They happened five days apart, the spinning, dancing, jaw-dropping bounce passes that highlighted D’Angelo Russell’s rise from a budding star from Louisville to a likely top-five pick in Thursday’s NBA draft after one year at Ohio State.
The first one, in a Jan. 17 loss at Iowa, leaves the 6-foot-5 Russell’s left hand from the right wing, just beyond the 3-point line. It skips past his defender and behind two more bewildered Iowa players before finding Ohio State forward Sam Thompson, who seemed so surprised by the pass that he missed the layup.
On Jan. 22, in the second half of Ohio State’s win at Northwestern, Russell did it again. It was another left-handed pass from the right wing that curled past several defenders and found a cutting Thompson, who expected the pass this time and dunked the ball.
Hundreds of miles away, Russell’s former AAU coach, ex-University of Louisville big man Ellis Myles, couldn’t help but laugh and shake his head as he watched the highlights. He always knew Russell was confident, a player unafraid to take risks or make mistakes. But even those passes were, in Myles’ words, “ridiculous,” a sign of how far Russell has come from his days as skinny kid who could score in waves.
“It was like he was a magician, like he was in The 6th Man,” Myles said, referring to a 1997 film in which Marlon Wayans’ deceased brother’s spirit uses supernatural powers to help Wayans’ basketball team win.
Russell has stated he is the best player in this year’s draft, and he does have some analysts in his corner. His combination of size (6-5, 193 pounds with a 6-9 3/4 wingspan), maturity and a well-rounded skill set give him a strong argument to at least be the top guard in the draft.
“I just feel like my demeanor — the way I carry myself, the way I approach the game, the businesslike approach to everything I do — separates me from everyone else here,” Russell said at the NBA draft combine last month.
But as a young teenager on Myles’ Louisville Magic team, Russell was known as much for his shooting and his feel for the game — the Manu Ginobili to teammate Quentin Snider’s Tony Parker, Myles said — as he was for his immaturity and goofiness, at least early on in his career.
To Myles, that all changed one night in Milwaukee, when he said he sat on the bench during a game and let his players just play because they thought they “had all the answers.” He was frustrated they weren’t listening to him.
Later that night, Russell and a teammate came to Myles’ hotel room and apologized.
“That’s when a little maturity crept in for him,” Myles said. “He turned the corner from there.”
Russell left Louisville and Central High after that summer — before his sophomore year of high school — in search of better competition. He ended up in Florida at Montverde Academy, a basketball powerhouse that produced UK’s Dakari Johnson and former Kansas star Joel Embiid, who was the third pick in last year’s draft.
He eventually became a five-star prospect and a McDonald’s All-American, but he said he always felt like he was in the shadows.
Montverde’s squads were so talented that Russell practiced on the second team with Embiid. When he started playing for Nike’s Each 1 Teach 1 AAU program out of Florida, he shared the backcourt with Joel Berry and Grayson Allen.
“I was always a guy who was (overshadowed) by so many great players,” Russell said. “I told myself that once I got my chance, I wasn’t going to go back. Nobody expected me to be sitting in this chair right now.”
He was at the draft combine, his table surrounded by dozens of reporters from Minnesota, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and many other places.
He earned that attention after averaging 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and five assists a game as a freshman at Ohio State, where he won All-Big Ten and All-American honors. He earned it with all those highlight passes and smart plays, with his maturity beyond his years.
“It’s all come together,” said Kevin Boyle, Russell’s coach at Montverde. “He’s just become a really well-rounded, skilled player.”
At the NBA level, Russell’s ability to score will obviously be an important skill, whether he’s slotted as a point guard or shooting guard. (Russell himself rejects the concept of a defined position, saying he’s a “basketball player.”) He shot 44.9 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from 3-point range.
His size is a huge plus, as is what Boyle calls his underappreciated rebounding ability.
But it’s his ability to see plays develop, to see an opening for a teammate, that makes him such a tantalizing talent. He had those instincts as a middle schooler, Myles said. But Russell said they have developed to the point that he sees “a play or two ahead.”
“It was an ability that I can’t really explain,” Russell said.
If you ask Myles, he might say it’s magic. But how Russell got this far is no mystery to Myles.
“He got real serious about what he wanted to do — to be a great basketball player,” Myles said. “Now he’s here.”
Reach staff writer Jeff Greer at (502) 582-4044 and follow him on Twitter (@jeffgreer_cj).