This story appeared in the March 23, 2015 edition of SI. To subscribe, click here.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta knew D'Angelo Russell could play. A lanky, 6'5" guard, Russell was a cornerstone for back-to-back national tournament champion Montverde (Fla.) Academy; a McDonald's All-American; and a willing passer with extrasensory court vision, yet someone who could score when necessary. Where he'd play for the Buckeyes would require some thought. "In D'Angelo, I saw a guard," says Matta. "He wasn't a true point, but he had such an understanding of the game. You just knew it would sort itself out."
Has it ever. In four months Russell, 19, has evolved from a highly touted prospect without a defined position—ranked No. 18 by Rivals.com last May—to the nation's best freshman point guard and one who has the tools to star at that spot in the pros. If you asked NBA general managers about D'Angelo in November, they might have thought you were talking about the R&B singer or the sub-shop chain; today they can't stop gushing about a likely top five pick who averaged 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists. "He's the total package," says a GM. "His court awareness is as sharp as any freshman's I have ever seen."
Matta got glimpses of Russell's potential early. When Ohio State traveled to the Bahamas last August for an exhibition series, the coach was blown away by Russell's basketball IQ. And when the Buckeyes went to West Virginia for a closed scrimmage in October, Russell was their only player who could consistently get open. In practice Russell showed an uncanny ability to not only process plays but also to offer ways to improve on them. "He sees things that a lot of other guys can't see," says Matta. "There were times he would suggest something, and I'd think, 'My gosh, how did he think of that?'"
Last summer Russell reviewed most of Ohio State's games from 2013-14; in his free time he can often be found dissecting film. That studiousness paid off on Dec. 2, when the Buckeyes faced their first true test, at Louisville. Ohio State fell behind by 19 early in the second half, and with senior guard Shannon Scott struggling to run the offense, Matta turned the team over to Russell. The Buckeyes cut the deficit to three before losing by nine, but Russell had made a statement. "When he is out there, he owns the court," says Matta. "It's his gym." Adds an NBA scout, "When he speaks, everyone listens. He is their leader."
Russell's strength is his playmaking; every pass has some pop behind it. On Feb. 11 against Penn State, Russell zipped a chest pass from half-court through the defense for a layup. "Took less than a second," says Matta. "Hit the guy right on the numbers." Many of Russell's 97 turnovers have been due less to poor decision making than to his teammates' surprise at his ability to thread the ball through traffic. "He sees how a play is going to develop before it does," says the scout. "There are not many NBA point guards that can do that. It's a Chris Paul-type skill. And he has got it."
Criticisms of Russell are rare, and they almost always come with a qualifier. He's not overwhelmingly athletic, but he's quick enough and, at 180 pounds, able to bang with bigger point guards. While the form on his jump shot is clean, his release is a little slow, but that can be improved with NBA coaching. And he can be too unselfish, but that's far from a fatal flaw. "He would rather have a 14-8-6 line and win than score 25 and lose," says Matta. "There are not many guys his age who can say that."
On March 8, in Ohio State's home finale against Wisconsin, the student section chanted One! More! Year! in Russell's direction. "I didn't hear them," says Matta. "If I did, I would have been yelling it too." Still, it would be a surprise if Russell came back to Columbus. He should challenge Emmanuel Mudiay—the former high school phenom who played in China this season—to be the first point guard off the board. Says the GM of Russell, "Guys with his skills won't fall very far."