a work in progress defensively, he's figuring out how to compensate for his lack of elite quickness and athleticism by changing speeds like a veteran. ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote: "A lot of guys can go from zero to 60. Not that many can go from zero to 45 to 10 and amp it up to max acceleration in the span of a few seconds. Keep calling this dude a bust, though."

Jahlil Okafor, C, No. 3 Pick, Philadelphia 76ers

On paper, Jahlil Okafor seems to have plenty of gas in the tank to sustain him through his first 82-game grind. Since Feb. 6, the skilled center out of Duke has averaged 20.4 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.4 blocks in 29 minutes a night.

Dig deeper, though, and you'll see the Philadelphia 76ers' prized rookie running into walls game after game, just as the Philadelphia Daily News' Marcus Hayes has:

The thing is, since the team returned from the All-Star break, Okafor looks like he's hitting a wall of bricks halfway through every third period.

Hitting it with his head, backing up, and hitting it again.

Regardless of the pace of the game, he labors up and down the court after five or six minutes have elapsed in the second half.

The stats support Hayes' observations:

In the long run, Okafor will be fine...so long as the Sixers start winning at some point down the line.

Kristaps Porzingis, PF/C, No. 4 Pick, New York Knicks

All of the negative attention heading Carmelo Anthony's way in New York has obscured the plateau in Kristaps Porzingis' game. Since the start of February, his numbers have pretty much been on par with his season averages.

That's not a bad thing for Porzingis. He's still liable to erupt for 20 points here and there, as he did against Denver, Washington and Indiana in February.

The greater concern for the Zinger might come beyond the NBA hardwood. While the New York Knicks' gifted rookie gave ESPN's Darren Rovell the business on the one hand...

...he couldn't stop a teenager from schooling him on the other.

Myles Turner, C, No. 11 Pick, Indiana Pacers

Myles Turner now has the credentials to prove he's "made it" in the NBA. The Indiana Pacers center was named the Eastern Conference's Rookie of the Month for February after averaging 13.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 13 games.

The highlight of Turner's month came right away, when he denied LeBron James at the rim, albeit in a five-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"All my friends and family back home were saying, 'Oh my god! You just blocked LeBron James!' And to see it blow up on social media was cool," Turner told ESPNNewYork.com Mike Mazzeo.

Chances are, Turner will have many more moments like that as he develops into a star for the Pacers in the years to come.

Devin Booker, SG, No. 13 Pick, Phoenix Suns

With his baby face and smooth shooting stroke, Devin Booker is making friends and gaining fans all over the NBA.

The latest to praise the NBA's youngest player? Fellow shooting guard (and future Hall of Famer) Dwyane Wade.

"I was impressed with him the first time we played him, and I'm very impressed tonight," Wade said, per ESPN's Michael Wallace. "When you've got a young guy going through a tough season like that, he's just out there having fun. He's out there getting better, and he's one of the future [top] 2-guards in this league."

Wade had plenty of reason to praise the Kentucky product. Booker had just lit up the Heat for a career-high 34 points on 11-of-21 shooting (3-of-7 from the field, 9-of-9 from the free-throw line) in the Phoenix Suns' 108-92 loss.

As disastrous as the 2015-16 season has been for the Suns, they can at least take comfort in knowing they nailed the No. 13 pick in last year's draft. Then again, Phoenix's front office may soon have to confront the uncomfortable possibility of moving either Brandon Knight or Eric Bledsoe if the team is going to feature Booker going forward.

All stats accurate entering games on March 4, 2016.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@JoshMartinNBA)Instagram and Facebook.


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