Most top-20 prospects develop a blue-chip stride early, make tweaks along the way and then rise or fall slightly as time wears on. But D'Angelo Russell's story reads differently, as he has experienced atypical fluctuations.
From the beginning, the Louisville native had a penchant for scoring. As a freshman at the NY2LA Swish 'N Dish for the All-Ohio Red 15-under squad, his aggressive nose for the basket enabled him to crack national consciousness.
He had competed for Louisville (Ky.) Central but transferred to Montverde (Fla.) Academy as a sophomore and drew an early scholarship offer from the hometown Cardinals, among various others. He didn't produce big numbers that season but ripened behind more seasoned players.
His rising junior summer brought more visible success. He said at one point that June that Louisville, Ohio State and Missouri were his three most ardent suitors, and in the ensuing months he gained additional interest from Kentucky, Indiana, North Carolina and other high-majors.
But his momentum halted this past spring. Russell appeared uncomfortable and miscast as Joel Berry's backcourt partner for Each 1 Teach 1, and his statistics ranged from unexceptional to brutal. Things regressed to the point that Russell suffered through a 3-17 shooting performance at the EYBL Hampton event, foreshadowing a potentially significant reputation hit.
Amid increasing doubts about his game and long-term potential, Russell suddenly committed to Ohio State this past June. The Buckeyes had watched him closely for years and felt comfortable taking the pledge despite his poor opening to the travel season.
But it turned out no one needed to worry. Perhaps due in part to alleviating pressure from his recruitment, Russell proceeded to tear up the rest of summer. He played brilliantly at the EYBL Finals/Peach Jam, scoring 22 points in the championship tilt to help lead E1T1 to the championship.
He performed even more impressively at the Global Challenge, where he won co-MVP after a series of sizzling offensive outbursts. Russell thus enters his senior season as one of America's hottest players and a tremendous pickup for OSU.
Our wing evaluations for 2014 have included many wing forwards, but Russell is a shooting guard who gives that position some depth. The slender southpaw is a sterling ballhandler who arguably should be considered a combo guard. In addition to expert dribbling, he's a slick passer on the move who at the minimum could play a floor general role for stretches of games.
He's also very quick. Russell likes to drive baseline in either direction and is a capable finisher with either hand. In addition to his late passes that render mid-air shotblockers helpless, he pulls up effectively for short bankers off the glass.
Russell also finally began to knock down jump shots. After a reasonably strong shooting summer during 2012, that aspect of his game fell off this past spring. His July turnaround occurred largely because he caught fire from deep, burying multiple three-pointers in several key contests.
Defensively, Russell possesses the size to defend college wings and the quick feet to guard many point guards. That versatility makes him all the more valuable.
And the fact that he played his best at the most illustrious events counts as a bonus. He proved to be a cold, clutch performer, and that's something that largely can't be taught.
Russell is on the slightly small side for an NBA wing, and down the road that looms as a potential concern. In order to succeed professionally, he may need to develop his point guard skills even further.
Focusing on his time in Columbus, he'll need to shoot consistently and avoid the prolonged slump he suffered during the spring. It's unusual for a player of his caliber to play poorly for such an extended span, so doing everything in his power not to succumb to a rut will be critical.
Russell at his best will be an energetic, multi-faceted performer for the Buckeyes. Combo guards can be very effective at any level of the sport, and OSU will benefit from his ability to both score and provide secondary ballhandling. If he shoots consistently from outside, he could develop into an all-Big Ten player over the course of his career.