Lakers: In Defense of D’Angelo Russell

Los Angeles Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell is better than most fans think when his sophomore season is given some perspective.

Since point guard D’Angelo Russell has returned to the Lakers lineup after recovering from a leg injury, the team has played far more competitively. Yet he remains a lightning rod for complaints from far too many Lakers fans.

You can read it in the comments section under many articles on Lake Show Life. You can hear it on sports talk radio. Fans who have grown impatient and exasperated with him call out for the team to trade him.

The criticism seems to be that he hasn’t developed fast enough. He hasn’t yet consistently played like an All-Star, his turnovers are too high and his shooting percentage is low.

That appears to be an unfair, impatient rush to judgment. Russell is only in his second NBA season and is still just 20 years old. Let’s compare his statistical performance with this year’s NBA all-star point guards (plus a few other prominent active point guards) during their second seasons in minutes per game, points, assists, rebounds, turnovers and shooting percentages:

Player                              Age    MPG   PPG   APG   RPG  TOV     FG%  3-Pt FG%

D’Angelo Russell           20      26.8   14.8   4.8     3.9     2.7     .395   .341

Mike Conley                    21      30.6   10.9   4.3     3.4     1.7     .442   .406

Steph Curry                     22      33.6   18.6   5.8     3.9     3.1     .480   .442

James Harden                 21      26.7   12.2   2.1     3.1     1.3    .436   .349

Kyrie Irving                       22      34.7   22.5   5.9     3.7     3.2    .452   .391

Damian Lillard                 23      35.8   20.7   5.9     3.7     2.4    .424   .394

Kyle Lowry                       21      25.5      9.6   3.6     3.0     1.5    .432   .257

Tony Parker                     20      33.8   15.5   5.3     2.6     2.4     .464   .337

Isaiah Thomas                23      26.9   13.9   4.0     2.0     1.8     .440   .358

Kemba Walker                 22      34.9   17.7   5.7     3.5     2.4     .423   .322

John Wall                           21      36.2  16.3   8.0     4.5     3.9     .423   .071

Russell Westbrook         21      34.3  16.1   8.0     4.9     3.3     .418   .221

Russell is younger than all of those players were in their second season with the exception of Parker. His minutes are slightly lower by comparison–mostly a function of head coach Luke Walton’s system–and his points, adjusted for his minutes, are at least average. His assists and rebounds, again adjusted, are relatively high and unfortunately so are his turnovers…but the same held true for Wall and Westbrook, both then 21, and for Irving and Curry, then 22. And while Russell’s total shooting percentage is low, he’s middle of the pack on 3’s. So overall, he matches up reasonably well.

His assists and rebounds, again adjusted, are relatively high and unfortunately so are his turnovers…but the same held true for Wall and Westbrook, both then 21, and for Irving and Curry, then 22. And while Russell’s total shooting percentage is low, he’s middle of the pack on 3’s. So overall, he matches up reasonably well.

Every one of the other 11 improved significantly in future seasons. It’s interesting to note that Walker and Lowry, whose 3-point shooting was less accurate than Russell’s in their second seasons, are both contestants in this year’s NBA 3-point shooting contest.

There is every reason to expect that Russell will continue to progress. The question is, how good will he eventually be? Certainly, he will never be the marksman that Curry is, as unguardable one-on-one as Irving, as athletic as Westbrook or as fast as Wall. But he will undoubtedly develop into a more reliable shooter than he is now. Not to his game management skills and leadership should strongly benefit from the presence and advice of newly-hired

Not to mention the hope that his game management skills and leadership should strongly benefit from the presence and advice of newly-hired Magic Johnson, who has publicly said that the sky’s the limit for Russell in the years to come.

As for those who want to trade him now, consider this: who else can reliably play point guard for the Lakers? Jose Calderon and Marcelo Huertas can only be counted on for brief stretches. The same can be said for Brandon Ingram, who can fill in here and there. Lou Williams is far better at scoring than at running an offense. None of them are starting-quality NBA point guards.

Even though the team has struggled since its promising beginning, the Lakers are still on track to win significantly more games this year than last, when they hit rock bottom. There is a realistic expectation that the team’s record will, without a doubt, continue to improve along with the performances of all the ‘baby Lakers’, including Russell.

A new uncertainty revolves around the precise role that Magic will play as ‘senior advisor’. What impact will he have on roster decisions? He’s been quick to praise the young talent that’s been assembled, but how patient will he be with the rebuilding process? Is he satisfied that the team is on the right track? Will he advocate trading one or more of the young players for a more established veteran? Or does he prefer to look for help in free agency, where Magic Johnson’s presence alone should help boost the attractiveness of the team.

Of course, the draft lottery looms large in any future Lakers plans. The team hopes to retain a top-three pick in a draft headlined by point guards such as Lonzo Ball of UCLA and Markelle Fultz of Washington. If the Lakers do get lucky and keep the pick, Magic and the front office will have some interesting decisions to make involving who to draft, whether to make a major trade and how they envision the Lakers lineup next season and beyond.

Right now, it seems relatively certain that Russell will not be dealt away by the trade deadline. Instead, he will continue his on-the-job learning process. Some nights will be better than others, but hopefully, he will cut down on turnovers and shoot a higher percentage in the team’s remaining games, and most importantly, assume on-court leadership responsibility.

But what do you guys think? Is D’Angelo Russell the real deal? Is he going to have a strong second half of the seasn? Let us know in the comments below.

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