He doesn’t help its weaknesses, but he does amplify its strengths.
Remember back about three weeks ago when we all went crazy over the D’Angelo Russell/Brook Lopez trade? It seemed like a huge move at the time, one that would be a highlight of and graciously usher us into NBA free agency.
The latter turned out to be more true, as free agency exploded with teams stockpiling stars in an attempt to dethrone the evidently unconquerable Golden State Warriors. Building a superteam, however, was not on the mind of GM Sean Marks when he made this deal.
The Russell trade marked a shift for the Brooklyn Nets. Although the team was the worst in the NBA this season (and likely will be the worst again next year), it does not have any way to get out of the cellar. Having shipped this year’s and next year’s picks to Boston in exchange for the services of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Nets mortgaged their future for a brief, uninspiring tour of success. Without signing or trading for a young talent or picks, the team is hamstrung until it can claim its own first-rounder in 2019 (though it does have a second-rounder next year).
Enter Russell, basically Brooklyn’s 2017 first-round pick. The former Ohio State guard has logged two full NBA seasons, though the first should be marked with an asterisk. His rookie season in LA was basically a traveling circus with a main attraction: the Kobe Bryant farewell tour. Russell, along with Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle, lost valuable touches and minutes to a guy who simply did not need them.
At the ripe age of 21, Russell represents the precise type of player the Nets should have attempted to acquire.
Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
To get the young prospect, Brooklyn traded its best player, Lopez, and took on the unhealthy contract of Timofey Mozgov (three years, $48 million). But considering the Nets don’t want to be good now or anytime soon, giving up a player who would help them be good — actually, let’s politely go with “not as bad” — in return for a promising young talent packaged with a toxic contract was a good deal for them.
However, Russell has had issues in the locker room, and his skill set does not curb any of the weaknesses of second-year head coach Kenny Atkinson’s team. So how good of a fit will Russell be?
Hopefully, Atkinson will handle the locker room issues, as he has by all accounts an outstanding knack for player development. According to an ESPN report from 2016 by Ohm Youngmisuk, he was beloved by players and coaches alike in Atlanta, where he was an assistant for four years, for his pick and roll mastery and ability to relate to players.
“He has been awesome for us here in Atlanta,” [Kyle] Korver said of Atkinson… “I think our player development has been second to none the last four years. I think it has been amazing watching guys develop and grow and Kenny leads that.
If Atkinson truly is the player’s coach he’s been hyped to be, his presence should neutralize Russell’s past gaffes.
And Atkinson’s ability to communicate the finer workings of the pick and roll bode well for the young point guard, who has already shown promise in that role.
On this play, Russell is meant to get a high screen from Mozgov, but the Russian big man slips before setting the pick and cuts hard to the paint. His defender, Lopez, instead of getting back to help on Mozgov, commits to blitzing the ball handler, basically double-teaming Russell.
DAR sees all this and knows that Trevor Booker will be caught in no man’s land between cutting off Mozgov’s run to the rim and allowing his man, Julius Randle, an opening on the perimeter. Russell anticipates that Booker will slide over to stop Mozgov instead of trailing Randle and finds his teammate with a good pass out of a double team for an easy elbow jumper.
Russell, as can be seen above, exhibits above-average court vision, and in college combined that floor awareness with flashy passing. Last season he averaged almost five dimes per game in an offense that also featured notable ball stoppers Nick Young and Lou Williams (though it should be noted that after the All-Star break when the Lakers traded Williams, his assists per game rose nominally and his assist percentage and assist ratio actually fell, according to NBA.com).
Russell’s poise with the ball both in the half court and especially in transition will benefit the high-octane Nets. His passing ability should help them improve their 20th rank in the league in assists per game, and his ability to dissect the court in transition behooves a team that ranked first in the league in pace, per Basketball Reference.
Russell, besides being an above-average passer, also can shoot the ball. His jumper is silky smooth — it’s like watching a perfectly rounded rock skip over a placid lake.
Note the high release and pristine arc of the shot — it’s already a thing of beauty.
Russell shot just over six threes per game last season, and three-pointers accounted for 44% of all his field goals. This again fits perfectly with the Nets’ offensive strategy, as the team shot the fourth most long balls in the league last year, though at one of the league’s worst rates.
Additionally, Russell has a burgeoning back-to-the-basket game, which can be seen above before Russell wisely returns to the perimeter where his matchup against the seven-foot Lopez was more decidedly in his advantage.
Wooo, that shimmy!
However, as good of a fit as he should be offensively (and if that’s all that works out for the Nets in this deal, then you still have to count that as a win), his defense isn’t going to help bring Brooklyn up from the depths of sorrow in which it currently resides.
Russell’s defensive rating of 113 is bad and would mark him as one of the worst defenders in Brooklyn last season. Additionally, his defensive box plus/minus was a -1.6, which is also very bad.
Russell did average 1.4 steals per game, which would rank him just outside the top 20 in the league last year, and he accumulated more defensive win shares than offensive ones, so there might be some discrepancy between the advanced numbers. But take a look at this play in transition against the Blazers.
Russell gets caught ball watching and loses his man — ahem… DAMIAN LILLARD — who gets an easy pass for an in rhythm corner three. That’s a bad mistake, but it’s also an easily fixable one. For the most part in this game, Russell played solid defense and the times he did get burned, the Blazers’ offense was just too good.
The other potential worry for Russell in Brooklyn is how he’ll synergize next to Jeremy Lin.
Via Basketball Reference
Lin is clearly the better player (which should come as no surprise considering he’s in his prime), the incumbent starting point guard and with Lopez gone, the team’s best player. It would be foolish for Atkinson to waste him on the bench, especially if the Nets have any desire to trade him.
I’m betting Lin and Russell will both start with Russell at the two and Lin as the primary ball handler. This wouldn’t be terrible for Russell since he’d still start, and I would assume Atkinson would stagger their minutes so as to maximize one’s time on the court while the other sits. But it still would feel like a shame for Russell to lose some reps that way.
Lin did spent a lot of time injured last year, so if he were to go down, Russell would be the ideal insurance policy.
Brooklyn made a good move in getting Russell, even at the cost of Mozgov. The hope will be that Coach Atkinson will buff out Russell’s off-the-court persona while molding the on-court player into an offensive dynamo with potential to be an average team defender. While free agency’s subsequent frenzy overshadowed the Russell move, keep an eye on him in Brooklyn this year.
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