When he arrived in Los Angeles as the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, the sky was the limit for D’Angelo Russell. He projected to be the perfect modern-day point guard, a sumptuous blend of three-level scoring and passing ability, with a knack for taking over games.
Two below-average seasons and an in-house teammate drama later, Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson disposed of Russell and shipped him out of Hollywood and off to Brooklyn. Johnson told ESPN he needed a leader and someone who makes his teammates better, and that Russell simply wasn’t that man.
It was tough criticism for a kid who wasn’t even old enough to legally buy himself a drink, but it inspired a change in the Ohio State product that has every member of the Lakers front office eating those words. The best players in the world are gathered in Charlotte for the NBA’s annual All-Star game, and Russell has quickly earned the right to be there alongside them.
However, in an interview with Bleacher Report’s Leo Sepkowitz, Russell shrugged off the condemnation from one of the league’s best ever point guards. Opting to focus on the respect he earns outside of front office’s.
“When the league respects you and then you have a guy like Magic coming out to say something like that, it’s like, I don’t care, I’m not playing against him,” he says. “I’m playing against my peers, and if my peers respect me, that’s all I can ask for.”
It wasn’t just a change of scenery to a lowly Brooklyn squad that sparked a positive change. The kid with the ice in his veins had to tweak and sharpen his entire game. And with that he has taken the Nets to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, holding a competent 30-29 record at the break. All while personally dropping 20.3 points and handing out 6.6 assists per game.
The makeover started with shot selection. The 22-year-old was always capable of making shots from every spot on the floor, but he entered the league with a muddled mindset of what were good shots and what was a bad shot.
He was particularly fond of mid-range jumpers, which can be the worst shot in basketball if you’re not one of the elites. Over his first two seasons, Russell simply wasn’t close to that level. In his first season, 86 players including Russell attempted over 200 mid-range jumpers for the season. Only nine players connected a lower field goal percentage than his 35.9 percent clip. The next season he improved slightly to 38.9 percent, but he still ranked 55th out of 70 players shooting long-twos at a high volume.
There was little wrong with Russell’s shot mechanics, but it was the times he chose to pull up for those mid-rangers that were driving down his percentages. Plays like the one below are the kind of things that drove Lakers fans crazy. He comes around a good screen, but instead of continuing downhill and attacking the bucket, he immediately jacks up an off-balance 20-footer that fails to even connect with rim:
Now, with those nightmarish shots in mind, he has become a much smarter player. His first season in Brooklyn he attempted the lowest amount of mid-range shots per game in his young career, despite registering his highest usage rate.
As his game as grown, his leash has been loosened. He is now shooting a career-high 3.7 mid-range shots per game, but doing so while hitting on a career-high 45.3 percent — a percentage only 14 players who shoot over three mid-rangers per night can better. Per NBA.com.
These days his mid-range buckets look something like the clip you can catch below. Instead of rushing or fading away, he picks his spot wisely. When he has navigated to the elbow, he takes his time, pump-fakes his man off his feet and calmly knocks down an easy look:
While he was learning from experience about what shots to take, it still took an initial push from Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson. following on from Bleacher Report’s Leo Sepkowitz.
“Coach was like, ‘We’re not shooting mid-range, and we’re not shooting floaters!’ And now it’s like, ‘OK, you can shoot your mid-range, you can shoot your floaters.’ That’s the trust we have, the trust we grew.”
His improved shot selection isn’t limited to his mid-range game, though. Russell has become much better at choosing which 3-point shots to take. The 7.4 long-range attempts per night are the most he has ever thrown up, but it hasn’t done anything to cut away at his efficiency. He is currently hitting on a career-best 37.2 percent of his triples so far this season.
With a very respectable 3-point shot and a polished mid-range game, containing D’Angelo Russell’s scoring prowess is hell for any defender. Within two seasons, he has molded his inefficient scoring into that of a genuinely effective star.
However, the best point guard’s in the world need to do more than just score. They need to be able to set the table and keep their teammates involved, just like Magic Johnson claimed Russell couldn’t do. This season, he has dispelled any chatter that that’s still the case.
He is averaging 6.6 assists per game for the season, and has bumped that up to 7.5 a night over the last 15 games. Russell is awesome at finding seams to sneak passes through, and has become an extremely proficient passer out of the pick-and-roll.
If you ask the big men that surround him on the Brooklyn roster, they’ll quickly tell you how often their point guard spoon feeds them easy buckets. Whether it is slipping pocket passes out of pick-and-roll, lobbing them alley-oop passes or repaying them for running in transition, Russell keeps his head up and his bigs involved:
After leaving Lakerland, Russell has truly blossomed into the all-round point guard that every team would love to have. And it makes it even more intriguing that he will be a free agent in the summer time. Whether he will get a max deal or something slightly less remains to be seen, but one thing is clear, a fresh start has given him the mulligan that his career desperately needed.
“If [the Lakers] didn’t let me go then, they were gonna let me go now, and I’d be going through what they’re going through. Best thing that happened in my career.” he told Bleacher Report.
Fortunately for us, the Lakers let him go at such a young age, and we as fans get to watch him continue to develop for the next decade.