Freshman D'Angelo Russell leads Ohio State into the CBS Sports Classic, where the Buckeyes face North Carolina.
The yelling is sudden and wordless. It’s just noise, a bolt of sound out of nowhere, because at that moment D’Angelo Russell feels excited. He realizes that, yes, he is a college basketball player about to play a college basketball game. And when Ohio State’s precocious freshman floor leader feels excited about playing a game, he yells. Alternately, or sometimes in addition, he locates a large teammate capable of hauling around a 6-foot-5 human. And then Russell jumps on him, literally piggybacking off his own raw energy.
If D’Angelo Russell is awake, then everyone else is going to be awake, too.
“They definitely don’t see it coming,” Russell says. “But they kind of get used to it.”
The Buckeyes can get used to this, all right, with arguably the nation’s second-best freshman infusing a team angling to be second best in the Big Ten, at minimum. Ohio State desperately needed a more fluid, spirited attack this season, and it has one going into Saturday's showdown with North Carolina, jumping more than 100 spots in the offensive efficiency rankings from last year. Driving the improvement is Russell, a pace-pushing guard with instincts and vision that belie his age. He might prefer to make a pass on an angle no one else saw, but he averages a team-best 17.7 points per game nevertheless. No one on the Buckeyes spends more time with the ball in his hands, and there are plenty of reasons for that.
“I’m not sure I’ve played with a D’Angelo since I’ve been in college,” senior forward Sam Thompson says, when asked for a comparison to Russell’s abilities. “He’s a unique talent.”
The pregame screams come out of thin air, but what comes after is a little more predictable. He was the No. 16 recruit in the Class of 2014, according to RSCI Hoops and a McDonald’s All-American. He was a high school freshman when Russell recalls his coach telling him he saw plays before they happened. “I didn’t really understand what he meant,” Russell says now, so he spent his formative basketball years figuring it out. He scouted players who he thought had a great feel for the game, who were phenomenal passers. In particular, Russell watched San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili, and found himself predicting Ginobili’s needle-threading, there’s-no-way-that-happened assists before he dished them out.
So the scoring, the assists (5.2 per game, second on the team behind Scott), the usage rate of 31.3 percent that is nearly 10 percent better than the next guy ... it was at least a little predictable. “Coaches and my teammates look for me to facilitate and get everybody involved and do whatever it takes, and that’s what I do,” Russell says. “I kind of pride myself on doing it. It came easy for me, because it was something I was looking forward to doing. I try to be the smartest guy on the floor.”
He joined a team beyond ready for that. Ohio State’s offense was stilted a year ago, the ball stuck on the other side of the floor far too much. The Buckeyes ranked 128th in adjusted efficiency in 2013-14, according to kenpom.com. They took just 24.6 percent of their initial field goal attempts in transition, according to HoopMath.com, a figure that ranked 180th nationally. Summertime workouts revolved around ball movement and athletic players creating their own shots, all to improve the halfcourt offense.
Turns out avoiding the halfcourt helped, too. Ohio State now takes 39.7 percent of its initial field goal attempts in transition, third nationally. Its offensive efficiency has jumped to No. 22 after a 97-55 throttling of North Carolina A&T on Wednesday night. “We showed at times when we really stick to our system and get the ball going, go at a fast pace, we’re really hard to beat,” Buckeyes senior guard Shannon Scott says. “We have a lot of players that can really get out and shoot the ball. So getting them to spots where they can be successful is the main thing. Having a still, half-court offense won’t let them play to the best of their ability. And we have a lot of athletic players who can run. Once they get running, they can get their shot going as well.”
That assertiveness suits Russell. “We’re a high energy team,” he says. “When we come in trying to be all cool and slow paced, it’s never good.” Russell says he has picked the brains of “top caliber” players about achieving the balance between looking for his shot and facilitating for others, and his epiphany was simple: If he stays aggressive at all times, the score-or-pass answer presents itself in a split-second reaction from the defense on any given play.
Refining that aggression is the next mission. Russell’s second college outing was a six-point, seven-turnover mishmash in a Nov. 18 win over Marquette. He reviewed the game film that night to diagnose the problems. “That’s not me,” he says now of the game. “Trying to go fast, trying to just play rec league basketball. I was moving too fast for the game.” Watching the game, Russell felt like he was the only player not running the system.
Properly channeled aggression, though, is another matter. One game after the Marquette letdown, Ohio State faced Sacred Heart. Russell posted 32 points, nine rebounds and five assists in a 106-48 Buckeyes blowout. Russell recounts one Sacred Heart player saying, Don’t beat us up too bad. That comment went ignored. He recalls another player saying, Give me a break. Don’t score this time.
“I (heard) what he was saying, but I was just like, I’m about to destroy you,” Russell says. “I don’t really care what you’re saying.”
A statement game against tougher competition on Saturday would be progress for both Russell and his Buckeyes, which want to show they can compete with fifth-ranked Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Russell stumbled against Marquette, then posted 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds against Louisville in a Dec. 2 loss, but missed 14 of 20 shots as he did so.
Russell’s vision is keen enough that he surely sees a shaky North Carolina defense awaiting in Chicago. (Kentucky meets UCLA in the second game of the CBS Sports Classic.) And when Russell sees weakness, he attacks. “When I first came in, I sat back and let it come to me, and I just filled in the open gaps,” Russell says. “Am I needed to score? Am I needed to facilitate? Am I needed to get everybody involved? And opportunities kept approaching me. There were times in practice where I would be on a team where guys can score but need someone to get them the shot. I’m like, ‘I can do this.’ So I’d step up to the plate and do it.”
The possibilities for Ohio State open up just as quickly as Russell can create a clear picture for himself. Among the freshman’s first-semester courses at Ohio State was an art class. Russell is a sketcher and a doodler but no serious savant, and this was a way to pick up better habits. The class’ final project was a still life drawing on a 60-inch piece of paper. Every corner of the paper had to be filled. The instructor arranged a pile of junk under a set of bright lights -- paint brushes and a tree stump were involved, among other items -- and D’Angelo Russell set about making something out of nothing.