For someone who didn’t expect to be at this year’s NBA draft, D’Angelo Russell sure sounds like someone who believes he deserves to be there.
He never expected to play only one season at Ohio State. But now that he indeed is there, the 6-5 guard who can both pass it and shoot it declares himself the best of the bunch, as a matter of fact, because of his smarts.
“I’m the best player in the draft,” he said. “I know I’m the best player.”
Well, all righty then …
Maybe someone should let Timberwolves basketball boss Flip Saunders know before he takes Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns with Thursday’s first pick, as he is expected to do.
Russell never would have declared himself the best when classes began last fall and Russell — already three years away from home chasing the basketball dream — unpacked his bags expecting to stay in Columbus, Ohio, until 2018. Raised in Louisville, he left his hometown college team and Rick Pitino for the Big Ten after he attended a Florida prep school.
“I honestly thought I’d be a four-year player,” he said. “I didn’t think my body would pan out right. I didn’t think I had the skill. I didn’t think I had the knowledge. But after playing my first year, changing my body, gaining the knowledge, I knew I had the potential to be here. And I just ran with it.”
He gained weight and experience and ran with it all the way to consensus first team All-America honors with a season that has NBA scouts wondering if he might not indeed become the biggest star to come out of this group.
Russell plays with the kind of swagger you’d expect from a guy who declares himself the draft’s best. So it’s not surprising that he sees a little bit of league MVP Steph Curry in himself, even if the lefty who’s more point guard than scoring guard has modeled his game more after San Antonio lefthander Manu Ginobili.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m overdoing because he’s the MVP of the league,” Russell said of Curry. “I watch his game, I see myself: The plays he makes, the shots he takes, the passes he makes.”
Like Curry does uniquely, Russell can shoot it from NBA three-point range, but probably is the best passer in the draft, which is why he considers himself more point guard than shooting guard.
“He is the best passer I can remember in recent years this high in the draft,” ESPN draft analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “He throws passes to teammates who don’t even realize they’re open.”
Even if Russell isn’t quite sure how he does it.
“It’s an ability I can’t really explain,” he said. “I see a play or two ahead. If I see a guy running and his defender isn’t paying attention, I know he’s going to be open and I’m just waiting for him to make eye contact with me. If not, I might hit him in the head. I hit a few guys in the head, not in games but in practice. It was crazy. At the beginning of the season, it was bad.”