Brooklyn Nets: Is D’Angelo Russell finally making the leap?

D’Angelo Russell has continued to impress with his scoring ability and has led the Brooklyn Nets in their push for the playoffs. How much of this is real?

Player development takes many shapes and forms in the NBA. While young players develop at vastly different rates, the point guard position often sees the biggest transition period for top prospects. Great point guard such as Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups are just a couple of examples of the struggles young guards face early in their NBA careers.

D’Angelo Russell‘s play this season has many discussing him as a possible All-Star and is a continuous reminder of how difficult it is to give up on young point guards. While Russell is in his fourth season in the league, he is still just 22 years old (he turns 23 in late February) and has made strides so far this season.

However, as he approaches restricted free agency during a summer in which the Brooklyn Nets hope to bring in a star player to take the team to the next level, has Russell shown enough to prove he can be one of the best players on a true playoff contender? Has Russell made “the leap” that everyone expects from young players early in their careers? Let’s take a closer look.

Steady improvements after a slow start

During the first two months of the season, Russell was playing at the level many came to expect from him throughout his short NBA career. He was putting up numbers (15.1 points and 5.5 assists per game in October followed by 19.5 points and 5.8 assists per game in November), but was fairly inefficient in doing so (53.3 True Shooting percentage in October, which dropped to 49 percent in November).

Simply put, he was providing inefficient scoring coupled with relatively disappointing defense. It was at this point that many started to believe a trade would be the best course of action for the team. The Nets could get an asset or two in return for a young point guard who seemed to be on the same course of action ahead of a potential payday.

However, starting in early December, the Nets turned things around and Russell played a key role in doing so. Since Dec. 6, the Nets are 16-5, good for the second-best record in the league. Russell’s efficiency and playmaking started to creep up and his consistency appeared to improve. In December, Russell put up 17.9 points and 6.8 assists per game as a key leader of Brooklyn’s turnaround.

But none of that compares to his play in January. In nine games this month (in which the Nets are 7-2), Russell is putting up All-Star level numbers, averaging 23.2 points and 7.4 assists per game on 50/40/90 shooting splits and a 61.8 true shooting percentage. He has provided memorable performances against quality opposition, but his signature game of the season so far was his 40 point, comeback-leading performance against the Orlando Magic:

Improved playmaking

In January, Russell has continued to thrive as a playmaker, setting up teammates for quality looks while he works to get to his comfort areas of the floor. The 22-year-old guard is adept at finding cutting wings (often times Rodions Kurucs and Joe Harris) and has also established a strong connection with his big men, where Russell’s slow, unorthodox game allows him to patiently deliver passes at the perfect times.

It is that level of playmaking that the Nets would love to get from Russell on a nightly basis. Improvements as a passer and leader of the offense will allow Russell to make his mark on any game, not just nights in which his shot is falling. Given his inconsistency as a shooter, Russell needs to provide extra value as a playmaker, which he has started to do in the past month.

Unfortunately, there are still games where Russell can put scoring blinders on, which can be a huge detriment to a Nets’ offense that relies on a lot of ball movement (they rank fourth in the league in passes per game). The Nets are hoping that those games are few and far between moving forward.

Becoming a more consistent scorer

Russell hasn’t just started to create more opportunities for teammates in the past month. His scoring has also taken a big jump, as he has hit his 3s at a strong rate and has been a dead-eye mid-range shooter. Russell is now up to 37.4 percent on seven 3-point attempts per game, while he is also shooting strong percentages in the mid-range, a shot that Russell likes to go to despite the team’s focus on having a modern shot chart built on 3s and shots at the rim.

Russell’s 19 points per game this season are a career high by a significant margin, mainly a result of more scoring opportunities (he is attempting three more shots per game this season than the 2017-18 campaign) and strong shooting on 3s. He has struggled mightily around the rim, finishing just 51.6 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket, down from 63.6 percent last season and 57.7 percent for his career. Those struggles, coupled with his extremely low free throw attempt rate (just .107 this season) highlight the glaring limitations on Russell’s scoring.

