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NBA Sunday: D’Angelo Russell, the Diamond

Can D’Angelo Russell carry the Los Angeles Lakers franchise into the future? Moke Hamilton says yes.

Moke Hamilton

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It felt like an eternity. The tension suffocated the masses in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Collective silence. Focused discernment.

Could the Los Angeles Lakers truly cut against the grain and pass on Duke’s Jahlil Okafor with the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft? Were the reports true in that Mitch Kupchak had fallen in love with the southpaw from Ohio State University?

The wait had been long and somewhat circuitous—it was Okafor, then Russell, then Okafor, then Russell. And finally, the wait was over. As the clock counted down from 30 seconds, the energy in the building was electric.

Finally, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver appeared.

With his heart racing and his mouth dry, Russell never anticipated being so nervous on draft night. Finally, though, the moment had come; it was time to make the walk from the green room to being a franchise cornerstone for arguably the most storied franchise in NBA history.

For the first time since 1982, after coming off of their worst season in franchise history, the Lakers owned a top five pick in the NBA Draft.

Now, they owned Russell, too.

It took Russell 72 seconds to make his way from the green room up to the stage. Along the way, he stopped and greeted many of the faces that had become familiar to him. And after he greeted commissioner Silver on stage. They embraced briefly before Russell looked up into the heavens and pointed a finger into the sky.

Finally, he had made it.

Now, after the flight of Dwight Howard and the refusal of Carmelo Anthony, with the attrition of Kobe Bryant and the failure of the front office, all eyes are firmly on D’Angelo Russell.

He has entered a situation wherein he will deal with tremendous scrutiny and face substantial pressure.

And you know what they say about pressure… it busts pipes….

But it also creates diamonds.

* * * * *

The first time I met D’Angelo Russell was during the NBA’s Draft Combine in Chicago. I’d heard a lot about the star point guard from Ohio State University and had seem some of his finer work on the basketball court. Certainly, he possessed the skills necessary to succeed at the NBA level, but his psyche and his mental makeup were more important than his physical attributes, because success at the highest level depends just as much on how a player thinks and responds emotionally as it does on whether he can thread the needle on a pick-and-roll or nail an open 15-foot jumper.

“I’m the best player in the draft,” Russell said when asked why he should be picked.

“It’s a blessing to be in the position I’m in right now,” he said. So it was no coincidence that in his life changing moment on draft night, he stared up into the heavens and said “Thank god, man.”

In Chicago, what Russell revealed about himself, to me, was that he was reserved, calculated and honest. The questions he was asked and the answers he provided were true, well-thought and at-ease. His demeanor and candor both gave the impression of a player who was comfortable in the spotlight, comfortable being put under the microscope and unafraid of facing the criticism that may await him.

And it certainly didn’t take long for the criticism to come.

Russell made national headlines after declaring himself as being the top player in the draft, and frankly, it surprised him. What it was, for him, was a lesson as to what life would be like in the National Basketball Association—especially in Los Angeles.

Several weeks would pass and Russell would make his way through the pre-draft process. Now, in New York City on the day before the draft, I couldn’t help but to wonder what the past few weeks had been like for him. I couldn’t help but to wonder how he would respond to the media or the scrutiny that he would face.

In New York City, on the day before the draft, Russell had come a long way over the course of the prior six weeks, but despite the journey, he retained the same calm, cool, collected demeanor. Most of the questions that Russell answered were met with a shrug or raised eyebrows.

Finally, I asked Russell about what the past six weeks had been like for him. He spoke of the exhausting travel and the anxiety of not knowing where he would spend the next few years of his life. And he also spoke of the attention that his comments in Chicago got.

“Yes, it definitely surprised me,” he said, after thinking about it for a moment. But Russell would not back down from his declaration that he was the top player in the draft class.

“It got more buzz than I expected,” he admitted with a shrug, pointing out that any player in his position should feel that he is the best player when he steps out on the floor.

“That wasn’t my intention,” he said. “But I do truly feel that way.”

Now, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and the scores of basketball fans residing in Southern California hope that his self-confidence was well-founded.

* * * * *

“I can’t even talk right now,” Russell said to ESPN after he walked off the stage with Commissioner Silver. As he adjusted his brand new Los Angeles Lakers baseball cap, Russell got choked up.

“The journey that I’ve been through, the stress, the pain that my family has been through, it’s just tough. It’s a surreal moment that I can’t even explain.”

