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2015 NBA Draft: The Best Guard in College Basketball

NCAA Notebook: Russell climbing fast… Coach K wins 1,000… Carmelo watches Jahlil Okafor.

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As Emmanuel Mudiay, the top ranked point guard prospect in the 2015 NBA Draft, nurses an ankle injury that has kept him out of action in the Chinese Basketball Association since late November, Ohio State freshman point guard D’Angelo Russell is quickly starting to gain ground on him. With Will Bynum taking Mudiay’s spot and the CBA season winding down, there’s a high probability that we’ve seen the last of him in true-game action before the draft. Meanwhile, Russell is getting better with each game and has ample opportunities to further improve his stock the rest of the season.

Russell, a Louisville, Kentucky native, came in with a surprisingly low profile despite being a top-20 recruit nationally. He didn’t have a long, drawn out recruitment process that garnered a lot of attention. He formed a strong bond with Thad Matta and committed to him the summer before his senior year over the likes of Louisville, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona. John Calipari and Kentucky showed a little bit of interest, but they never officially offered him a scholarship as they already had the Harrison Twins in tow and their sights set on Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Unlike some of the other top players in the 2014 recruiting class, Russell was not pinned as a likely one-and-done candidate. Because of his slight frame and the belief that he was solely a shooting guard, Russell was expected to need at least a year or two before being able to seriously consider a jump to the NBA.

Now, he’s on pace to potentially be the first point guard taken on draft night, maybe even as high as No. 1 overall depending on the team that wins the lottery’s biggest need.

Russell’s ascent up the draft boards started slowly and steadily from day one. He’s averaging 19.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. The Buckeyes played the 75th most difficult schedule during pre-conference, so there was a limit as to how much he could help himself against the likes of UMass-Lowell, Sacred Heart, Campbell, Morehead State, North Carolina A&T, ect. no matter how well he played. In the lone two marquee matchups before Big Ten play at Louisville and at home against North Carolina, Russell failed to make a statement. He shot 6-20 against Louisville, although he did have six assists and six rebounds, and was even worse percentage wise against North Carolina, shooting just 4-17 from the field. Again, he did help in other ways, tallying eight rebounds, five assists and three steals against the Tar Heels, but those were not his best outings. He wasn’t great in his first matchup against Iowa or Indiana, two of the better teams in the Big Ten this year, either.

The way he played against them the second time around, though, makes you hope that we get to see re-matches against Louisville and UNC in the NCAA Tournament.

Against the Hawkeyes on December 30 Russell had a very pedestrian 13 points, four rebounds and four assists. He had an identically disappointing 13 points, eight rebounds and two assists against Indiana on January 10. Not coincidentally, OSU dropped both of those contests.

Last week the Buckeyes fell again to the Hawkeyes, but that was despite of one of Russell’s best efforts. The freshman adjusted and dropped a hearty 27 points (10-22 FG, 4-8 3PT), 14 rebounds and two assists in defeat. Then, on Sunday against the 23rd ranked Hoosiers, Russell was clearly the best player on the floor, controlling the action like a true maestro and flirting with a triple-double with 22 points (9-15 FG, 2-7 3PT), six rebounds and ten assists. The Buckeyes won handedly 82-70 and as a result, Russell’s stock has never been hotter.

A 6’5 combo guard who is increasingly starting to get projected as a point guard at the next level, Russell has a ton of similarities to Houston Rockets All-Star guard and MVP candidate James Harden. Not only is Russell left handed like Harden, but he’s got the same smoothness and well-rounded offensive skill set that has helped Harden become one of the league’s elite scorers and playmakers. Russell can get his shot off against anyone thanks to his strong ball-handling ability and very quick release. He’ll also wow you at times with his creative passing ability; he sees things at times that only the most natural of playmakers would notice.

With a 6’9 wingspan to go along with his above-average height for a point guard, Russell can be a real menace defensively when he’s locked in. His speed and athleticism don’t jump off the page, but he’s far from being sup-bar or at a noticeable disadvantage in either aspect. With some additional strength and in the right system, he should be able to be a serviceable defender at worst. Although not as good as his offensive instincts, he has a solid IQ on the defensive end of the floor, indicated by the nearly two steals a game he averages.

The Buckeyes have 10 regular season games left, along with the Big 10 tournament and the big dance. Russell seems to just be hitting his stride and if he continues to put up numbers like he has been over the last three games against Iowa, Northwestern and Indiana in which he averaged 27 points, nine rebounds and six assists, he’ll be firmly considered by any of the likely candidates to win the lottery (The Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves). Barring a hard crash into the freshman wall or a passion for being a student-athlete that keeps him at OSU another year, Russell should go no lower than fourth.

Coach K Gets No. 1000: Duke head coach Mike Kryzewski made history (once again) on Sunday afternoon, earning his 1,000th career victory as a head coach. It was far from easy, as St. John’s led by 10 with eight minutes to play. But, behind two heralded freshmen in Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, the Blue Devils came storming back to clinch the landmark victory for Coach K 77-68. Junior center Marshall Plumlee, who typically plays just nine minutes a night, was also mentioned by Coach K by name afterwards as being instrumental in the come-from-behind victory. Plumlee, the younger brother of former Blue Devils and NBA first-round picks Miles and Marshall, provided a big boost in the second half with his physicality and rebounding.

“It just, boom! It was great,” Krzyzewski said afterwards. “It was beautiful, really, to see them fight today and win.

“I’m glad it’s over. There will be others that win more, but it is kind of neat to be the first one to 1,000. I am proud of that, too: It’s not just the number of wins, but the quality of opponents we’ve had.”

Bob Knight, Krzyzewski’s mentor and the man who he passed to become men’s college basketball’s all-time leader in wins, released the following statement about his accomplishment:

“It’s a remarkable accomplishment to win as many games as Mike has as a coach,” Knight said. “However, being able to coach as well as he has for as many years as he has is even more remarkable.”

Along with trying to add to his collection of national championships, Krzyzewski will also continue to try to work his way past Pat Summit for the college basketball wins record. The retired Tennessee Volunteers women’s basketball coach finished with 1,098 victories. As for men’s coaches, though, Coach K is in a class of his own.

Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony watch Jahlil Okafor: With it being an off day for the New York Knicks and the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in action at their home arena, Knicks president Phil Jackson and star player Carmelo Anthony decided to take a first-hand look at Jahlil Okafor.

Okafor, matched up against a potential future pro in St. John’s big man Chris Obekpa, showed them why everyone has him tapped to be the next great offensive center in the NBA. He scored 17 points on 7-10 shooting from the field and recorded a double-double as well thanks to his 10 rebounds. Anthony walked away impressed.

“I like him,” Anthony said to Peter Botte of the New York Daily News. “He’s got a great feel for the game and great touch. He’s a big body down there for sure. He’s a load.”

The Knicks picked up three wins recently, which got them out of the cellar and ended one of the worst stretches in franchise history. At 8-37, they’re just slightly ahead of the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves. As bad as they’ve been, the silver lining throughout the season has been that they finally own their first-round pick, so they’ll be receiving a major boost this offseason in the form of a high draft selection – perhaps Okafor.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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