Simply put, if Russell’s shot isn’t falling, he will struggle to score efficiently. He lacks the explosiveness to get past defenders and finish around the rim, while he has never been one to draw fouls and get easy points at the line. Speaking of free throws, remember when Russell received James Harden comparisons due to his slow motion, unorthodox style of offense? Harden attempts nearly 10 more free throws per game than Russell does!

These limitations beg the question of just how much we should trust the strong shooting numbers Russell has posted this season. He is a career 35.1 percent 3-point shooter and all of his mid-range percentages are above his career averages up to this point. If his shooting drops back down to career norms, will he be able to efficiently average 17-19 points per game? It’s a serious question the Nets (or any team thinking of signing him this summer) must ask themselves.

A player that isn’t a great natural shooter must be able to generate efficient offense in other ways, which is precisely where Russell struggles. Harden is only a career 36.5 percent 3-point shooter but A) takes a lot of 3s, B) avoids inefficient mid-range shots and C) generates 10 points per game from the charity stripe alone. If Russell wants to continue to be an efficient scorer, he must modernize his shot chart and seek out contact when driving to the rim.

Any improvements on the defensive end?

Of course, any discussion of D’Angelo Russell in recent seasons has always focused on his offensive contributions, because Russell was never expected to be a good defender. Through his first three seasons in the league, that turned out to be true, as Russell was a clear negative on that end of the floor.

But quietly, Russell has made some marginal defensive improvements. He doesn’t die on screens as much and provides more effort to get back on his man and contest shots. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that Russell ranks second on the team in deflections, has recovered the second-most loose balls per game, and ranks first in contested 3-pointers.

With Russell on the floor, the Nets’ defensive rating is 107.5, which would be a top-10 mark in the league (overall the Nets’ defense ranks 21st). Additionally, Russell owns a career-high defensive box plus-minus, and his defensive real plus-minus is over two points higher than last season.

Sure, Russell is still a negative on the defensive end, but the marginal improvements he has made with his effort can provide some optimism. It is that improvement on defense and in his playmaking that should make Nets fans excited about his future, not the potentially misleading shooting numbers.

Where does Russell go from here?

Of course, Russell’s improvements may put the Nets in a tough predicament. General manager Sean Marks has made it clear the team is focused on adding a star free agent this summer, but Russell may be playing his way into an expensive offer sheet from another team.

As I’ve written about previously, Marks should be focused on trading Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Allen Crabbe at this year’s trade deadline, thus ensuring a path for the Nets to retain Russell and add a star free agent (or two, depending on Russell’s contract). While it’s unlikely that both are accomplished at the deadline, it’s a path Marks must explore in detail in order to maximize the teams’ chances in 2019 free agency.

Focusing on Russell specifically, has he played his way into a contract that would pay him around $20 million per season? It’s hard to say. The fourth-year guard continues to rely extensively on inconsistent shooting, which will likely cap him as a fairly inefficient scorer.

However, Russell has shown improved playmaking and defense this season, which gives one hope that he can continue to provide value on nights when his shot isn’t falling. Of course, it’s also hard to rule out how valuable his scoring outbursts can be, with his 40-point, comeback-leading performance being a perfect example. His solid catch-and-shoot numbers also make Russell a solid fit playing alongside other ball-handlers, which helps Kenny Atkinson deploy lineups that will contain several shooters and playmakers on the floor at once.

In the end, Russell will likely generate interest from several teams this summer, and the Nets may not have much time to decide on his future with the team. A team desperate for a point guard (such as the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic) may throw a big offer at Russell early in free agency, which would put the Nets in scramble mode to figure out their finances and plans to sign other free agents.

If Marks is focused on keeping Russell around for the foreseeable future, his best path to do so is through dumping Crabbe’s contract and retaining Russell at a reasonable number around the $16-18 million range, thereby giving him other opportunities to add a true star to the Nets’ growing young core.

D’Angelo Russell has made some significant strides this season. But like his shooting, his future faces some uncertainty as the Nets continue on with their 2019 plans.