At last month’s NBA Draft Combine, someone asked D’Angelo Russell why an NBA team should draft him.
“I’m the best player in the draft.”
Pretty good reasoning.
Russell is expected to go within the first few picks in Thursday night’s draft not long after wrapping his lone season of college ball at Ohio State. He might not be the No. 1 overall pick, but that doesn’t mean his expectations won’t be high wherever he lands.
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There’s plenty of debate to be had over whether or not Russell is right, if he is the best player in this year’s NBA Draft. Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl Anthony Towns surely have some supporters in that argument. But those who watched Russell all season know he can back that statement up.
There were the 20-point nights, the 30-point nights, the 3-point barrages, the stuffed stat sheets and the highlight-reel passes that threaded the smallest of needles. Russell, perhaps more than anyone — even the two guys mentioned above — looked like an NBA player playing against college kids.
And it’s not like that competition was soft, either. We’re talking about the Big Ten, and most notably a pair of guys who will hear their names called not long after Russell’s on Thursday night in Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. That loaded Wisconsin team was the national runner up. Another frequent Russell foe, Michigan State, shared the Final Four stage with Wisconsin.
The Big Ten always has a reputation as a heavy-hitting conference, and Russell acknowledged as much, saying that physicality helped prepare him for the pro level, even if he spent just one year in the league.
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“It prepared me physically, the most. Physically and mentally, but physically the most because it’s a tough league,” Russell said. “If you’re a guy that’s not prepared to get banged up every night, it’s not good for you.
“It’s not the NBA, but it’s almost there. The skill, you never know what you’re going to get every night. The coaches, they’re trained to prepare the players, like myself, every night. You have to adjust, it’s an adjustment at the age of 18, 19 years old.”
Yes, Russell was a youngster, running away with the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year award and landing a spot on the All-Big Ten First Team as well as numerous national All-American teams.
But now just a little more than a calendar year removed from his high school graduation, no one is doubting that Russell is ready for the NBA. That hype traveled with him all season long. And whenever he landed in the highlight shows for his latest feat or spotted Knicks president Phil Jackson in Columbus watching him play, it was sometimes hard to remember he was just a freshman.
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The way he speaks and carries himself makes you forget that, too. He oozes confidence, and his goals are lofty. When asked his best attribute, he answered: “my IQ.”
“I try to be the smartest player, and I feel that’ll definitely upgrade with experience,” he said. “But being the smartest player, point guard, vision, get the best out of each guy around you and try to be a leader of any team I’m on.”
Russell is fortunate to have some mentors who have been through this before, too. Ohio State head coach Thad Matta is no stranger to shepherding top picks through college and into the NBA. Former Buckeyes Greg Oden and Mike Conley were the Nos. 1 and 4 picks in the 2007 draft, and Evan Turner went No. 2 overall in the 2010 draft.
“Coach Matta’s probably one of the best guys for a process like this,” Russell said. “For me individually, I can’t speak for everybody else, but he was all in with my decision. He never forced me to leave, he never tried to force me to stay. He kind of made me make the decision. He let me know I had a scholarship on the table, though, if I stayed.
“Mike, Evan Turner, all those guys are great role models, guys to look up to. They took me under their wing and told me what to do and what not to do when it came to being college athlete and have the potential to be a pro and still be in a college atmosphere. They did a great job of that.”
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It’s no sure thing where Russell will be selected on Thursday, and it shouldn’t be completely written off that he could go No. 1. But without a doubt, he’s a top-five pick. Maybe that’s why he’s OK with not being the first-overall selection.
“It would be a blessing to be No. 1, but I want to go somewhere where I know I’m going to stick and I can make a legacy and help build a franchise,” Russell said. “If that’s me going eighth pick, I prefer that, honestly. … I’d rather be a guy that’s a superstar on one team in three, four years than a guy who’s bouncing around and was the No. 1 pick in the draft.”
Plus, it doesn’t seem like Russell needs the Minnesota Timberwolves to validate his greatness with the night’s first selection.
“I know I’m the best player.”