D’Angelo Russell: The Guy Everyone Thinks the Sixers Are Drafting

Is he really the safe pick people say he is? He's got offensive ability, but his defense and play against top competition are cause for concern.

Ohio State Buckeyes guard D'Angelo Russell (0) shoots flagrant 1 foul shots against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during the second half in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Moda Center on March 19, 2015.

Ohio State Buckeyes guard D’Angelo Russell (0) shoots flagrant 1 foul shots against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during the second half in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Moda Center on March 19, 2015.

Ever since the results of May 19th’s lottery were announced, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell has been the favorite among Sixers fans and media members alike to be selected 3rd overall by the 76ers.

Part of that interest is based upon the Sixers’ dire need for both perimeter shooting and a long-term starter at point guard. Russell’s one of the best shooters in the draft — having made 41.1% of his 231 three-point attempts during his freshman season at Ohio State — and has the slick passing and court vision necessary to create scoring opportunities for his teammates and man the point for years to come.

But Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie hasn’t been known to be targeting team needs at this stage of the rebuild, instead looking for players with the upside to become legitimate foundation pieces. He’s looking for greatness, and he’ll worry about making that all fit together later.

What makes Russell such an obvious match with  the Sixers is that he fills a need and has the potential to be one of the best players in this draft. 

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Key information

Age: 19 years old

Measurements: 193 pounds, 6-foot-5-inches (in shoes), 6-foot-9.75-inch wingspan, 8-foot-6-inch standing reach (measured at the 2015 NBA Combine).

Stats: 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game in 33.9 minutes per night. Shot 44.9% from the field and 41.1% from three point range.

Advanced stats: 11.7 Boxscore plus/minus, (8.7 offensive, 3.0 defensive), 6.8 win shares (4.4 offensive, 2.4 defensive), 0.229 win shares/40 minutes, 30.3% free throw rate, 57.3% true shooting percentage.

(Quick glossary: Boxscore plus/minus is an estimate of the points a player adds to his team per 100 possessions above the league average. Win shares is an estimate on the number of wins a player added to his team. Win shares/40 minutes is win shares for every 40 minutes of play, with the average being ~0.100/40 minutes. Free throw rate is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt, and true shooting percentage is an attempt to “fix” field goal percentage, factoring in the additional value of the three-point shot and a player’s ability to get to the free throw line to paint a more accurate picture of a player’s efficiency).

Chance of being available at No. 3: Pretty good. The ‘Wolves and Lakers have been expected to go with Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor with the top two picks, although lately D’Angelo Russell and Kristaps Porzingis have entered the equation for the Lakers pick.

Why should you be interested?

In the “pace and space” offensive scheme that Sixers head coach Brett Brown has talked about, perimeter shooting is of utmost importance, and D’Angelo Russell is one of the best shooters in this draft.

What makes Russell’s shooting so unique is the number of situations in which he’s able to get a quality look at the basket. Russell can shoot both from a standstill catch and also off the move, giving him the ability to hit shots coming off of screens and off the dribble. Whether Russell is playing off the ball stationed in the corner or on the ball pulling up 24 feet from the basket off a pick-and-roll, his jump shot has to always be accounted for by a defense.

Russell shot 43% on jump shots off the dribble, a large portion of which were from behind the three-point line when dribbling off of picks. He shot 39% on “no dribble” jump shots — which is a very good percentage considering they were almost all three-pointers and almost all were contested because Ohio State lacked shot creators outside of Russell — and that skill will also be important to help space the floor when Joel Embiid posts up. He also showed the ability to shoot coming off screens, which would give the Sixers the option of running Russell alongside another point guard in the increasingly common two-point guard sets that we’re seeing in the NBA. That versatility forces defenses to pay attention to Russell at all times and opens up space for his teammates to operate.

For some NCAA prospects, whether or not they can develop NBA three-point range is cause for concern, even if they were effective three-point shooters in college. The NCAA three-point line is 20.75 feet at its maximum; the NBA three-point line is 3 feet longer than than that at its maximum. Some prospects struggle to adjust to that longer distance, either enduring an adjustment period where their effectiveness drops as they rework their shot or, worse, never regaining their proficiency from three-point range because of that added distance.

With Russell, that’s not much of a concern. 128 of Russell’s three pointers last season were from 24 feet or more, and he connected on 42% of those attempts. The volume, and effectiveness, were pretty remarkable.

Player3PTA3PT%3PTA (from 24'+)3PT% on (from 24'+)
D'Angelo Russell23141.1%12842%
Justise Winslow11041.8%5231%
Devin Booker14141.1%7836%
Sam Dekker15133.1%8827%
Tyus Jones12437.9%6929%
A look at some of the perimeter shooters from college basketball last season expected to be drafted in the first round. Data courtesy of shotanalytics.com

That deep range — combined with Russell’s comfort pulling up and shooting off the dribble — puts a lot of pressure on a defense. Shooting off the dribble is almost a different skill set than shooting while standing still, and some players never get the comfort and consistency in their footwork, balance, and follow-through to really be consistent when shooting under pressure.

