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D'Angelo's Russell's Upside & Defense

In defense of his defense, and his overall potential.

Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

We did it, guys! We had an enormous Lottery Party! We ensured that the Sixers got a Top 3 pick! We changed the cosmic order of the universe using only our sheer willpower!

Okay, maybe we didn't have any affect on anything, but we do definitively know now that the Sixers will be selecting with the 3rd overall pick in the 2015 Draft, giving them their choice of any player not named Towns or Okafor. Hinkie can merely select whichever player he finds most attractive at that spot, and doesn't need to worry about seeing his preference off the board.

I wrote two weeks ago that Justise Winslow, Mario Hezonja, and D'Angelo Russell were the three players most likely to be taken if the Sixers had their choice of the non-center litter. We've talked about Winslow and Hezonja in detail. Let's look at Russell.

There's been enough discussion of Russell on these boards that I don't feel the need to review the basics. I would, instead, like to discuss upside and defense—two facets of Russell's play for which a narrative has emerged that I disagree with, to some extent.

Narrative is perhaps the incorrect term with regards to upside, as a large portion of the draft community agrees that he has quite a high upside. However, there are some who posit that Russell has a lower ceiling than some of his more athletic peers—Emmanuel Mudiay, Justise Winslow, or Mario Hezonja, for instance. While they all have similar potential, the "absolute" ceilings of the last three outstrip that of Russell, because they have the ability to learn skills Russell possesses, but he lacks the ability to attain their superior innate athleticism. An elite athlete with Russell's skillset is more valuable than an average one, the thinking goes, and therefore these players have higher ceilings, even if they may not be likely to reach them.

This is a thought process that is quite prevalent in assessing draft prospects—the tie goes to the runner, the leaper, the physical specimen. It has been an underlying conviction that has devalued many highly skilled prospects lacking elite athleticism. The most obvious examples are Stephen Curry and Kevin Love, but there are plenty more scattered throughout various drafts of the past ten years. Klay Thompson and Gordon Hayward are two recent RFA's who signed max or close to max extensions who were thought to be lacking potential due to athletic deficiencies, but whose play was deserving of those extensions. Marc Gasol, Paul Millsap, and even James Harden all had similar doubts about their athleticism taint perceptions of their potential.

Our own Kyle Neubeck wrote about the need to parse meaning from the term "upside" earlier this year, saying, "Let's stop equating athleticism with upside—the former is just a small part of what makes up the latter."

Layne Vashro wrote a similar piece for Canis Hoopus last year, in which he examined the average growth curves of both highly skilled and highly athletic prospects. Vashro found that, "unsurprisingly, the players who were better at a given skill in college were better at all ages in the NBA." This was not universally applicable, but it generally holds that players who begin as more proficient will maintain that superiority in most areas, while also improving abilities in secondary areas.

This relates to Russell because it directly contradicts the concept that other prospects will catch and potentially pass him in skill. Because he starts from a higher baseline, it is likely that he will maintain some advantage in ability as they mature into older, more rounded players. Again, this does not hold universally, and Vashro went on to conclude that there may be examples of extreme athleticism that can improve a player's ceiling, especially as it pertains to parsing out the stars from the superstars.

But dismissing Russell's ceiling vis-à-vis his more athletic peers specifically because of (a lack of) athleticism is unfair to Russell, and probably a misunderstanding of how to evaluate "upside."

As for Russell's defense, it has been fairly criticized by many, and may be a real deterrent in Hinkie's selection process. Our Derek Bodner wrote the following about Russell's defense on his own website (Check it out! It's really good!):

"From a physical perspective, his lateral mobility is only average and he needs to add upper body strength... Even more of a concern than the physical profile, though, is his technique. He's rarely in a good defensive stance on the defensive end, frequently upright and with his arms by his side. He does a poor job of running through picks and screens, he doesn't close out all that well on shooters, he can get bit by misdirections, and he gets lost off the ball."

Derek is exactly right that, based on sound scouting, Russell's defensive potential is worrisome. It may be an area that dissuades Hinkie in the long run, given public comments he has made about the importance of defense. But there are also statistical indicators that suggest Russell may not be a lost cause on that side of the ball.

In a comparison of more than 50 recent point guard prospects, Russell places above average in every defensive statistic. He is a phenomenal rebounder for a point guard, placing in the 90th percentile, rebounding 15.4% of misses. His steal and block percentages are not outstanding, but neither are they poor, as he places in the 55th to 60th percentile in both areas. None of these stats necessarily promise great things on the defensive end (and, indeed, they are not necessarily informative about current defensive ability, let alone future ability), but Russell's satisfaction of a base threshold is encouraging, nonetheless.

More promising still is his solid showing in Defensive Box Plus Minus, where he lands in the 70th percentile, at a score of 3.0. This is a good, not great showing, but considering his age, it is, again, encouraging. DBPM doesn't indubitably indicate defensive prowess, and scoring in the range that Russell did seems not to actually make any definitive statement in either direction of defensive competence. But scoring poorly in DBPM is consistently a flag that a player may not be productive in the NBA, and Russell easily scores above the threshold that would make him worrisome as a defensive prospect. It's not an enormous win for him, but it does, at the least, suggest greater ability than his reputation does.

In the case of Russell's potential, both as an overall prospect and as a defensive one, none of this provides concrete evidence that he will be great. But it does suggest that he should perhaps be evaluated slightly more optimistically than is frequently the case in both instances. And if Hinkie agrees with that, then perhaps, as many draftniks are predicting, he really will select Russell 3rd overall.

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