This article was published by SB Nation’s Philadelphia 76ers site Liberty Ballers.
On Sunday afternoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I had the pleasure of attending the Ohio State-Michigan basketball game solely for the purpose of observing our man crush, Ohio State star freshman guard D’Angelo Russell.
After trying to bum a ticket for 15 minutes from scalpers outside the arena, I secured a ticket for $20 from a season ticket holder whose wife was away. The seats were high up behind the basket but I never had any intentions of sitting in ‘heaven.’ I confidently walked down to the lower bowl and found a seat just 16 rows up from the Ohio State bench in the corner baseline.
Russell leads all freshman in scoring averaging 19 points per game, and leads his team in scoring, rebounds, steals and minutes. He is second in the Big Ten in scoring, tied for first with 74 three-pointers made, and fourth in three-point percentage, converting at a 42.8% clip. Russell has surpassed all expectations and blown away draft prognosticators and NBA folks alike with his playmaking ability, superb passing skills and shooting touch.
I decided to take a look at the prized freshman myself and jot down a few pages of notes.
*Note that these observations are mostly from Sunday’s game, but I have weaved notes from other games into this report to paint an overall picture of Russell’s play. Using one game of data to evaluate a player would be useless (per Sam Hinkie).
- Russell’s demeanor may come across as lackadaisical or care-free. He’s very loose, calm and relaxed. 15 minutes before tip-off, he stopped shooting around and went to the Ohio State bench. For three minutes, he sprawled out with both arms around the back of two empty seats, watching the Michigan players warm-up.
- Big Sean was no Will Ferrell
- Seconds before the tip, Russell is bopping his head to Hova’s ‘U Don’t Know.’ Is he ready to play a game, or attend a rap concert?
- Michigan 6-foot-4 freshman guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was tasked with defending Russell and played him for the majority of the game.
- Second possession, Russell uses a screen to create separation for a foul-line jumper. Watch as he dips his shoulder and makes contact with his teammate as he comes off the pick. This forces the defender to trail and creates separation for a good look.
- According to the venerable Hoop-Math.com, Russell shoots 39.5 % on two-point jump shots.
- Defensively, he gets caught on screens too often and doesn’t always fight hard enough. I saw him get stuck on at least three screens on Sunday.
- At six-foot-five and 180 pounds, he has room to add muscle as he develops. He must get stronger to help him fight through the physical grind of the NBA.
- Later in the first half, he again was stuck on a screen and this time banged his knee.
- Russell routinely settles for floaters and pull-ups instead of taking an extra dribble to finish at the rim. This has been a valid criticism of him all season and it was evident again in this game. He’s extremely comfortable shooting off the bounce and it’s not that he can’t make these shots. You’d just like to see him attack more often especially when he has the advantage.
- He’s dangerous in transition because of his scary dual threat ability to score for himself or create easy looks for his teammates. Always pushes the ball up the court.
- Almost exclusively uses his left hand to finish around the basket, no matter which side of the floor he is on.
- Encouraged his teammates after their slow start. A leader on the court. Multiple times I watched him direct the offense when he was standing on the wing without the ball. Russell mentioned his thought process after the game: “I’m not considering myself as a freshman anymore. I’m trying to consider myself as a senior or an upperclassman that people can look up to.”
- Was unable to turn the corner on the Michigan big on a screen and settled for a hotly contested three over two defenders. Russell like most great shooters, is sometimes overly confident in his ability to make difficult shots. Michigan head coach John Beilein talked postgame about forcing Russell to go side-to-side: “He’s got that extra gear that I think you’ll see when he’s going north-south you don’t see it east-west, we’re going to get that east-west out of him.”
- He is silky smooth, everything looks natural and easy for him. You’ll hear this countless times as the draft process nears.
- Scans the court immediately off the outlet pass and looks to throw the ball ahead or push the pace himself. Great arm extension on his passes, which allows him to snap passes on a rope with maximum velocity.
- Nice stutter-step and crossover in the lane in transition to draw the foul. Smart play attacking the smaller Spike Albrecht. This is what you will see from Russell. He won’t blow you away with athleticism, but rather slice the defense with smarts and skills. He is adept at changing speeds.
- Seems to understand defensive principles. He was usually well-positioned with his help defense and kept an eye on the ball and his man, though he was a split-second late on a few rotations as is to be expected. He’s susceptible to losing his assignment or getting beat back-door because he ball watches.
- His one-on-one defense wasn’t tested too often but he displayed good effort and lateral quickness. Cut off two baseline drives by staying in front of the ball with his long frame. From watching other games, his effort is inconsistent on this end. He often does not get low enough in his defensive stance, which has resulted in him getting blown by.
- Ohio State trailed 39-23 at the break. Russell’s first half box score stats were not pretty: 3 points, 1-4 FG, 0-1 3FG, 1-2 FT, 2 REB, 0 AST, 2 TO, 2 PF.
- He needs to be far more aggressive taking the ball to the paint in the second half.
- Halftime entertainment was a performance painter. He painted a portrait of the immortal Nik Stauskas in about ten minutes, slightly longer than the amount of time the Sacramento Kings and their crazy owner Vivek Ranadivé liked the sharp shooter before looking to ship him out out of town.
- Russell was loose with the ball too often in this game
- Showed off his athleticism by skying for a weak-side stuff at the tin, then pulled up and banged a three in transition. Not a bad sequence.
- Does not get great elevation on his jump-shot, but does have a high release point, which allows him to shoot over the outstretched arms of defenders. He doesn’t have any wasted motion on his shot and sports a quick release.
