Early riser: Ohio State freshman Russell has surprised even himself

Freshman D'Angelo Russell leads Ohio State in scoring and rebounding but is becoming best known for his passing even though he is second on the team in assists.

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The young man who might be the second-best freshman in college basketball, Ohio State combo guard D’Angelo Russell, came into the season a bit below the radar. He wasn’t Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, the presumptive NBA No. 1 pick who Coach K was already calling a franchise player before he played a college game. He wasn’t Andrew Wiggins, who last year came into the college game with more hype than perhaps any freshman in history.

He was just a kid from the rough part of Louisville — an elite recruit, sure, and the perfect high-scoring addition to an Ohio State team that a year ago struggled to score. But he was no freshman sensation.

Now? As Russell hopes to upset 16th-ranked Maryland when the Terrapins visit Ohio State on Thursday in a game that could shift the balance of power in the Big Ten, he might be the fastest-rising player in college hoops.

Just look at the stats: He’s averaging 19.4 points, 5.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds, he’s shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range, and he has the third-highest offensive rating in college hoops for high-usage players, according to KenPom.com. Just look at the draft projections: DraftExpress.com now lists the 18-year-old as the fourth pick. And more than anything, just look at the highlights: Russell’s incredible spinning bounce passes, like this one against Northwestern, have turned heads in college basketball circles, and turned Russell into a bit of an Internet sensation.

People thought he’d be good, sure. But this good, this soon? Even Russell himself didn’t expect it.

“I definitely surprised myself,” he said. “I didn’t plan on getting this much attention my freshman year. I’m shocked I’ve done as well as I have. It still hasn’t really hit me, the amount of attention I get. It’s crazy. Whenever I’m walking on campus, people look at me differently than they were looking at me in the summertime.”

They’ll be looking at him even more differently in a few months, if Russell decides to opt for the NBA Draft and become an instant millionaire.

What I love most about this kid’s game isn’t how silky smooth he is — with ball-handling skills honed through hours of practicing crossovers and dribbling through his legs and darting around folding chairs, then combining it all in a masterpiece of improvisation. It’s not that lefty jump shot that has people wondering whether he’s the next James Harden. And it’s not those breathtaking bounce passes that that bring to mind Russell’s favorite NBA player and the one he’s spent untold hours studying tape of, Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs.

No, what I love about this kid’s game is his mind.

A truly great passer is always thinking two steps ahead of anyone else on the floor. He sees things happen before they happen: the gaps in the defense, the teammate about to make a cut. It’s a skill Russell has gained through untold hours of film study. But it’s also something you really can’t teach.

“Watching film growing up, I looked at it as gaining an edge,” Russell said. “Manu Ginobili, the passes he made, wow. He was two steps ahead. The same with Steph Curry …

“It’s something you have to be born with — you can’t teach a great handle. But me trying to be the smartest player on the court at all times. That’s hard work. It separates me from the guys who are more athletic than me. It’s gaining IQ for the game, watching constant film of guys. I watch more film on my opponents, just to gain an edge, knowing what I can do and can’t do, what an opponent can and can’t do.”

On the team flight home, win or lose, you can find Russell watching tape of the game that just finished. When he studies his own game, he’s not as focused on the highlight-reel plays or the mechanics of his jump shot at he is focused on seeing opportunities he might have missed.

“I love passing the ball,” he said. “Whenever I watch film, I try to see where I could have made a pass. I have to shoot the ball a lot for my team, but I try to figure out where I could have found the gaps to make a pass. I know not a lot of guys can pass. A lot guys can score the ball. When I make the right pass it’s an enjoyment. There’s an excitement I take from it.”

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I love that sort of mentality. In a culture that encourages kids to go after points and highlight-reel dunks — and Russell has his share of those, too — I love seeing a kid who values the highlight-reel pass over anything else. He left his family in Louisville at age 15 to go to a boarding school in Florida, become an elite basketball player and work toward a better life for him and his single mom. Now, he’s working hardest on his skills as a point guard because he knows those skills are the ones that’ll make him the most money at the next level.

You know what D’Angelo Russell does better than perhaps anyone in college hoops? He makes good decisions, and he makes them quicker than anyone else.

“That’s what separates me because the decision-making comes natural,” he told me.

“Making a pass that people consider a wowing pass when really it’s just the best pass I can possibly make. I guess I’m pretty good at it. The decisions you have to make are fast. When I’m moving fast, I make the right pass.”

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.