Our focus turns to D'Angelo Russell and how he'd look in a Denver Nuggets uniform.
Russell was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, in the heart of basketball country. He played one year of high school basketball in Louisville before transferring to national powerhouse Monteverde Academy in Florida for his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. Monteverde Academy is a basketball developmental school and has been the high school training ground for several NBA players including Kyrie Irving, Michael Kidd-Gilcrest, Joel Embiid,and Al Harrington. Russell himself played alongside Kentucky's Dakari Johnson and Ben Simmons (Simmons is a high school senior who is widely considered to be a future high lottery pick). Russell also helped Monteverde win back to back high school national championships in 2013 and 2014.
Russell played one season for Ohio State University where he was named the Big-Ten freshman of the year and a consensus first team all-american. He averaged over 19 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game as a freshman and led the team in minutes, points, assists, and rebounds. He had one of his best games of the season in the first round of the NCAA tournament helping the Buckeyes upset Virginia Commonwealth, scoring 28 points on 50% shooting. He followed that game up with his second lowest scoring game of the tournament and worst shooting game of the season in a 2nd Round loss to Arizona.
Feel for the game/High IQ - Russell has a lot of very good qualities but perhaps his best quality is his feel for the game. He has great instincts offensively and seems to have a lot of those subtle qualities that you can't really teach. On offense he sees the possession develop one step ahead of the defense, often times making a pass or drive at the exact right moment. In interviews he even seems to take pride in being a "smart" player and his instincts will serve him well at the NBA level.
Passing - Russell is a phenomenal passer. He has soft touch on a variety of passes including lobs at the rim and passes over and around the defense. He is able to throw skip passes with incredible speed and precision, a skill that is immensely valuable at the NBA level. He uses his height very well to see over the defense and is comfortable making two-handed overhead passes in traffic or on the pick and roll. Perhaps my favorite part of his game is his ability to pass at virtually any moment off of the dribble. Most players pass in the same motion or in the same rhythm off of the dribble but Russell is very crafty at being able to catch his defender off guard with a stunt dribble or stutter step and pass "off-rhythm."
Size - Russell is 6'5" with a 6'8" wingspan. That's a lot of length and it helps him on both the offensive and defensive end. His height will allow him to matchup with both guard positions on defense. His height also helps him on the offensive end where seeing over the defense helps him read the defense very well.
Versatility - Because of his height, Russell will be somewhat versatile as either a point guard or shooting guard depending on the circumstance. He has a pretty good jump shot and has shown the ability to score in volume off of the dribble or on the catch and shoot.
Unselfishness - Along the same lines as having a high basketball IQ, Russell is extremely unselfish. He is very willing to make the extra pass or even reverse the ball to the open shooter, even in circumstances when he won't get credited with an assist. He'll fit in nicely with a team that features high ball movement since the more action in the possession, the more likely Russell will be to exploit his ability to read the defense.
Defensive Potential - With his size and instincts, Russell has a chance to be a very solid on ball and help side defender. As a freshman, Russell was inconsistent and showed moments of brilliance followed by moments of complete disinterest. He'll have to work at it at the next level, but with his footwork and size there is no reason that he can't be a solid defensive piece.
Shooting - Russell has a very good looking shot from a variety of spots around the court. He is comfortable shooting off of the dribble in pick and roll situations, a trait that will be extremely important to his success at the next level. He is also a decent catch and shoot scorer. His range will have to improve to be efficient at the next level but the mechanics are there for him to adjust throughout the early part of his NBA career.
Athleticism - Russell's surprising lack of athleticism is by far his biggest weakness. His game is much more "smooth" than "explosive" but Russell still needs to improve his athleticism in order to compete at the next level. He struggles against guards that can apply speed and pressure and he is fairly unimpressive scoring at the rim. He is a below the rim player and he tends to hesitate once he gets into the painted area where his shot is contested by rim protectors.
Scoring around the rim - Although a lot of this is due to his lack of explosion, he is also surprisingly bad at finishing with his off hand. Players with his high skill level and high basketball IQ usually don't struggle with relatively fundamental skills like scoring with an off hand but Russell will really need to improve both his confidence and his efficiency in this area.
Consistency - Like most freshmen, Russell was extremely up and down in his only season at the NCAA level. He had a tendency to play very well against bad competition and struggled against some of the more athletic or intense defenses. His inconsistency wasn't just game to game either as he would often go through hot and cold stretches throughout the course of a single game.
I like D'Angelo Russell a lot and if the Nuggets find themselves picking in the top 3 or 4 of this year's draft, I'd be thrilled if they added him to the roster. He has a very high ceiling and a lot of his best skills translate perfectly to the NBA game. I think he will struggle mightily in his first season as he adjusts to the speed and intensity of the NBA game but I would bet that his learning curve speeds up a lot in his 2nd and 3rd season.
His shot looks good enough that I suspect he'll turn into a reliable three-point threat on the wing and pull up threat out of the pick and roll. He'd really fit in nicely in a system similar to Melvin Hunt's where players are required to read and react quickly. Russell would be an ideal point guard for that type of system since he has a good feel for when to step in and take control and when to step aside and play off of the ball.
His lack of athleticism is a serious red flag and one that gives him bust potential. Some players lack explosiveness and still contribute in the NBA, even at the point guard position. However, he will really struggle against players like Russell Westbrook. He might have a limit to his athleticism and if so, I'd expect his ceiling to lower quite a bit. He is a player that I am sure general managers and scouts are anxious to see in workouts to try and figure out what they can expect from him athletically at the next level.
My best comparison for Russell would be some combination of Mike Conley and James Harden with some of the negatives of a guy like Jeremy Lamb. Obviously those three players are very different and it will be interesting to see which direction Russell goes as he develops in the NBA, but he has the instincts and vision to be a very solid point guard who can score when needed but leans more heavily on his feel for the game than his individual brilliance.
Mike Conley has a great 3-point shot and plays incredible mistake-free basketball from the point guard position. Russell might have a slightly higher ceiling as a scorer and as an overall playmaker, but Russell will also likely struggle to become as polished as a point guard. Conley makes up for his lack of explosiveness at the rim by finishing very well in the paint with floaters and nice touch off of the glass. Part of Russell's success will hinge on his ability to improve and become a threat inside the paint. Only three players in the NBA can whip the ball to the corner with the speed that Russell has shown; LeBron James, John Wall and James Harden. That skill is hugely important in today's NBA since so many teams over help the strong side. Fast ball reversals are absolutely deadly and it usually takes a large guard with great instincts like Russell to execute them effectively.
His bust potential is there and certainly Jeremy Lamb hasn't lived up to expectations despite playing on a Thunder team that should accentuate his skill set. The biggest reason for comparing the two is because Russell is built very similar to Lamb and possess some of the same negative traits that Lamb had coming into the league. Lamb lacks the individual brilliance that Russell seems to have but if Russell fails to adjust to the speed of the NBA game, he may end up looking similar to Lamb as a role player that can't be counted on game in and game out.
Russell will fit nicely on a team that is thinking long term and is okay with developing him slowly rather than leaning on him to be an impact player right out of the gate and adding him to a team in rebuild mode will likely land you another lottery pick in 2016. Nonetheless, the potential is there for Russell to be a very good NBA guard and a cornerstone piece on a contender.
Ultimately, I think he'd be a great pick at no. 3 or no. 4.