D'Angelo Russell
Bruno Rouby, ESNY Graphic

Brooklyn Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell put together his best performance to date against the Toronto Raptors. He displayed major improvements to the weakest part of his game.

Matt Brooks

D‘Angelo Russell is piecing it all together.

In Monday’s game against the Toronto Raptors, Russell looked the part of the second-best point guard in the entire Eastern Conference. No, seriously.

Russell had himself a monster game, scoring 28 points along with 14 assists and 7 rebounds. He outplayed fellow All-Star point guard, Kyle Lowry. It was, by far and wide, Russell’s best performance of the season. It was also, perhaps, his best game to date.

So, what made this performance monumental? Was it his career-high 14 assists? Perhaps, it was the monster three-pointer in Danny Green’s face?

These highlights were impressive, there’s no denying that. But there was something else that made this game stand out for the 22-year-old point guard.

D’Angelo Russell was a fearless assassin around the rim.

D-Lo’s rise this season has almost been incomparable. He came into the season as a lowly regarded former number two overall pick. To the more hot-takey folks, he was a stealth Most Improved Player candidate. But to most, he was a young point guard struggling to find his way.

The first couple of months were so-so for D-Russ. In October, he averaged 15.1 points while shooting 40.6 percent from the field; an efficiency that left many wanting more. He did hit 2.3 of his 6.3 attempts from deep (a great 42 percent). But for the most part, he looked to be the inefficient volume-scorer of old.

However, over the next two months, Russell began to look increasingly comfortable in his role. After missing nearly half of the previous season with an injury, D-Lo was finally getting consistent burn.

Even so, efficiency still plagued Russell. Although he averaged 19.5 points in November, D’Angelo shot a meager 40.8 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from three.

Then January came along, and Russell flipped the world on its axis.

I’ve been watching basketball since the early 2000s, and I’ve got to say, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

Just two and half months ago, I was debating about who should be the starting point guard for the Brooklyn Nets. This may seem like blasphemy now, but at the time, the argument between Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell was legitimate. Dinwiddie was the more efficient scorer who fueled the offense with greater oomph. I wasn’t the only one who was asking this question, too. There’s a reason that the Nets offered an extension to Dinwiddie before Russell.

Two short months later, D’Angelo Russell is a 2019 NBA All-Star. I’m not even sure how it happened so fast. His improvement has skyrocketed. In the blink of an eye, D-Lo became a deadeye shooter with the ability to pull-up in the face of any defense. In the new year, he’s averaged nearly 24 points on polished efficiencies: 46.3 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from deep.

He’s displayed all-worldly gifts as a playmaker, giving fans a taste of CP3-like passing in the pick-and-roll. He even sharpened up his skills as a defender, leading the team in deflections while contesting shots with consistency.

In the span of about 25 games, D’Angelo Russell became Brooklyn’s first All-Star representative of the Sean Marks era. D-Lo went from getting pulled in fourth quarters to becoming one of the best 24 players in the NBA. (Well, 25 including Victor Oladipo).

The best part: Russell achieved all of this with an incomplete game. Don’t believe me? Take a look at my article from ten days ago. Russell’s 2019 season is nearly impossible to find a comparison to.

This season, Russell has almost been allergic to finding his way into the paint. He’s been even more avoidant of getting to the line. A majority of his scoring has come from the midrange and outward; an uphill battle, especially in today’s modern era.

Free throws and layups are easy, freebie points. They can help beef up a player’s scoring profile. Just take a look at what James Harden is doing this season.

For the most part, D’Angelo Russell has been dropping 30 points on a night-to-night basis without the use of the easiest shots in the book.

However, on Monday, Russell looked like a different player.

D-Lo’s three-pointer wasn’t falling particularly well against the Raptors. After becoming the youngest player ever to hit 500 career three-pointers, Russell couldn’t get himself going from deep. He finished 2-of-7 from long range against Toronto.

Normally, this would spell doom for Russell. (See: Friday’s game against the Chicago Bulls.)

Against Toronto, something was different about D-Lo’s play.

At the nine-minute mark of the third quarter, Russell took the ball up full court. He isolated against Toronto’s Danny Green (an excellent defender), performed a pretty crossover, and drove to the basket.

There he was met by the former Defensive Player of the Year, Serge Ibaka. Normally in this scenario, D-Lo would give up the ball for fear of getting swatted. But instead, Russell ball-faked and tossed up a layup through the sea of hands.

I jumped out of my seat when I saw this shot go in. Although it may seem like a simple layup, this level of confidence around the rim was uncharted territory for Russell.

One minute later, Russell was back at it. Once again, D-Lo performed a nifty ball-fake before driving to the rim. This time, Russell hesitated for a hanging push-shot over the outstretched arms of Ibaka.

With the wind in his sails, Russell became an unstoppable force at the cup. D’Angelo scored 24 points in the second half. Ten of those points came in the form of layups. Perhaps the recent All-Star selection had provided the 22-year-old with the necessary confidence to take his game up a level.

My favorite basket of the night occurred at the seven-minute mark of the third quarter. Russell, feeling it, dribbled the ball towards the middle of the paint. There, he faked a pass to a cutting Jarrett Allen before scurrying by Serge Ibaka for a left-handed layup. I’m not lying when I say this: Ibaka was frozen in his tracks after the crafty ball-fake.

On Monday, it felt like Russell had turned a page. Nearly every night, D-Lo seemingly adds a new element to his well-versed game. When he’s given something work on, Russell grinds hard to master it. It wouldn’t surprise me if Monday’s performance was just the beginning for Russell.

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At 6-foot-5, D’Angelo Russell is huge for a point guard. He’s an excellent ballhandler with every fake in the book. Physically speaking, he has the advantage over most opposing guards. Skillwise, he has the required repertoire to juke bigs out of their shoes.

He’s a mismatch regardless of the defender. On paper, he should be a menace around the basket.

Scoring at the rim could carry Russell to the next level of elite point guard play. It would open up his game, giving him more space to launch his high-arching three-pointers. It would also provide D’Angelo with more easy baskets in the form of wide-open layups or free throw attempts.

Against Toronto, Russell took his “on paper” profile and made it a reality. The results were certainly encouraging.

Keep an eye on D’Angelo Russell if he continues this improved scoring at the basket. Especially post-All-Star break.

One month ago, Russell established himself as one of the best under-25 point guards in the NBA.

Soon, we may need to remove the “under-25” moniker when bringing up D’Angelo Russell’s name.

If his aggression remains consistent, Russell could inch his way into the conversation of best point guards in the league.

An NBA fanatic who specializes in the advanced analytics of the game. I cover the Brooklyn Nets here in the city. Follow me on Twitter for semi-witty basketball tweets. @MattBrooksNBA