By Andrew Kahn
Ask coaches around the Big Ten about Ohio State freshman D’Angelo Russell and they’ll tell you he doesn’t play like a freshman. NBA teams value youth but also a player with the talent to contribute right away. With Russell, they’d get both. A United States Basketball Writers Association First Team All American, he will lead Ohio State into this week’s NCAA Tournament.
The 6’5” Russell entered college with plenty of hype—he was the No. 16 recruit in the country according to 247sports.com—and has managed to exceed it. He leads Ohio State in points (19.6) and rebounds (5.6) and is a close second in assists (5.1). He’s shooting 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from three. To see all his skills on display, look no further than his triple-double against Rutgers on Feb. 8, when he scored 23 points on 8 of 13 shooting and tallied 11 assists and 11 rebounds.
“He’s like a premier quarterback—like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—he sees the floor and the game looks so easy to him,” Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan says. Even before the match-up with Ohio State, Jordan saw on tape what Russell could do: find open shooters, run off screens and knock down jumpers, finish around the rim with either hand. He wanted his players to limit Russell’s vision, whether in transition or off pick and rolls, but the point guard found all the creases and seams. “I haven’t seen anyone like him—so young and so smooth. He has a terrific demeanor on the floor.”
The lefty has a quick release and deep range and is adept at splitting double teams. Some players try for the assist on every pass. Russell racks up dimes by simply passing to the open man, snapping the ball with an effortless flick of the wrist. “Sometimes you face a guy who can beat you off the bounce or shoot it really well or who’s a great passer,” says Purdue head coach Matt Painter. “He’s all of that.” Painter says many stars can be slowed by a good defensive scheme, but not necessarily Russell. “You can do good things against him and he still makes plays. He’s a special player.”
Russell hasn’t been shooting as well lately as he was earlier in the season, but he’s getting to the free throw line more. As has been the case most of the season, the ball will be in his hands often when Ohio State plays VCU in a 7-10 match-up on Thursday. VCU excels at speeding up the opponent and forcing turnovers. Russell’s pace of play seems geared to attack the pressure. “He has a mature pulse to his game,” Painter says.
The 19-year-old is projected to be a top-5 pick in June’s NBA draft. A strong showing in the NCAA Tournament—if the Buckeyes beat VCU they’d likely face 2 seed Arizona next—would only enhance his stock.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.