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Is D’Angelo Russell the cornerstone of new-look Nets?

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Charles Maniego once again goes to the video tape to analyze D’Angelo Russell’s game and how it might fit with the Nets.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Brooklyn Nets’ current roster features nine players age 25 or younger, five 22 or younger. That of course, could change. But after last Tuesday’s blockbuster Brook Lopez trade and Thursday’s draft, the Nets are fully embracing their youth movement. The Nets will still feature key veterans like Timofey Mozgov, Trevor Booker and Jeremy Lin, but the decision to move Lopez jumpstarted the Nets’ youth movement.

D’Angelo Russell could be the leader of the post-Lopez Nets.

I know. D’Angelo Russell and “leader” haven’t been synonymous, especially lately. But the 21-year old may have the highest upside of any Net. In his two seasons with the Lakers, Russell was impressive at times – although on league-lagging teams. Still, Russell’s skillset, potential and basketball intelligence make him a high-level young player.

Offense

Russell was drafted with the #2 pick in the 2015 mostly due to his offensive polish. In his lone season at Ohio State, Russell was an offensive force, averaging 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. His NBA numbers have been decent, but lacking in efficiency. Let’s take a look at his shot chart from 2016-2017…

Russell’s offensive game looks effortless. He’s more of a luxury sedan than exotic sports car, with smooth finishes rather than explosive bursts. Below, he curls off of a screen and scores with a smooth jumper at the free throw line.

One improvement Russell has made in his two NBA seasons is his jumpshot. While his three-point percentage was essentially the same in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, his mechanics are now more efficient. Compare this clip, from his rookie year…

To this one from his sophomore campaign, part of a 32-point performance against his new team…

Russell’s release is quicker now, which bodes well for him as a catch-and-shoot option. His release is low enough and fast enough to be deadly both off the dribble and as a spot up option. Off of catch-and-shoot, Russell shot a decent 37.0% from three, per NBA.com. He could become more comfortable with his new shooting mechanics with a continued offseason grind.

Russell may need some work shooting off of the dribble. He’s elusive contorting off of screens and manipulating the pick and roll, but he often dribbles too much, lacking decisiveness. Per NBA.com, Russell shot 36.0% as a pullup shooter in 2016-2017. His lack of explosion also hurts his off-dribble game as well, allowing defenders to catch up. When Russell has space to shoot, he could be a problem for defenses.

Off of drives, Russell’s basketball brilliance shines. While he plays mostly under the rim, he is crafty enough to score off of floaters, turnarounds and Eurosteps. He shot 46.0% off of drives in 2016-2017, but his efficiency at the rim was simply average. His lack of verticality hurt him scoring at the rim, where he shot 51.8%, simply league average. He cited one influence on his game as Manu Ginobili, and others have compared him to James Harden. Russell may not have the ferocity of Ginobili or the strength on drives as Harden, but he still has room to grow and develop.

While Russell’s efficiency left much to be desired, he has the potential to be a deadly scorer, especially within the Nets’ offense. Luke Walton’s squad frequently featured lineups with two traditional bigs in Julius Randle and Timofey Mozgov. The Nets’ offense will likely feature a dynamic power forward like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson that wreaks havoc with his athleticism. That could open the floor up for Russell for more success as a scorer.

Additionally, Russell may cut down on his questionable shot decisions within the Nets offense. He took quite a few contested and turnaround jumpers from midrange, essentially the worst shots in basketball. In the Nets’ system, Russell could shift to more threes and more drives, maximizing efficiency. With more aggressive moves to the rim, Russell could increase his free throw attempts from 3.0 per game.

Russell’s most intriguing offensive aspect is his playmaking ability. His feel for the game and ability stand out when he can set up teammates. Russell possesses a tight handle, able to break down defenders with smooth crossovers. What's most impressive about his handle is his ability to decelerate and stop on a dime with hesitations. That sneakiness could freeze defenses completely.

