SAN FRANCISCO – As the Warriors embark on their season of mystery, with ifs, hopes and maybes around every corner, no one on the roster embodies this as snugly as D’Angelo Russell.
We know what the best of Stephen Curry looks like and it’s enough to make him the NBA’s first unanimous MVP.
We know what the best of Draymond Green offers, and it’s a 6-foot-7 forward guarding five positions, earning the Defensive Player of the Year award and shooting 39 percent from deep.
We know what the best of Klay Thompson looks like, a one-man scoring cyclone, but there is no knowing when it might be seen again.
Which brings us back to Russell, acquired in July and arriving at training camp as the team’s fourth All-Star and unchallenged X-factor.
If D-Lo is an efficient scorer, galvanizing passer and adequate defender, it will make the Warriors hell to play in the regular season and – assuming a late-season return by Thompson – even more of a monster in the postseason.
If Russell fails in one or more of those areas, the Warriors could find themselves light years away from a top-four seed and fighting like hell to make the playoffs.
The most important on-court element might be the defense. The absence of Thompson -- who is a very good wing defender -- for most of the season, drops a heavy but crucial burden into Russell’s lap. To his credit, Russell on Tuesday dove headlong into those concerns.
“I'm just trying to learn from Draymond as much as I can,” he said Monday. “There's a reason he is who he is. There's a reason that players know him for what they know him for. So, anyway, I can just kind of stay in his bubble and then learn as much as I can from that aspect, I think the sky's the limit.”
There is reason to believe the 23-year-old Russell can be decent on defense. He’s a splendid athlete standing 6-foot-5, with a wingspan listed at 6-10. He also entered the draft at 19 and spent his first four NBA seasons establishing himself on offense, sometimes to the detriment of his defense.
Russell’s impact on defense, then, is less a matter of ability than application. That’s where coaching comes in. That’s also where Green can set the bar. If Draymond accepts the invitation to stay in D’Lo’s ear, it should pay off. It has to, or else opposing guards will be lining up to fatten their stats against the Warriors.
Then there is the passing. Having spent most of his basketball life as a point guard, Russell, is comfortable moving the ball. He posted a career-high 7.0 assists per game with the Nets last season and seems almost anxious to immerse himself into his new team’s passing culture.
“With this style of play that we play with here, the pass is valued,” Russell said. “The pass is what gets a guy the shot. The pass is what keeps the offense flowing. A lot of guys are forced to double-team, so you have to get off of it, and that creates an advantage downhill."
"I think just adding another passer on to the team, myself, it just can help the team. Guys are going to be in the right play to make that happen.”
Said Thompson: “I've been watching D'Angelo for years now, and he's an amazing passer, and I don't think he's played with two shooters like me and Steph.”
That fact is, however, irrelevant until Thompson returns from ACL surgery, and it will be a surprise if that happens before March.
The scoring ability at his age is one of the assets that attracted the Warriors to Russell. He averaged a team-high 21.1 points per game while shooting 36.9 percent beyond the arc last season. He also took 18.7 shots per game, more than any Warrior not named Curry (19.4), but the result was the Nets making the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
Knowing they are scheduled to be the starting backcourt on opening night, Curry and Russell spent some time over the summer getting to know each other. That’s a wholesome start developing a bond that has to stick.
“I know the coaching staff and whatnot have a lot of opportunity to kind of mix and match lineups and try to figure things out as we go, and there's going to be a lot of fine-tuning and testing things out,” Curry said. “But it’s two talented guys that know how to put the ball in the basket, know how to make plays for each other and teammates, and have proven what we can do in this league. And if you have the confidence you can figure it out.”
The Warriors pursued Russell because they lost a tremendous scorer in Kevin Durant and because Curry and Thompson are bookending 30. There is a need to start refreshing the roster with talent, and Russell fills it.
“His team did well, he did well, and we're excited to see how he fits with us,” general manager Bob Myers said. “We think he'll be good, and that process starts (Tuesday).”
The process actually started over the summer, and it was positive. The only way it works once the games matter is if it continues on that path.