As Russell made his way from the stage to the interview room to meet the media, I flanked him. Russell sighed at least 10 times and looked around. He was taking the moment in, but would later reveal that he was surprised to have gone to the Lakers. Although there were reports originating from Los Angeles in the days leading up to the draft that Kupchak was leaning toward selecting him, Russell had no idea.

“Man, it’s a blessing to be here,” he said, nestled away in a quiet corner of Barclays Center a few minutes after his life had changed forever. “I can’t really put a nail on how I’m feeling right now. I feel like busting out like a baby in tears,” he said.

“I’m definitely surprised to be here right now. Just a few months ago, I was graduating high school,” he said.

And when asked directly whether he knew the Lakers were leaning toward him, Russell said he did not.

“I didn’t know at all. I’m still in shock… But I’m here, and I am ready to make an immediate impact.”

And it certainly did not take long for him to have the opportunity.

Russell joined a contingent of fellow young Lakers in Las Vegas to participate in the Vegas Summer League. Alongside Julius Randle, Tarik Black, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr. and Robert Upshaw, Russell was happy to finally be back to playing full-court basketball after having spent the past several months preparing for what life in the NBA would be like.

“Definitely,” he said when asked if it felt good to get back on the basketball court.

“To go against some different opponents finally, I know I haven’t played in a five-on-five setting since I started playing for the Lakers… College games, that was the last time.”

KobeBryantInsideImage1In his first taste of NBA competition, Russell took eight shots in 27 minutes and finished up with eight points, five rebounds and six assists. His Lakers lost an 81-68 decision to Karl-Anthony Towns’ Minnesota Timberwolves, but fortunately, these games do not count for anything.

“You could tell we were all rusty,” Russell said after the competition. “I was just trying to break sweat and get that first wind out. I was really just trying to fit in and gain chemistry as quick as possible.”

“Quick” is a rather appropriate term. The hope for all involved is that he can become an impact player in the immediate future, especially since Jahlil Okafor has seemed to hit the ground running with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Fair or not, that is who Russell will be linked with and compared to from here on out.

Although it does not count for much, Russell has already shown the keen point guard instincts and abilities that will be required of him to eventually call himself a peer of the likes of Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry or even Eric Bledsoe.

Russell has already shown the ability to utilize his size and strength. He has done an admirable job of keeping opposing point guards on his hip and using his physical attributes to keep defenders at bay and off balance. With his exquisite ability to see the floor, what it has enabled Russell to do is survey an opposing defensive scheme, determine where best to get the ball and create space and opportunities for his teammates. Something as simple as being a left-handed player, dribbling left and utilizing the left side of the basketball court and keeping an opposing guard away from the strong hand, it is a technique that Chris Paul has mastered over the course of his 10-year career. Despite not being impressively quick, Paul usually gets to where he wants to go on the floor, so if Russell has even a fraction of Paul’s ability to see the floor, it is not unreasonable to hope for comparable results.

Already, from Russell, we have seen an ability to understand space. On more than a few possessions over the course of his first two games, Russell has easily hidden behind screens and found opportunities for his own shots. He is a strong shooter and will, with repetition, probably become as strong of an off-the-dribble shooter as an in-prime Mike Bibby.

As a big man, rebounding and footwork are two things that are easily transferrable to an NBA court. As a point guard, the same thing can be said for court vision. Finding teammates backdoor, executing well-timed and well-placed bounce passes to big men rolling toward the basket and finding teammates on the weak side of the floor—these are all skills that the best of point guards possess. In flashes, Russell has already shown these abilities.

His journey is only beginning, but even at this early stage, having been there from what was the beginning of this process, it is easy to see why Kupchak and the Lakers opted to cut against the grain and pin the hopes of their franchise, at least partially, on the young point guard.

* * * * *

Back on draft night, as he marched from the stage that he shared with Commissioner Silver for a brief moment, Russell had tears in his eyes and a Los Angeles Lakers cap on his head.

From Central High School in Louisville, Kentucky to Florida’s Montverde Academy and to Ohio State University, Russell has shown tremendous promise and a polished and focused confidence from the very beginning.

“It was all a dream,” is what he probably thought in the moments immediately following his selection by the Lakers.

And now, it is a reality.

Russell has arrived and without Dwight Howard, and without Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge or Marc Gasol, he is now the torchbearer for these Los Angeles Lakers.

All eyes are on him, but Russell will not shy away from the spotlight nor the expectations.

Yes, pressure busts pipes, but anyone who has spent time around Russell or has closely observed his game can already see a slight glistening.

Pressure bust pipes, but it also creates diamonds, and anyone within viewing range of Russell can already see the makings of a diamond—one that will eventually be of the 14-karat variety.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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