Russell does that, and does it very well. It’s just not his ability to pull up off the dribble that makes defenses pay attention, but the quickness with which he’s able to do so. Russell needs only a very small amount of space to get off a quality shot, and all of this combines to not only allow Russell to generate offense for himself, but to also pull defenders away from the basket and open things up for his teammates.

Russell combines this with some of, if not entirely, the best court vision in the draft. Russell has the creativity to make difficult passes that other guards wouldn’t necessarily see, but also the court vision and point guard instincts to see plays develop two passes ahead. Those attributes, combined with the attention he receives 24 feet from the hoop, make Russell a real threat off the pick-and-roll, something that would fit in extremely well with Embiid.

Overall, Russell has an advanced offensive game with good dribble hesitation moves, a midrange game, touch-on floaters in the lane, and an effortless feel that makes it seem like the game comes easy to him.

Why shouldn’t you be interested?

Russell has 3 main concerns that get brought up:

  • Not an elite-level athlete by NBA standards
  • Struggled against top competition
  • Defensive question marks

The elite-level athleticism really plays into all of the above concerns. Russell seemingly allayed some of those fears by posting a reported 39-inch vertical leap while working out earlier this month, although that goes against the opinion most people had when watching him on tape, as he’s mostly a below-the-rim player when driving to the hoop.

His defensive concerns go beyond his average lateral quickness, however, and into concentration and awareness. Russell can get lost defensively when playing off the ball; he needs to do a better job of fighting through screens; and he can get caught in a bad stance at times when denying dribble penetration.

On the offensive side of the court, Russell struggled tremendously against the top competition, shooting 3-19 against Arizona (third-ranked defense in the country) in the NCAA Tournament, 6-20 against Louisville (fifth-ranked “D”), and 3-9 against Nebraska (25th-ranked “D”). Overall, Russell struggled against top-100 defenses this season.

StatNon Top-100 D'sTop-100 D'sChange
FG% at rim73%47%-26.0%
Assists per turnover2.01.467-0.53
D'Angelo Russell's efficiency against top-100 defenses

Ohio State’s incredibly easy non-conference schedule has the chance to create a little bit of noise in Russell’s overall statistics, as Ohio State played the 328th toughest non-conference schedule in the country, according to Ken Pomery, with games against competition — such as North Carolina A&T, Campbell, University of Massachusetts Lowell and Wright State — that don’t offer much value from a scouting perspective.

Where heightened competition really hurt Russell was at the rim, as he struggled to finish effectively against top defenses, while he feasted against lesser schools.

There are a number of possible explanations for this. One reason that cannot be overlooked is Ohio State’s lack of shooting — and overall offensive talent level — around Russell. With so few offensive options outside of Russell, great defenses were able to really key in on him and take away what he does well.

The struggles do also coincide with some of Russell’s limitations, however. Russell wasn’t all that explosive around the hoop and doesn’t have a very developed upper body, although he says he added 10 pounds of muscle mass over the season, something he’ll have to continue to do.

Russell also doesn’t use his right hand very much, either when finishing at the rim or attacking the basket off the dribble. When he does drive right, it’s almost always to set up a crossover back to his dominant left, which makes him somewhat predictable. He avoids using his right hand to finish at the rim at almost all costs, which plays a part in his inefficiency when doing so.

It’s worth pointing out that on some of this we’re dealing with a relatively small sample size. There’s also some context needed to pinpoint what would be considered a “normal” drop against top competition. Because of how likely Russell is to be an option, his struggles against top competition will be the topic of a future column here at Philly Mag.

Fit with the Sixers

When we’re looking at the concerns up above, most of those concerns mainly apply to Russell being the primary offensive focal point of a team. On a team like the 76ers, which will (hopefully) be centered around Embiid dominating in the post, Russell should have the advantage of having much more space to shoot. He’d also receive less attention as he drives to the basket because he’d have two extremely athletic big men to dump the ball off to as targets, making it harder for shot blockers to rotate over.

Hopefully, the presence of Embiid would enhance Russell’s strengths, while also minimizing his weaknesses. Russell’s perimeter shooting should also open up the lane for Embiid, and his creativity off the pick-and-roll should help Embiid when rolling to the hoop. Theoretically, he has the chance to be a very nice offensive complement.

While I’m not 100% sure that Russell is the safe pick that some portray him as, I do think he has as much talent as anybody in this draft besides Karl-Anthony Towns, and the Sixers might be just the right team to help him reach his full potential.

Derek Bodner is covering the NBA Draft at Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Draftland. Read his previous coverage here. Follow him on Twitter at @DerekBodnerNBA.

Previously in Sixers Draftland:

Jahlil Okafor: One of the Best Low-Post Scorers We’ve Seen
D’Angelo Russell to Work Out for the Sixers After All
• Karl-Anthony Towns: The Big Man the Sixers Probably Want — and Likely Can’t Get
Does Joel Embiid’s Setback Change Sixers’ Draft Plans?
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