Though it happens rarely, D'Angelo Russell does get bored sometimes. Normally, with all his hours spent in class, in practice or studying, there’s little time for Ohio State’s star freshman guard to relax, but when there is, he likes to pull up YouTube clips of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry ... talking to the media.
He likes to watch them play basketball too, of course, but what he is trying to learn is how to give a good interview. It makes sense. When you’re averaging 19 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists a game as the country’s most surprising and second-most impressive freshman you get a lot of interview requests. His studying seems to have paid off: When asked a question, he pauses before answering; when given the chance, he makes a quick joke; and like any true MVP, he finds ways to praise his teammates even in an interview all about himself.
It’s not hard to imagine Russell putting his skills to work in NBA arenas—and press-conference rooms—as soon as next season. But as recently as four years ago, it might have been.
[daily_cut.college basketball]Two weeks into his sophomore season at Central (Ky.) High School, Russell’s father, Antonio, decided to transfer him to Montverde Academy, a prep school in Florida. At Montverde, Russell was often overshadowed by the immense talent around him. Kentucky’s Dakari Johnson, Florida’s Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier, West Virginia’s Devin Williams were all there when he arrived. On his AAU team, Each 1 Teach 1, he played with North Carolina’s Joel Berry and Duke’s Grayson Allen. Even by his senior year, after having helped Montverde win one high school “national championship,” by finishing on top of the polls at the end of the regular season, he wasn’t the most talked about player on his team. By then, Australian phenom Ben Simmons, the No. 1 player in this year's high school class, was the talk of the town.
“You can name-drop all day the guys who were on my high school teams,” Russell says now. “I've always been the guy that was overshadowed by somebody or didn't get a lot of recognition. I knew how to handle it. When my time came, I prepared for it. This situation [at Ohio State] is perfect.”
It’s not like Russell was a fringe high school prospect; he was a McDonald’s All-American and a top-20 recruit. But he had never been given the chance to be the guy on his team. Which is one of the main reasons he chose the Buckeyes. He saw a team with a system that he liked and a need for a guard to step in and step up right away. Russell assured Ohio State that he could be that guy when he averaged 19 points in the month of November, an uncanny sign of what was to come.
“When I watched Ohio State last season, I noticed that they struggled to put the ball in the hole and put points on the board,” Russell says. “I knew if I had the ball and the right guys around me, we could change that.”
Last season, Ohio State’s offense was ranked 128th in the country in offensive efficiency on kenpom.com; this season, they’re No. 20. Russell is using 29.9% of the team’s possessions and 29.8% of its shots with an enviable offensive rating of 117.3. His offensive arsenal is surprisingly advanced for a 19-year-old. According to Synergy Sports data, he averages better than one point per possession in transition and on spot-ups and screens. His points per possessions plus assists, which factors in when he helps teammates score, is 1.305. Despite his prolific scoring, it’s those assists that have made highlight reels.
He’s shown the ability to put as much spin on his passes as European soccer stars:
But I’m particularly fond of a less talked-about highlight, this fake-shot assist, which fooled two defenders.
“The most exciting thing you can do is when you truly wow people,” Russell says.
He’s even surprised himself this season. He says that he expected to do well but didn’t expect to be this good, this soon. He tries not to think about the NBA draft, but it’s hard not to see Phil Jackson sitting in the front row of your games—or not to hear about him getting fined for commenting on you as a prospect. And it’s hard not to think about the possibility of being the Big Ten’s freshman of the year or a Wooden Award candidate, but Russell insists that he’s happy just where he is right now.
“Of course part of you wants those things,” he says, “but I’d rather go farther in the NCAA tournament than win any of those individual honors.”
For the first time in his life, he’s the man on his team, and he may not be ready to let that go. Or maybe all this just shows that Russell has mastered the art of the interview, as he has with almost every other aspect of his game.
Stats: 18.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 54.9 FG%
Kaminsky rebounded from Wisconsin’s loss to Maryland on Feb. 24 with a 31-point, eight-rebound, three-block outing in a win against Michigan State on Sunday. It was his most dominant performance of the season, and it showed off his versatility—and once again why he should be this year’s Wooden Award winner. He used 35% of Wisconsin’s possessions, shot 3-of-4 from beyond the three-point line, and as those three blocks show, still had time to be an impact defender. On the season, Kaminsky leads the Badgers in points, rebounds, assists (!) and blocks. That loss to the Terrapins may cost Wisconsin a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but Kaminsky makes them a good bet for a deep run in March.
2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Stats: 18.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.5 apg, 66.3 FG%
Okafor also had perhaps his most dominant performance of the season this week, when he went for 30 points and nine rebounds in an overtime win against Virginia Tech on Feb. 25. It was his return game after sitting out against Clemson because of an injured ankle, and he used 38% of Duke’s possessions. There is no player in college basketball like Okafor. When tournament time comes, he’ll be the centerpiece of every team’s scouting report, but the player no one outside of Lexington or Madison has an answer for.
3. Delon Wright, Utah
Stats: 14.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 5.3 apg, 51.7 FG%
Utah has now dropped two of its last three games, yet Wright’s stock continues to rise. In the loss to Oregon on Feb. 22, Wright’s offensive rating was 162. He scored 20 points and had five assists against two turnovers. In last saturday's loss to Arizona, he had 17 points and five assists without a turnover and an offensive rating of 131. On the season, Wright is top 50 in the country in offensive rating, assist rate and steal percentage. He deserves to be the first name in the discussion after Kaminsky and Okafor, and his consolation prize will be Pac-12 player of the year honors.
4. D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Stats: 19 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.3 apg, 46.1 FG%
Two leftover Russell notes. The first will make NBA executives gush even more about him: “I don’t really like Twitter,” he says. “It’s too much of a distraction.” And it seems to be true. Russell tweeted just seven times in February, and six of those were retweets. Personally, I hope that he tweets more often. This gem proves he could have a Joel Embiid-like social media presence:
And second, I asked Russell what tricks he has left. He told me that one of his favorite moves from playing basketball in the backyard was the Jason Williams elbow pass.
“I might save that one for the NCAA tournament,” Russell says. If he does, it may melt Twitter, not that he would know about it.
Stats: 16.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 6.6 apg, 49.5 FG%
Grant has been held below an offensive rating of 100 just three times this season. Most recently, in the Irish’s 65-60 loss at home against Syracuse on Feb. 24, Grant’s rating was 92. He had one of his coldest shooting nights of the season, going 0-for-6 from beyond the three-point line, but his nine assists buoyed his overall effort. (He’s averaged 10 assists in his last three games, by the way.) That defeat shows the strength and weakness of the Irish. They rely very heavily on one player’s ability to find points—both for himself and his teammates. And with very few exceptions this season, Grant has done that. But it only takes one off night to make an early exit from the NCAA tournament.