- Drove right and settled for a difficult floater that missed badly instead of taking an extra dribble and finishing at the cup. Beilein said the game plan was to make Russell take difficult shots:
“We wanted to load up (on Russell). No shot is a bad shot because he’s such a talented player. We got hit by what we call ‘sleepers’ twice, where ‘he’s not going to really shoot it?’ And it’s in. Tried to make him make some plays, and I believe he had a couple of turnovers doing that. Make him make tough shots, try to take the three away as well. Make him make tough twos.”
- Per Hoop-Math, one of five shots by Russell are taken at the rim and he finishes at a 66.7% rate. Displays a soft touch to finish his drives.
- His 4.6 FTA per 40 minutes pace adjusted ranks 53rd out of 81 qualified players in Draft Express’ Top 100.
- Raced up the court and settled for a contested jumper a foot inside-the-arc with 30 seconds left on the shot clock. It seemed like he tried to get his team back into the game all at once. He was rushed.
- Russell was charged with a turnover on a pick-and-roll because his teammate did not realize he was wide open for a layup as Russell drove the lane. Russell’s exceptional vision allows him to see openings his teammates sometimes don’t, which occasionally results in miscommunication. He sees passing lanes before they open.
- Deft passer out of the pick-and-roll. Excellent at looking away from his intended target, which catches the defense off-guard. Uses his length to see over the defense. Nice job here of continuing to attack the help defender and forcing him to play the ball, leading to an open roll man. Watch how patient Russell is as he waits for his big man. He gives a subtle look towards his teammate popping out to the three-point line, before tossing a pin-point pass between three defenders.
- Playing the point with starting PG Shannon Scott in foul trouble, Russell scored eight straight points to help slash a 17-point lead to three. He converted an And-1 layup after rejecting the screen in the pick-and-roll, then splashed a trey when Michigan was not aggressive defending this ball screen. Look at Albrecht’s reaction in front of Russell. He knows he did not close out hard enough and give a good contest.
- Another layup for Russell off the pick-and-roll as he sped around the big who had hedged. Routinely dips his shoulder to get lower than his defender on drives.
- Michigan lacks any interior defensive threats so it was frustrating to see Russell wait until the second half to attack the paint consistently.
- Has a post-up game against smaller guards, but we did not see that against Michigan. That’s a tool he can continue to develop at the next level.
- Excellent defensive effort on this sequence a few minutes later. Denied the ball, then navigated two screens and showed good lateral quickness to stay in front of the ball-handler. Rebounded the miss, kept his head up and fired a pass ahead to an open teammate sprinting to the rim. Typical unselfishness and vision from the freshman guard.
- As the in-bounds player, recognized the defender had his back to the rim and threw a lob to his teammate for an easy layup.
- Front-rimmed a crucial one-and-one free throw with 2:13 to play.
- Careless with the ball and stripped by Albrecht while crossing mid-court with a minute to play down by eight.
- Russell’s final stat line: 36 MINS, 16 PTS, 6-15 FG, 2-6 3PT, 2-4 FT, 5 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 5 TO.
Even on an off night, Russell’s talent still shone through. Although he rushed into contested shots early in the shot clock, turned the ball over five times, and was not aggressive enough in going to the paint until the Buckeyes were desperate, he still made a handful of ‘whoa’ plays. He spearheaded a 14-0 run to bring his team back into the game.
He only racked up two assists in this contest, but we saw glimpses of his rare court vision and his feel for the game was apparent. Though he starts at the two, he looks comfortable running the offense and was the primary ball-handler during the Buckeyes’ second half comeback. He was sloppy and needs to tighten his handle, but I think he could make the transition to point guard in the NBA. His size would be an asset at that spot and he certainly has the passing skills required.
His ability to shoot and create for himself with his handle off the dribble reminds me of a young Steph Curry. I’m not saying he is as good a shooter as Curry because nobody is. But they are both smooth, skillful athletes. Russell has made numerous defenders look silly this season, including this clutch crossover into a pull-up three against Northwestern. And how about this crossover combination before stopping on a dime to wet a J over Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine. That is an advanced move at any stage of the sport and especially impressive for a freshman who just turned 19 on Monday.
He also resembles James Harden as a long, smooth, sweet-stroking southpaw. Yet Harden weighed 220 pounds at the NBA Draft Combine and was much more of an attacking guard (he averaged 8.5 FTA per 40 MIN pace adjusted as a frosh at Arizona State). As a freshman, Russell is a better passer than Curry and Harden were at this age, though both have developed into excellent playmakers in the NBA. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton also mentioned that he’s heard Manu Ginobili as a comparable player. All three comparisons succeed on the ball and off the ball, similar to Russell.
It’s easy to see why this diaper dandy is nearly a lock at this point to be a top-five pick, assuming he declares for the draft. He is far from a finished product, but oozes talent and seemingly can do it all offensively. His defensive effort leaves something to be desired, but when he exudes consistent energy he can lock all windows and doors. He may never make a NBA All-Defense team and he will be challenged early in his career by the dynamic athletes at guard. Yet I don’t think he will be a sieve on that end.
Russell would fit extremely well with any team because he can play both guard spots, but would ostensibly be a perfect fit with the 76ers pace and space system. His size, playmaking in transition and in the pick-and-roll, and deadly stroke from long range would be a tremendous fit around a healthy and potentially dominate Joel Embiid.
Wherever this talented Louisville native ends up, he will be fascinating to follow and a joy to watch; especially if he ends up in red, white and blue–or whatever uniform combo Josh Harris is cooking up.