This time last year, Brooklyn Nets guard D’Angelo Russell was waiting to see the announcement for the 2019 NBA All-Star Game reserves. Russell had made many media members fake ballots, but his fate was left in the hands of the league’s coaches.
He missed the cut. But shortly after, with Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo sidelined by a severe injury, commissioner Adam Silver announced that Russell had made the team as an injury replacement. At just 22 years old, Russell was headed to the All-Star Game.
A year later and that discourse has evaporated as the league prepares to announce the reserves for the 2020 All-Star Game. Russell is on no media member’s ballots, and is unlikely to be on any coach’s ballots either. He’s not in the discussion much more than Steph Curry, who hasn’t played since October.
And yet, if you look at the stats, Russell’s inaugural campaign with the Golden State Warriors is remarkably similar to his final season in Brooklyn. The points are up, from 21.1 per game and 33.3 per 100 possessions to 24.0 and 35.6. The assist rate is down slightly (41.3% to 37.0%), but it’s safe to say that dip is due to having worse teammates.
Most encouragingly, his offensive efficiency has taken a leap. His three-point percentage is up, from 36.9% to 38.1%, and he’s taking 2.0 more threes per 100 possessions. He’s getting to the free throw line 6.6 times per 100 possessions - not a huge number, but notably above last year’s mark of 4.0
The result is a true-shooting percentage of 56.1%, which ranks 110th in the league. Last year, Russell’s mark of 53.3% was 157th.
The defense isn’t good, but what’s new?
So why is Russell on the outside of the All-Star conversation, a year after making an appearance in the mid-season exhibition game? Most likely due to how much we overemphasize team success, or lack thereof, when evaluating individual players.
It seems entirely likely that Russell is receiving too much blame for the Warriors league-worst record of 10-38. Just as he likely received too much credit for the Nets surprising 2018-19 season that featured stellar performances from Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think Russell deserved to be an All-Star a year ago, even in a weak conference. And yet I’ve found myself more impressed than disappointed with his performance this season.
But it is fair to wonder what Russell’s value is. Advanced stats aren’t clear-cut rankings, and shouldn’t be taken as such, but they are telling. And there are reasons they’re not particularly bullish on Russell (PIPM has him ranked 224th in the league, while ESPN’s RPM has him at 166). His offensive production may be strong, but the team’s overall output is 30th in a 30-team league.
Those are indictments on Russell’s impact. They don’t cancel out his good, but they are a part of his on-court story.
It’s possible that Russell is a more box score-friendly version of Draymond Green, who is having his worst season, by far, since Steve Kerr took over. Green has had his moments but, with Curry and Klay Thompson sidelined, his value has been far from maximized.
That may be the case with Russell. It may be that, when the floor is spaced with the two greatest shooters in NBA history, and the team is competent defensively, the good things he does will shine even brighter, and his value may skyrocket.
Or he may simply be a player whose impact on wins doesn’t ever rise as high as his box score stats.