This story is over 5 years old.


Sturdiness, Loneliness, and Just Enough Magic: D'Angelo Russell Deconstructed

It's hard to remember a rookie season more fraught or steeped in bad vibes than D'Angelo Russell's. Which is a shame, because there's a potential superstar in here.
Illustration by Elliot Gerard

This season's rookie class could be something special. There is talent and depth, size and skill, and the promise that there could be a few transcendent players in the mix. Oddly, though, some elements of each player's game and physical presentation feel familiar. Rookies Deconstructed is a series that means to take each rookie apart, identifying the building blocks we know and the natural comparisons that emerge and appreciating how they come together in ways that are radically and invigoratingly new. Because these are rookies some comparisons are necessarily forward-looking.


Bob Sura's Bulky Intentions

Everyone likes the idea of a well-rounded gentleman ball player, of getting you a man, as the meme goes, who can do both. Usually this spirals to the extreme: a player who is not just versatile but excels in every area. It's how we idealize Scottie Pippen, and it's the future we fantasize for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Point Guard. It's why we can never forget the heartbreak of Josh Smith. But there is power in being average, and versatility is a gift even in its less gripping and more benign forms.

Read More: Vanilla Gorillas, Young Boshes, and Big Shoes: Myles Turner Deconstructed

Bob Sura was of average build, and generally of below-average haircut. His strength and leaping ability offset a slight deficit in speed, working out to a net neutral athletic profile. He was an average outside shooter and a solid rebounder for a wing. In the pick-and-roll, Sura was assertive and a good decision-maker capable of delivering the ball to the open man, occasionally with some panache. He never made an All-Star team, but is one of just 11 players in NBA history to be invited to both the Three-Point Competition and the Slam Dunk Contest; he finished eighth and sixth, respectively, which is absolutely the point.

Taken individually, Sura's skills were wholly unremarkable. Aggregated, they made him extremely valuable. That utility was passed around a fair bit in the course of his career, as Sura played for five different teams in ten seasons. He was always a useful piece but never quite useful to lock down his job when there were other, shinier talents out there to replace him.


D'Angelo Russell is precisely that shinier talent, and at 20 he already has the celestial look and feel of a star. But his potential is built on a solid frame of Sura-esque reliability. Russell is ostensibly a point guard, but his abilities transcend that positional box. He scores a little more than Sura did, but doesn't have an obvious offensive fingerprint as a scorer. He sets up his teammates, he uses his size to get rebounds, and he could be a potent slasher. He could be a deadly three-point shooter or he could be a Jason Kidd–level orchestrator or he could be shutdown perimeter defender, or he could be all of those. He could be a lot of things. Being alright at just about everything is not a bad place for a 20-year-old to start.

That sweet that nasty that bulky stuff. Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Magic Johnson and the Legend of the Big Point Guard

The Legend of the Big Point Guard has captivated children and adults for a generation. This epic story revolves around one Magic Johnson—earlier versions exist with a mythic character named Big O—who was a joyful and charismatic leader gifted with a playmaker's skills and a small forward's body. The tale, as it is told, recounts how his great size allowed him to leverage the ball-handling and passing responsibilities of a point guard to a previously unforeseen degree. Behind-the-back and no-look passes never looked quite so beautiful as when they were launched by a man so large. NBA organizations have made this legend, and the search for the tale's next heroic protagonist, part of their own individual mythologies. Like most legends, it's mostly nonsense.

Johnson and those who followed in his footsteps—Penny Hardaway, Jalen Rose, Nate McMillan, Tyreke Evans if you're feeling charitable—have mostly completed the acts for which the legend is celebrated. They have backed down smaller guards in the post, passed and scored over the top of a defense, corralled rebounds that no point guard has a right to reach. That much is true.


Where they deviate from the legend is that they all somewhat quickly lost the distinction of being a tall point guard, and instead blended into the somewhat blander tale of the Pretty Good Playmaking Wing. Johnson almost always ran the Lakers offense, but he didn't always do it as a point guard, at least in the narrow understanding of the position upon which the legend is based. He probably maintained his point guard-ness more than most in his mythic tranche, but even for Magic, size was more about the ability to do many things than the chance to be the tallest human doing a particular thing. Penny, Rose, and Tyreke were all considered potential heirs but in retrospect they are mostly indistinguishable from the Brandon Roys or Tracy McGradys or even James Hardens who were slotted as wings and slowly absorbed ball-handling responsibilities.

Russell is very clearly part of this story. He is 6'5'' and listed as a point guard. The mostly scientific estimates at Nylon Calculus do mark him as having played the position for about 90 percent of his minutes this season. But he also plays plenty of minutes with Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams, who have in the past attended masquerade balls disguised as point guards; he also shares the floor with Kobe Bryant, the seething black hole that keeps Stephen Hawking awake at night. All of which is to say that Russell's pure point-guard nature has already been diluted and tainted in ways that were probably inevitable. Playing point guard is not the same as being a point guard.


