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FILM STUDY: The Secret to D’Angelo Russell’s Game

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Brooklyn Nets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Like a basketball court, there are nooks and crannies within D’Angelo Russell’s game for the Brooklyn Nets.

It starts from the perimeter, where his through-the-legs dribble is nearly flawless as he operates the Brooklyn offense, flashing his keen eye around the hardwood for someone like Joe Harris coming off of a pin-down screen from Jarrett Allen. Or where his herky-jerk step back rainbow jumper is launched and goes perfectly through the basket, nearly not making a sound.

It finishes at the rim – sometimes, if almost not enough – where Russell will use an array of crafty finishes to finish, or he’ll look to find one of his also budding teammates for an even easier finish. The game has always seemed to come easily to Russell, but it is now — in his fourth season, second with Brooklyn— that the game has become his when he is out on the court. He is in control more of what is transpiring on the floor both as a passer and a scorer at all levels of the court.

The 20 points and 6 assist average are fantastic, statistics that got him an All-Star nod last weekend. He is one of 20 players in NBA history to put those numbers up by the age of 22 (of course, the season isn’t over, but the argument will suffice). But let’s dig deeper into his game: what has unlocked this type of play from the Ohio State product? There isn’t a right answer, but what has started as a reliant for Russell while operating his game has turned into the key for unlocking his entire game.

In between the perimeter and the rim, the forgotten level has seemingly tuned Russell’s game into the All-Star one it has been through this season, the mid-range. Russell’s patent mid-range jumper off the dribble has become as consistent as any shot he takes.

This is simple pick-and-roll action from Russell in a November matchup against the Sixers. Despite the attempt to eradicate the mid-range two from the league, Russell is comfortable pulling up when the defender, in this case Joel Embiid plays back on him. Russell takes the easy two and carries on.

Now this, while again not a high difficulty shot, is Russell making a point that he is going to get to his spot on the floor, even if it is in between the three-point line and the rim and take it with ease. Russell rejects the screen from Allen on the wing, and again the slow-footed LaMarcus Aldridge plays back to protect the paint, Russell does a fine job of what is known as “trapping” his defender by getting a step on him but putting his back side into him (Chris Paul has been doing it for years). Russell, once comfortable enough with Bryn Forbes stuck behind him, takes the elbow two.

Russell’s mid-range game is among the best in the league. He is shooting greater than 53 percent on shots between 10-and-16 feet from the basket, according to Basketball-Reference. That is by far the best of his career. About 17 percent of his shots come from this zone and it isn’t just shots in space he is taking. According to NBA.com’s player tracking data, Russell, while only taking two shots greater than 10 feet with a defender being “tight” on him (within two-to-four feet), he is hitting on 45 percent of those shots. While difficult, he is finding a way to nearly get half of those shots to fall.

His pull-up game has him in elite company. While not all mid-range jumpers, his shot off the bounce ranks third in the league of players who take at least five pull up shots per game, according to NBA.com, behind only C.J. McCollum and Kevin Durant.

This trend of Russell’s mid-range jumper has been something of note this entire season, as he has opted to “settle” for a jumper instead of getting a closer range shot where he has a higher likelihood of making it, but when he has become so efficient of knocking down these type of shots, this may be his preference, and coach Kenny Atkinson may have recognized this and schemed to get Russell more looks in this situation.

“Kenny hates that shot. He hates it. He thinks it’s a low-percentage shot,” Russell said a couple of weeks ago, but he admits things are changing. “Coming in [last summer], Coach was like, ‘We’re not shooting mid-range, and we’re not shooting floaters!’ And now it’s like, ‘OK, you can shoot your mid-range, you can shoot your floaters.’ That’s the trust we have, the trust we grew.”

Russell has shown a lack of vertical explosion this season that may limit his opportunities at the rim, like in the prior clip where Russell may have had an opportunity to take it to bigs like Daniel Theis or Aldridge and attempt to draw a foul and a create possible and-one opportunity. Instead, he opted for the jumper.

Also, Russell may not have the strength to go up and finish at the body of a big, but by upping the amount of mid-range jumper’s he takes, Russell has been able to get into the lane more often than earlier in the season.

Since the calendar turned to February, Russell has taken nearly 19 percent of shots from inside the restricted area. Prior to that, a shade under 15 percent of his shots came from the same location. It seems like a small amount, and the sample sizes are vastly different, but it does show that there has been a cause-and-effect in Russell’s game.

Two examples above mark a similar change in mentality from Russell. Russell comes downhill on Kyle Lowry in Toronto and gets the step on him at the elbow. Instead of pulling up for a floater over Serge Ibaka, he instead hits him with a creative ball fake and goes right around him for the easy finish. Russell’s confidence is spilling over as he begins to get closer and closer to the rack. In the second clip, Russell comes off of a double screen and draws a switch. Jordan Clarkson comes onto Russell and presses him, Russell recognizes this and dribbles past him, and doesn’t hesitate when Marquese Chriss steps towards him, he keeps gliding to the rim for what becomes an easy finish.

Russell is a long point guard but is more of a finesse scorer rather than someone who will take it at the defender, so to expect him to pound the rim isn’t realistic, but with defenses trying to cut out one part of his game, Russell may see an opportunity to exploit another. At 22, Russell is showcasing a growing, yet complete game.

In other words, DLo can and will compensate, using his court vision and craftiness to excel. It’s often not as appreciated as it should be.

Russell has been on an absolute tear of late, putting up gaudy numbers and diversifying his game. Russell is hitting three’s and finishing at the rims, but it may be what happens in between that has opened up the rest. While the league is trying to avoid mid-range two’s, Russell’s has become an invaluable tool that may have opened up the rest of his game as the Nets push further into the season.