Whenever the question of who are the best players in this year’s draft comes up, four names are typically mentioned. Those names are Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns, Emmanuel Mudiay and D’Angelo Russell. Both Okafor and Towns are talented big men who have the potential to be a cornerstone piece for an NBA team and Mudiay for a long time was considered the unquestioned number one guard in this year’s class. That is, until Russell plowed through all expectations in his one and only year at Ohio State.
In 35 games with the Buckeyes, Russell averaged 19.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and five assists, while shooting 47.9 percent on two-point field goals and 41.1 percent from beyond-the-arc.
Russell wasn’t always considered to be in the same class as Okafor, Towns or Mudiay. He was ranked 18th overall in his class by Rivals.com and often took a back to seat to other players in high school. But after one season in college, Russell is now a virtual lock to be drafted no later than fifth overall.
Russell is 6’5, 180 pounds and has the size and skill to play both point guard and shooting guard at the next level. When talking to reporters at the NBA Combine, Russell said he had no preference for either position.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m a basketball player,” said Russell. “So if the ball is in my hands, I guess that makes me a point guard, but if it’s not I guess I’m a two-guard.”
Russell is a good distributor, rebounds well and can score over smaller defenders. He is not an elite athlete, but he knows how to utilize his skills and exploit matchups. He is also good at shooting the ball off the dribble and on catch-and-shoot opportunities. This means that opponents often had to close out hard on his jumpers, which often allowed Russell to attack scrambling defenses off the dribble. The best part of this aspect of Russell’s game is it highlights his understanding of his strengths and how to make the most of them.
When asked what his best skill on the court is, Russell did not mention a physical skill like shooting, passing, jumping or rebounding.
“My IQ,” Russell responded. “I try to be the smartest player, and I feel like that will definitely upgrade with experience. But being the smartest player, point guard, vision, get the best out of each guy around [me] and try to be a leader on any team I’m on.”
Russell’s ability to be a top-level distributor, scorer and all-around player is what makes him such an intriguing prospect for teams with a top pick. Russell has been interviewing with teams like the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers, but stressed that he will do his best to adapt himself to whichever team drafts him, regardless of what system they may run. This includes the Triangle Offense in New York, which Russell admitted he wasn’t too familiar with.
“I’ve actually been hearing about a triangle,” said Russell. “I never knew what that was … but I definitely will adjust to it if I go there.”
Despite talking about fitting in wherever he ends up playing, Russell did offer some insight on how he would feel about playing with specific players, including Carmelo Anthony.
“Oh man, that’s beautiful,” said Russell when asked what it would be like to play with Anthony. “Knowing what type of player he is and where he’s come from and knowing the damage we could do to the league together, it would be awesome.”
Russell was also asked about potentially playing with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid of the 76ers, both of whom he is very familiar with.
“Like I said, any team that drafts me, I’m going to make the best out of it,” said Russell. “Knowing those guys, I feel like we got the chemistry that I guess is there already [with] me playing with Joel in high school all the time, on the second team in high school. So like I said, it’s a blessing to be in the position I’m in right now.”
Russell is not a great defensive player at this point, but he has the size to be solid at the NBA level. He understands both his weaknesses and strengths and is looking forward to working on improving every aspect of his game.
“Everything,” Russell said when asked what part of his game he needed to work on. “Every part of my game I’m taking to another level.”
Knowing that he has a lot of room to improve, Russell still has a lot of confidence in his game as it is today. When asked why an NBA team should draft him, Russell made a bold proclamation.
“I’m the best player in the draft,” Russell said confidently.
Whether or not Russell actually is the best player in this draft is still to be determined, but it is an encouraging sign when a player is as confident as Russell is. Part of that confidence surely comes from playing at Ohio State and in the Big Ten Conference, which provides solid competition on most nights. Russell noted this when asked how playing at Ohio State helped his overall development.
“It prepared me physically the most,” said Russell. “Physically and mentally, but physically the most. The Big Ten is a tough league. If you’re a guy that’s not prepared to be banged up every night, it’s not good for you.
“Like I said, it’s not the NBA, but it’s almost there. I mean the skill, you never know who you’re going to get every night. The coaches are trained to prepare for players like myself every night, so you have to adjust and it’s an adjustment at the age of 18, 19 years old.”
On Tuesday night, the NBA Lottery will be held and the order of the draft will be determined. At that point, we may have a better idea of which team will draft Russell. However, whichever team drafts him will be adding a young, versatile, talented, hard-working guard that thrives as much at the mental aspects of the game as he does at the physical.
Russell made a big splash when he moved up to the college level, and will have the chance to do the same in the NBA. When that next step happens, then we will really be able to judge whether Russell is in fact the best player in the 2015 NBA draft.
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