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June 09, 2015

What I like, what I don’t like: D’Angelo Russell

Many are predicting that the Sixers will land the Ohio State point guard

Besides the Eagles and literally everything they do (while we’re on the subject, Philadelphia’s first and foremost punting expert has officially weighed in that Kip Smith has no chance to unseat Donnie Football), D’Angelo Russell is the talk of Philadelphia sports right now.

I’ve written this multiple times before, but Russell is to June 2015 as Andrew Wiggins was to June 2014. At this time last year, everyone and their mother (well, if their mother cares about the Sixers) thought Wiggins was ticketed for Philly after Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker went to Cleveland and Milwaukee, respectively. Heck, Brett Brown has admitted multiple times that scenario is what he was expecting. There were reports that of the three possible landing spots, Wiggins’ camp preferred Philadelphia. He liked us! He really liked us!

As you know, some stuff happened. First, Embiid broke a bone in his foot, fell to the Sixers, and started tweeting up a storm. Wiggins was selected by the Cavs, but almost immediately got shipped to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Love when LeBron James decided to change the landscape of the league.

While there are many factors at play that can change the draft’s complexion, the turn of events doesn’t mean the Wiggins hype was misplaced. If JoJo never gets hurt, there’s a good chance ol’ Ender is the second consecutive Sixer to win Rookie of the Year. To further prove my point about Russell, I decided to go with the 100 percent foolproof method of typing his name into Google and seeing the autocomplete chips fall where they may:


See? It’s science! Last year, everyone was fairly confident that Wiggins would be the guy if he were still on the board when the Sixers picked. With Sam Hinkie and co. sitting at number three again, my guess as of today is that Russell will be the selection. I’m much less confident, though.

What I like

     • You don’t have to watch the whole thing, but check out this one play:

     • From a schematic standpoint, that ultra-specific situation is Russell’s appeal in a nutshell, the exact same type that Steph Curry has when Delly isn’t locking him up and throwing away the key. Let’s assume that Embiid is healthy and turns out to be the skilled and athletic terror he showed major flashes of becoming at Kansas. 

Imagine trying to defend these two running the high pick-and-roll together. You could switch, but then you’re at risk of Russell taking a big off the dribble, or worse, Embiid with “a mouse in the house” on the block. You could trap Russell, but then Embiid is open at the foul line (a shot he can hit) playing 4-on-3 against the defense. You could go over the screen, but then Russell has a running start at the basket and his creative passing becomes a major factor. 

The best way to stay attached to Embiid and keep the ball-handler in front at the same time is to go under the screen. The ability to make 3s off the dribble is such a big deal in the modern NBA because it’s the only way to combat that type of defense (and a major reason MCW finds himself in Sconnie). Fortunately, that’s Russell’s specialty. He makes 3s off the dribble, and he makes them from very deep. For a point guard, this type of shooting is equivalent to a 97-mph fastball.

• Before we get any further, the Curry comparison is only proposed in that both players possess similar strengths. For instance, Damian Lillard has proven that you don’t have to be otherworldly shooting off the dribble to be an all star-caliber offensive player. Very good to excellent also suffices in this category. 

     • Most of the analytics models available to the public really like Russell, but not just because of his shooting. Averaging a well-rounded 19-5-5 and keeping the efficiency at a pretty high level while carrying a major offensive burden as a 19-year-old freshman will do that for you. 

     • I’ll go against the grain a little bit and say that his defense doesn’t bother me all that much. He’ll never be great on that end of the floor, but his excellent size for the position (6’5”, 6'9.75” wingspan) and willingness to buy into a defensive system should allow him to become adequate. If Russell can funnel drivers into the pterodactyls Hinkie is acquiring on the back line, that’s all the Sixers will really be asking of him.

What I don’t like

     • The drop in production against better competition is definitely something you have to look at. He was in a tough spot and often leading an overmatched squad — Ohio State was not nearly as deep in the backcourt as they were at quarterback this season — but Russell was much more ordinary against good teams than he was against the Rutgers’ and Northwestern’s of the world. Check out this from our friend Derek Bodner (via Shot Analytics): 

     • He reminds me of myself (with approximately 30,000 times more talent) in that he’s very left-hand dominant. At any level of basketball, being left-handed is an advantage. This includes the NBA, where players such as James Harden and Manu Ginobili are able to get to their left whenever they want. Those guys are all-world talents, though, something we can't say about Russell until he proves it on the NBA stage. That brings up the all-important question…

     • Is Russell quick/athletic enough to become a top-flight point guard? Chad Ford (Insider only) offered an interesting anecdote about his athleticism testing well in a workout, but it doesn’t match up with what is on his film. Look at Russell’s percentages inside the arc against Top-100 defenses from the tweet up above. Those numbers match up with what we saw when he struggled: Russell had trouble getting all the way to the rim and his below-average explosiveness made finishing a tough chore on the occasions he did get there.

     • I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. There’s definitely a world where Russell thrives in the NBA, one where his teammates are better, the spacing makes it easier for him to navigate a defense, the hand-checking rules are relaxed from the college game, and most importantly, he grows into his body as he gets older. All of those things are certainly in play with Russell. The Sixers just don’t get the benefit of seeing any of them play out at all before making a decision on him, which is why the draft is so hard.

What about the Sixers?

I think he’s going to be there at 3, but if either Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor drops, Russell is the most likely candidate to vault one of them. The Lakers, who are the anti-Hinkie in this regard (meant with no snark, it’s literally just two polar opposites), were nice enough to tweet out a picture from their dinner a few nights ago with Russell. I wonder what Mitch Kupchak had to eat at that fine Southern California establishment:

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann