While he entered the school year not as highly touted as some of the other members of the 2014/15 freshman class, D’Angelo Russell emerged as one of the top players in college basketball. The sky would appear to be the limit for the young player, who has shot up draft boards as quickly as anyone this season. Russell played shooting guard in college, but many pro scouts are projecting him as a point guard in the NBA, which has definitely helped increase Russell’s overall draft stock. He is currently ranked as the No. 4 prospect by both ESPN.com and DraftExpress.com, No. 3 by NBA Draft.net, and No.2 by CBSSports.com. In 35 games this season Russell averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 1.6 steals in 33.9 minutes per outing.
The 6’5″ guard was named to the AP All-America team. He also made first team All-Big Ten, and was the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year as well. Russell led his Ohio State squad to the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament, but the Buckeyes lost to No. 2 seed Arizona. He was stifled on the offensive end of the court by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, whose aggressive defense helped hold Russell to a 3-for-19 shooting night, including going just 1-for-7 from beyond the arc.
Russell is not a super athletic player, instead relying more on skill, feeling, and instincts, writes Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com. His great size for a guard, and his shooting ability, give Russell an intriguing versatility since he can be paired alongside many different styles of guards and wings, Givony opines. This should allow the team that drafts him to use Russell to exploit mismatches and for his coaches to get creative with their lineups.
Chad Ford of ESPN.com (Insider subscription required) broke down his thoughts on Russell’s offensive game, saying, “There are a number of things that Russell has done well. He has proved to be a terrific, efficient scorer despite the fact that defenses in the Big Ten keyed in on him every night as Ohio State’s only real weapon on offense. Russell took 45% of his shots from 3-point range and hit a terrific 41% . His 2-point jumpers are a little low at 40%, but his field goal percentage at the rim jumps back up to 65%. In short, he can score from anywhere on the floor.”
“There’s so much to love about his game,” an NBA GM told Ford about Russell. “Even when he has a bad game, it looks like a good one because every time the ball leaves his lands, it looks like it’s going in. He plays with such great confidence and has a terrific feel. I think he could be a James Harden-type player at the next level. That’s what kind of scorer and playmaker he could be.”
Like the majority of young players, Russell has a number of things he needs to work on in order to transition to a successful professional career. Offensively he needs to learn to attack the basket more instead of settling for long range shots. Russell also needs to improve upon his finishing ability close to the rim, and he also could stand to get to the free throw line more often. His lack of elite speed and athleticism will make this a bit of a challenge in the NBA, but Russell’s basketball IQ should help him overcome this deficiency. As a ball-handler Russell also needs to learn to be more careful, as his turnover rate of 2.9 per game is a touch high. The 6’5″ playmaker is also an effective rebounder, though he’ll need to bulk up if he wants to be a factor on the boards in the NBA.
The guard is a capable defender, though he’ll struggle at first with the bigger, faster players in the NBA. Russell doesn’t have great lateral quickness, which he’ll have to compensate for with his smarts. One big knock on Russell is that he does tend to be a touch passive on the defensive end, and the player has been known to coast and take a number of possessions off, Givony notes.
Russell’s limitations make him a player who is unlikely to be able to carry an NBA team on the offensive end his rookie season, which could place the guard in a difficult situation. He will need talent around him to best utilize his complementary skills, which isn’t something that lottery teams generally possess an abundance of. Russell isn’t a player who will be capable of turning around a franchise on his own, but he is a fantastic prospect who should continue to improve as he matures. A number of scouts have compared Russell’s upside to that of Harden and Manu Ginobili, both of whom are crafty, intelligent scorers who get by quite well in the NBA without being freakishly athletic. If Russell approaches the production level of either of those players, the team that drafts him will likely be overjoyed.
While Russell may not end up being the first guard selected in June’s draft, he’s a lock to be taken amongst the top five picks. His main competition is Emmanuel Mudiay, who is ranked No. 3 overall by both Givony and Ford. Mudiay is almost sure to blow away scouts with his athleticism once individual pre-draft workouts begin, something Russell won’t necessarily do. Russell isn’t as flashy a player, and his NBA upside may not be quite as high as Mudiay’s thanks to their physical differences. But Russell is most certainly a noteworthy talent who should improve any franchise that selects him.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.