Too good, or at least too big. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that the only thing Russell has really lost is the chance to live out an unrealistic fantasy. The core nature of his talent remains intact. For players who can score and facilitate, the former tends to have a certain pull. Russell can be very good at both, and it's easy to see him leaning that way. However, the fundamental ability to slide back and forth offers a world of possibilities.

Russell and Clarkson, as a long-term guard pairing, still looks really appealing on paper, with each holding half of that interchangeable yin-yang skill set. We're still dealing with the idea in the abstract because Kobe's presence has so warped the Lakers' reality this season as to make it essentially worthless as predictive evidence of anything in particular. A team could also pair Russell with a sharp-shooting guard who plays defense without offering much shot creation—say, Patrick Beverley to James Harden or Byron Scott to Magic Johnson—and have most of your backcourt bases covered. But the Lakers aren't doing that yet. They're pairing D'Angelo Russell with Kobe's exquisite corpse and Byron Scott the Coach, who is not much use to anyone.

It would be nice if D'Angelo Russell were a unicorn, that mythical point-genius creature we've been waiting a lifetime to see. He'll probably have to settle for being a run-of-the-mill superstar.

Kwame Brown and Living on an Island

Kwame Brown is really only memorable for the things his talent outlined but never actually filled in. That talent was significant enough, and the weight of his First Overall Pick status heavy enough, that he almost certainly had the most disappointing 12-year career in NBA history. Brown did find himself a NBA niche, and made a long and lucrative career, but he just wasn't what we all thought he might be.

But Brown was big and pretty athletic. Significant skill did not materialize, but he put his body to good use as a defender and rebounder. If not for inflated expectations, Brown would probably be remembered fondly as a hard-working if limited journeyman. But wow, those expectations. They surrounded him with the cloying odor of failure, a smell that followed him to all sevens teams he played for, in roles of gradually diminishing importance.


Brown played his NBA career on an island. His first four seasons with Washington marked the longest tenure he ever had with a single team. By the time he left, his destiny as a vagabond was plain. Teams that needed him would bring him in and he would do his job, but no one really seemed willing to fully integrate him into future plans for fear of catching whatever sickness he carried with him. His niche was defense and rebounding, but he almost always did this work in dire and desperate circumstances. This was his lot because he flamed out in Washington, and the way he flamed out in Washington can't be separated from his relationship with Michael Jordan.

TFW you're being taught a really dumb lesson, by a bunch of people who sincerely believe in it. Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In his new book, Boys Among Men, Jonathan Abrams shares an anecdote, reported by the Washington Post's Mike Leahy, about one of Brown's first training camp sessions with Jordan and the Wizards. Brown called for a foul, Jordan indignantly called out Brown's manhood and sexuality. It is a legitimately stomach-churning quote, even if you've spent a lot of time around sports' specific brand of toxic masculine bullshit, and I won't repeat it. One would imagine it was just the first of a steady torrent of indignities to which Brown was subjected by his teammate, in the name of player development; we know he dealt with similar bullshit while playing for Phil Jackson with the Lakers. Placing Kwame Brown on another team and in another environment for his rookie season is one of the great NBA hypotheticals.


D'Angelo Russell, as it happens, is currently living on an island, ostracized by his teammates and criticized by former players for recording and (accidentally) sharing a video of Nick Young admitting to infidelity. It's a difficult situation to be on a team and simultaneously separate from it. That sort of thing could break the spirit of anyone, including a just-turned-20-year-old playing his first season of professional basketball for a desperately dysfunctional team. Luckily, Russell has had plenty of experience with public criticism and shaming this season.

The way Byron Scott has handled his young player this season has been painful to watch. Apparently a firm believer in negative reinforcement, Scott has made a ritual out of pointing out everything that is wrong with Russell and his game. Scott has called him cocky, said that he isn't "getting it," that he is not as mature as Kyrie Irving or Chris Paul, that he hasn't earned his trust, that he makes the same mistakes over and over again, that he doesn't get to play just because he was the No. 2 pick, that he has a way to go and is definitely not Magic Johnson. All of those things are true to some degree; the issue is saying them to beat reporters at a post-game press conference instead of to Russell at practice or team meetings. This is not quite the same as having Michael Jordan scream obscenities at you, but the public, passive undermining is just as troubling, especially from a coach.

Of all the comparisons I've included in this series, finding one for this aspect of Russell's rookie experience was the hardest. Rookies catch hell, including sometimes from their coaches; it's part of the experience. But even Brown's shaming and ego-destruction took place mostly in the shadows. There is almost no precedent for a coach so consistently and publicly tearing down a talented rookie the way Scott has with Russell.

The good news is that it's hard to see how it gets worse. Kobe's farewell tour is almost over, many of the teammates who have shunned Russell over the Young incident won't be around next year, and it's hard to imagine that Scott has earned himself another season at the helm of this flying crap contraption, which he has steadfastly steered into the mouth of an active volcano.

Russell has been a castaway this season, isolated and starved of minutes, consistency, and support. Here's hoping a rescue mission is underway. He deserves better than this.