So when Russell made things official with a press conference Thursday it came as no surprise. It did, however, come with some selfish disappointment. Russell was an electrifying player in his short time as a Buckeye and immensely fun to cover. Even when he wasn’t shooting well or struggling with overly physical defenses he did things on the basketball court that I didn’t think were possible.
With Russell making the right choice to enter the draft – he will be a Top 5 pick, guaranteeing himself a first-year salary of around $3 million – I thought it appropriate to look at the legacy he leaves behind and where belongs in the pantheon of great Ohio State players.
For what it’s worth, head coach Thad Matta thinks he belongs near the top.
“I want to hang his jersey in the rafters someday because I think he’s one of the greatest to ever play the game here at Ohio State and he’s only here for eight months,” Matta said.
I have been following Ohio State basketball closely since the mid ’90s and while my knowledge of the game was not fully developed at that point, I feel comfortable putting Russell as one of the four best players I’ve seen in an Ohio State uniform along with Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Michael Redd.
I won’t pretend to be able to rank Russell against Ohio State greats like Jim Jackson, Clark Kellogg, John Havelcik or Jerry Lucas. Still, Russell ranks among some Buckeye stars for me.
He is the sixth player to leave after one year under Matta joining Conley, Oden, Daquan Cook, B.J. Mullens and Kosa Koufos. For the record, my ranking of one-and-done players under Matta is as follows:
- Greg Oden: A once-in-a-generation talent whose body broke down at the next level, Oden was such a unique player it seems unfair to even rank him against the normal humans who follow. Matta said as much when talking about his best players at Ohio State
“You have to look at Greg, Greg was the most unique individual I’ve ever coached and ever will coach,” Matta said. “There will never be another one like him.”
Sounds like the top spot to me.
- Mike Conley: By the slimmest of margins Conley gets the nod here, though it would be interesting to see what Russell could do with the weapons Conley had. In his freshman season he averaged 6.1 assists per game and 2.2 steals. There were times in the NCAA Tournament when no one could stop Conley from getting to where he wanted to go, his handle was that devastating.
- Russell: Third is no slight in this ranking as I would entertain an argument for Russell to be second. It’s a shame that his greatest gift, passing, is so reliant on the players around him.
- Kosta Koufos: To be clear, the difference between No.’s 3 and 4 on this list is bigger than the gap between Russell and Oden.
- Daquan Cook
- .J. Mullens
While he checked in third on my list, Russell is right near the top for Matta as well.
“He’s maybe at the top,” Matta said when asked to rank Russell among the great’s he has coached.
“What I love about him, what people love about him is he can do so many different things. Somebody asked about the position he is going to play at the next level, I don’t think that’s determined. They love his size at the point guard position, they love his ability to make guys better, but with that size he can also play off the basketball. I think that’s what makes him dynamic.”
In just a few months as a Buckeye, Russell rewrote the freshman record books. His total points (675) and made threes (95) are the most by any Ohio State freshman while his 175 assists is third all-time among first-year players.
For me though, Russell’s greatness was more than the numbers. One of his best passes of the season, a bounce-pass through traffic against Iowa, had no record in the box score as Sam Thompson missed the layup. It is those type of wow moments that made covering Russell so fun and that put him near the top of Ohio State players I’ve watched.
He’s the best passer I’ve seen in an Ohio State uniform and his handle – a skill Russell said he didn’t trust in high school – is probably only second to Conley. While Russell’s time as a Buckeye was understandably short he will be remembered. And he’ll remember Ohio State.
“I would consider my best memory walking in to the locker room and seeing my name on the locker," Russell said. "Months before that I didn’t think I was going to be here, it was a struggle getting here honestly. Just seeing my name was a blessing.
“It’s a pleasure being a Buckeye and once a Buckeye always a Buckeye so I’ll never forget that.”