COLUMBUS – Thad Matta knows exactly where he was the first time D’Angelo Russell cemented his future.
Coming off the road after a long recruiting trip in July, the Ohio State men’s basketball coach stepped into the gym on a Sunday night. He saw a kid who was months away from playing his first collegiate minute holding court.
“He had complete control of the gym. It was his court; it was his gymnasium; it was his game; they were playing by his rules; they were running the system he wanted to run. I said, ‘Wow this kid as the chance to be really, really good,’ ” Matta said during Russell’s announcement that he would be leaving the Buckeyes for the NBA after one season of college basketball.
The draft will be June 25 in New York City.
The sentiment was confirmed later in the fall when Ohio State traveled to West Virginia for a preseason scrimmage.
“He had 33 and hit the game winner. He was doing things that we hadn’t even talked about yet,” Matta said, adding that, if he played half that good, Russell would have a fine season, yet he only got better from there.
The only one who didn’t believe the hype was Russell himself. From the day he committed to play at Ohio State, the feeling was the 6-foot-5 combo guard would stay a minimum of two years.
“From the first time they recruited us, coach said he could be a one-and-done, and I would say to coach that I would like him to do two or more,” Russell’s father, Antonio, said.
For his part, Russell approached the game as if he were making a college career and not an NBA audition, even when all the chatter suggested he was one-and-done.
“When you have a guy who is a freshman and he keeps both feet into the program until the final horn sounds, I’ve got no issues,” Matta said. “This young man kept both feet in, maybe to a fault. That tells you who he is and how committed he is.”
Even as the honors came in and the stat sheet burgeoned, Russell stayed grounded.
“I feel that the guys who worry about (turning pro) before they’ve played one game or had one college practice, those guys struggle throughout the year because that’s all they’re thinking about: I have to live up this hype and this potential everybody is talking about,” Russell said. “My situation was great. I didn’t think about trying to be a top-five pick or a first-team All-American. I just came in like, ‘Coach, lead me, whatever you need me to do.’ “
Meanwhile, his father kept the distractions away as best he could.
“My son just loves to play basketball,” Antonio said. “My commitment was to keep everybody away from him and just let him play basketball. We’ll deal with the rest when it’s time. God permits, then we’ll deal with it.
“Other than that, we were just focused on coming here and being a leader, listening to his coaches, doing what you have to do in the classroom and getting better.”
Russell averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists for the 24-11 Buckeyes while becoming the first OSU player to record a triple-double in a Big Ten game. He was Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a first-team All-American.
Projected since midseason as a top-five pick in the upcoming draft, Russell and his family were slow to the notion.
“A lot of times in this process, I become the bad guy because everybody is telling these two that he’s going to tell you to come back because he wants to coach you, and that wasn’t the truth. We said from the beginning, if it was right, we’d tell him to go,” Matta said. “When we sat down and I started the meeting with the two and I said I think you need to go, I could see the relief on his face.”
The coach had come to terms with it long before anyone else.
Whenever Russell would make a “how’d he do that” play in practice or a game, Matta would turn to his assistants and remind them to enjoy it because another coaching staff would be getting that enjoyment next year.
“I got to the point where I just enjoyed the game,” Matta said.
It started on a Sunday in July for Matta. It will continue on an NBA court soon for Russell.
Rob McCurdy covers Ohio State men’s basketball for the Media Network of Central Ohio and can be reached at email@example.com or 419-521-7241. On Twitter, follow @McMotorsport.