Russell will likely be the Nets’ starting shooting guard in 2017-2018, but he can still be a playmaker. Like the rest of his game, he makes flashy passes look effortless. Look at this lob to Jordan Clarkson…

Per Synergy, Russell rated as an “average” pick-and-roll ballhandler, scoring on 0.76 points per possession. But his vision is evident when he has a strong roll man. Here’s this bounce pass to his Brooklyn Net teammate, Timofey Mozgov…

Russell led the Lakers in assists (4.8), secondary assists (1.0), potential assists (9.4) and points created off of assists (11.7). At his best, Russell made his teammates better, setting them up for easy baskets and pushing the pace. But he was also turnover prone, ranking 40th out of 41 point guards in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.72), per ESPN.

But as many have noted, Russell was a young point guard on a team lacking many sustainable pieces. He’s also competing in what may be the deepest point guard crop in NBA history. Russell shared a home arena with Chris Paul, and regularly faced Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Mike Conley, among others. Russell’s tools and vision as a distributor may spur his development into a solid foundation piece.

Defense

The biggest knock on Russell’s game has been his defense. The Lakers were the worst defensive team in the NBA. Their best defender, Larry Nance Jr., had a defensive rating that would have been the worst on the San Antonio Spurs. Russell’s defense was no different on a Lakers team that lacked cohesion and effort on the defensive end. What did Russell’s defense look like?

Lacking. On The Lowe Post podcast, ESPN reporter Kevin Arnovitz mentioned some inconsistencies in Russell’s game…

“But what do I do when people I respect in an organization tell me, like roll their eyes like, ‘I don’t know that we can dumb the defense down any further for him’, like what do I do with that information?”

Russell’s defensive rating of 113 was a smidge worse than his rookie year defensive rating. He ranked 79th out of 86 NBA point guards in defensive real plus minus, per NBA.com. But seemingly, just sheer effort would make Russell a passable defender.

In the video above, Russell seemed disinterested on several plays. Synergy rates Russell as a “poor” defender in four out of eight categories, including spot up, isolation and hand offs. Off ball, he often loses focus, unable to keep track of his man while ball watching. He shies away from contact when encountering a screen and lacks a feel for switching. Russell’s defensive game lacks nuance at times, which is disappointing considering his feel on the offensive end.

Surprisingly, Russell rated as a “very good” pick-and-roll defender, the most popular point guard situation in the NBA. On ball, Russell uses his length (6’10” wingspan) and solid lateral movement to contain opposing guards. In a vacuum, Russell could be a solid switch defender, long enough and strong enough to compete with small forwards. When motivated, Russell plays the passing lanes well, picking up a few steals. Synergy ranked him in the 65th percentile of defenders coming off of screens. Additionally, Russell is a solid defender when he gets into his stance, especially one-on-one. However, those moments wavered.

Fit

Much has been made about D’Angelo Russell’s fit with the Nets in the days after the trade. Can he coexist with Jeremy Lin? Does this impede Caris LeVert’s development? Will this torpedo the Nets’ defensive improvement? But D’Angelo Russell is an ideal fit for the Brooklyn Nets, and an ideal development prospect for Kenny Atkinson. Several basketball luminaries, including Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe, praised Russell’s eastward move, and his potential fit in Brooklyn.

On the offensive end, the newest Net fits well in Kenny Atkinson’s “react and attack” offense. Atkinson’s offense prioritizes dynamic players off the dribble, and Russell does just that. Russell would be a solid backcourt partner with Jeremy Lin, even though he would be a bit out of position. Lin’s aggressiveness in attacking defenses and Russell’s willingness as a passer match well. His vision would make life easier for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and potentially Jarrett Allen. The lob possibilities are enticing.

While Russell’s defense lagged behind his offense, he has the potential to be a solid defender. Much of the Nets’ second half improvement was due to a defensive clamp down. Disappointing defenders like Sean Kilpatrick and Joe Harris seemingly tried harder on the defensive end post-All Star Break. If Kenny Atkinson and his coaching staff guide Russell to compete on every possession (or at least 80% of them) on the defensive end, both team and player would benefit. He has the tools and vision. He just needs the effort.

Russell, by all means, can be considered a draft pick. Outside of Markelle Fultz, Russell could be the highest upside point guard drafted since 2013, still with lots of time to improve. Additionally, All Star point guards Kyle Lowry, Chauncey Billups, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd were all traded in their first three NBA seasons.

They turned out just fine. (Marquis Teague was also traded early in his career, but I digress.) In Brooklyn, Russell will have more time and a smaller spotlight to grow and mature as a player.