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The Continuing D’Angelo Russell Experiment

Moving him to shooting guard gives the Lakers an interesting backcourt, but it muddles the team’s draft strategy

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

After the Lakers lost to the Cavaliers on Sunday, a transcript passed around to media said that LeBron James had labeled D’Angelo Russell “a special player.” Russell had scored a career-high 40 points with six assists, so it seemed appropriate. But a Lakers spokesperson said Monday that LeBron was actually talking about his teammate Kyrie Irving. Oops. That doesn’t make the statement any less true, though. Russell’s performance may be a preview of special things to come.

The second-year guard’s 40 points came within the flow of Luke Walton’s motion offense, particularly in high pick-and-roll sets. For instance, the Lakers ran the same set for three consecutive possessions to close out the third quarter. A disconnected Cavaliers defense couldn’t make a stop.

Russell first used a hesitation dribble, then whizzed by the defense for an open layup. One of the hardest aspects of the NBA for a young guard to learn is the pace of the game, and Russell has made strides using deception to outsmart defenses.

The Cavaliers packed the paint to force an outside jumper the next two times. Russell shoots only 31.4 percent on 3-point pull-up jumpers, per SportVU, so it was a good bet. But Russell has the upside to take on a go-to-scoring role, and he did just that, firing a 3 over the defense and then on the next play iso-ing against J.R. Smith for a pull-up triple. “It started with him knocking down shots,” Walton said of Russell, per The Orange County Register. “What was most impressive offensively to me was I know he can shoot the ball. He did a great job of mixing up.”

Russell is averaging 19.4 points and 4.8 assists with a 53.5 effective field goal percentage since the All-Star break — numbers that are virtually identical to his freshman year at Ohio State (19.3, 5.0, and 54.1). While Russell’s game might’ve been a preview of the future, it also felt like a college flashback. In my 2015 NBA Draft Guide, I wrote that Russell epitomizes what teams are looking for in a modern point guard since he fuses a point’s passing vision with the size and scoring of a 2-guard.

With versatility being his premium skill, it felt like a funny coincidence that Russell’s career night came in his first game as a “shooting guard” starting next to “point guard” Jordan Clarkson. Russell said the role adjustment made life easier. “When you’re playing shooting guard, you have to score the ball or make plays for your teammates,” Russell said. “Playing the point guard, it’s harder kind of to do that, being aggressive and trying to score the ball every time. You have to make at least one pass. I’m figuring it out.”

But the reality is that not a whole lot has changed. In today’s NBA, position designations increasingly don’t matter. They’re just semantic differences. “I’m a basketball player, not a point guard or a shooting guard,” said Russell, who still had the ball in his hands a ton and saw most of his buckets come out of the pick-and-roll. Russell can still be a playmaker when playing 2-guard in the same way that any other player does in multi-ball-handler offenses. Walton’s system pulls elements from his time as an assistant coach for the Warriors. Usually Stephen Curry ran the show, but Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Klay Thompson (and now Kevin Durant, who replaces Harrison Barnes) also could. Having multiple players who can all shoot, dribble, and pass naturally makes an offense harder to defend. That’s why Walton uses Russell similar to how the Warriors use Curry and Thompson.

Here’s Russell hitting a 3 off a “slip screen,” a play that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr describes as a “fake pick-and-roll” used to deceive the defense. This instance is defended poorly by the Cavs, but it shows how the Lakers plan to grow Russell using a diverse number of plays. He won’t just be a pick-and-roll playmaker or an off-ball shooter. They’re cultivating his scoring habits to make him a constant threat. This is especially vital to Russell’s development because he’s an average athlete with a good-not-great first step. By taking the ball out of Russell’s hands, they can let him run around screens and give it back in more dynamic positions. Here’s Russell draining a 3 off a dribble handoff, a play he scores on at a terrific 1.08-points-per-possession clip, per Synergy:

Russell sprints through the screen and sheds Irving, which gives him a wide-open shot. If he had been covered by the help defender, Tristan Thompson, then he could have driven with the goal of scoring at the rim, drawing a foul, or kicking it out to an open teammate for a 3. In Walton’s ideal world, Russell won’t be a “point guard.” He’ll be one of many playmakers. They’re developing Julius Randle into a point forward, which has had mixed results. Brandon Ingram’s passing ability will be valuable as he progresses. The Russell-Clarkson pairing showed potential on Sunday, though most of Russell’s buckets came as a ball handler.

