Among players eligible for the NBA draft, D’Angelo Russell sits atop Kevin Pelton’s WARP projections, had the highest offensive rating of any freshman last season (according to KenPom.com) and is the top projected guard in ESPN’s Statistical Plus/Minus (SPM) projections. Although SPM sees Russell as a high-risk, high-reward prospect, projecting that he has the best chance of any player in the 2015 draft class to develop into a superstar.
Statistical Plus/Minus is an estimate of a player’s contribution to his team’s point differential per 100 possessions. An SPM of zero is considered league average (weighted for minutes), and replacement-level players have an SPM of about minus-2. SPM predicts a player’s success in their first five years in the league.
With Russell sitting at or near the top of many NBA draft projection models, why do analytics love him?
Efficiency: Russell had a high usage rate at Ohio State but maintained high efficiency. He ranked in the top five in the Big Ten in assist percentage, 3-point percentage and Player Efficiency Rating. His defensive rebound rate of 15.4 percent is the best of any college point guard in Chad Ford’s Top 100.
Youth: When projecting NBA prospects, most models favor younger players. This is largely a function of the structure of the draft: Players declare for the draft when they believe they will be drafted, so the top prospects will generally enter at a younger age. Russell will be 19 years, 127 days old at the time of the draft, making him the seventh-youngest college player in Chad Ford’s Top 100.
Size: Russell’s playing height was measured at 6-foot-5, and he has the 12th-longest wingspan (6 feet, 9.75 inches) of any point guard measured at the combine (229 players from the 2000 event to the present). Russell’s physical build was similar to that of John Wall, with greater length at the time of the NBA combine.
Contributions to winning: Accounting for all of the ways that Russell contributed to his team, he added more win shares than any other freshman last season and the most by a freshman guard in the last five seasons.
Outside of analytics, Russell was a total package from a statistical standpoint. He was one of two players who averaged at least 19 points, five rebounds and five assists per game last season (A.J. English of Iona was the other).
He is the third freshman in Division I history to reach those marks, joining Kenny Anderson and Danny Ainge, both of whom went on to become NBA All-Stars. Anderson was taken with the second pick in 1991, and Ainge was the 31st pick in 1981.
Russell led freshmen in scoring last season with 19.3 points per game and broke an Ohio State freshman record for total points that Michael Redd set in 1997-98.
Comparisons to current NBA players
Based on analytical projections, Russell has been compared to accomplished NBA players, including MVP runner-up James Harden. Among players drafted in the last 10 years, SPM sees Russell as having a similar floor/ceiling coming out of college as Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Jrue Holiday and Raymond Felton.
As much as analytics love Russell, it is also important to recognize that SPM predicts a high probability of him being a bust. Among SPM’s top 25 projected players, Russell has the highest bust likelihood, at 40.9 percent.
This is partly due to his age, his lack of experience and his high usage numbers (albeit he handles that efficiently) on a less-than-dominant team. Former top-10 players who had similar grades to Russell’s include stars such as Kevin Durant and Harden, but also Michael Beasley and Eddie Griffin.
So, drafting Russell might result in a high reward, but deciding to choose him appears to be a high-risk move.