Walton committed to the Russell-Clarkson starting backcourt moving forward “to see if we can make that chemistry between the two a normal thing.” That decision might be temporary. The Lakers could have a big choice coming up this summer in the 2017 NBA draft. If the lottery balls bounce in L.A.’s favor, the Lakers will retain their top-three-protected first-round pick (otherwise, they send their pick to the Sixers and convey their 2019 first to the Magic). If they don’t flip the pick and assets (possibly even Russell) for an established star like Paul George or Jimmy Butler, they’ll need to make a choice between the likes of Washington point guard Markelle Fultz, UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, Kansas forward Josh Jackson, and others.

All three players have skill sets that should allow them to fit on any team, but the Lakers’ roster construction has a host of issues that one player won’t solve. Jackson is a theoretical match with Ingram; the Lakers would have two versatile forwards who can switch positions and take on different roles offensively. Both players need to improve their shots, but their playmaking skills would add a new dimension to the roster. Fultz or Ball might crowd their guard depth chart, but they can also play off-ball when Russell is running point.

If LaVar Ball gets his wish and Lonzo gets drafted by the Lakers, the duo could be magic. Like Russell, Ball will benefit from playing in a system that uses him both on-ball and off-ball. Russell has good passing vision, and Ball’s is extraordinary. They’re both tall guards, so it’d be an interesting experiment. But Russell and Ball (or Fultz) would need to buy in. They’re all guards who like to have the ball in their hands, so they’d need to relinquish control. Clarkson would have to be happy being the third wheel, too.

The greatest problem of all could be defense. The Russell-Clarkson pairing has failed so far because the Lakers allow opponents to score 121.4 points per 100 possessions with the duo on the floor. Clarkson is a sieve. Russell isn’t much better. Both have poor defensive fundamentals and generally don’t show an understanding of how and when to rotate, fight over screens, or communicate.

Fultz has elite defensive potential, but his effort can wane. Ball competes but has a thin frame that could limit him against stronger guards. They are guys you want to hide on a more limited scorer. A Russell-Ball or Russell-Fultz duo could theoretically become as potent as Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but as the Portland pair has shown, offense isn’t everything. The best NBA teams generally have stout perimeter defenders on their roster, and in a league flooded with talented scoring guards, it’s important to have one who can neutralize the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. That aspect is what makes the James Harden–Patrick Beverley and Isaiah Thomas–Avery Bradley backcourt pairings so good.

Otherwise, the Lakers would need other players on the floor to pick up the slack. They don’t have that. Ingram is long and quick enough to switch screens, but he’s so thin that he’s years away from sniffing lockdown-defender status. Larry Nance Jr. is not a needle mover. Randle is still an eyesore. Ivica Zubac has made strides as a positional defender but doesn’t project as an elite rim protector or shot blocker.

The Lakers have a fundamentally flawed roster. Significant changes must be made — hiring Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka was only the start. The new front office shouldn’t feel as if their hands are tied, though. The youthful core and one of the top prospects would be an imperfect blend, but it’s still talented. That core could at least reach a level that transforms the Lakers into a more appealing destination for upcoming max-level free agents like George in 2018 or Anthony Davis in 2021. Randle, Ingram, and even Russell could also turn into assets if Magic and Pelinka decide to test the trade market.

Russell is developing into the guard the Lakers were hoping for, a versatile player who can coexist with another piece like Ball or Fultz, but it’s not enough. Bigger moves must be made for the team to reach the heights it’s aiming for.