“Defense wins championships” is a saying that has held true in the NBA for decades, with coaches employing rigorous, disciplined defensive schemes to achieve success. The San Antonio Spurs have been the model of efficiency with a defense-comes-first mentality, winning three titles in the last decade. With a good defense usually comes a steady, grinded-down tempo.
With the NBA Conference Finals underway, it’s clear that “the best offense is a good defense” is a thing of the past.
The four teams battling it out for the title share the same strength—shooting. The Warriors, Hawks, Rockets and Cavaliers led the NBA in three-pointers per game during the regular season. The Warriors and Rockets also led the league in pace.
2015 has marked a new age in basketball, where great shooting trumps a great defense any day. A new way to win ball games also brings a new breed of players.
Stephen Curry and James Harden are leaders on potential title teams, flashing an under-the-rim, unpredictable and flashy offensive skillset. Both players score a ton of points from behind the arc as Curry led the league with 286 three pointers, and Harden was fourth with 208.
Shooting is the new defense in the NBA—the same could be said for the draft.
Since the Draft Lottery on Tuesday, virtually every mock draft has the same two players atop the draft board—Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. Despite the overwhelming unanimity of Towns and Okafor as the top two players in the draft, neither of those players encapsulates the new trend that’s being brought into the fold.
The one player in this draft who really fits that bill as a new age player is Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell.
In his freshman season, he averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists while shooting 41.1 percent from three. He’s the only freshman to average at least 19-5-5, according to Sports-Reference, whose database dates back to 1997. He’s also only the 13th player since 1997 to finish with that stat line.
Russell doesn’t put up empty numbers by any means. His highlights were all over GIFs and Vines throughout the season, displaying his impeccable crossover, deft passing ability and smooth jumper. I mean, he just flat out embarrassed players, time and time again.
His vision and leadership are incredible for a 19-year-old, as he was handed the keys to a shaky Buckeyes offense and still managed to shine. He was one of two players to average double-digit points on Ohio State, scoring 9.1 points per game more than any of his teammates. The Buckeyes also played at an average pace, leaving some room for Russell to improve on an NBA offense.
Russell is a perfect fit if he ends up going to Philadelphia at No. 3, as they played at the sixth-fastest pace and are in desperate need of a boost in the backcourt. If Michael Carter-Williams was able to average 16-6-6 as a rookie in their system, imagine what Russell could do.
He also isn’t just an offensive player. At 6’5” with a 6’10” wingspan, Russell is huge for a guard, and in OSU’s zone defense, used his length to disrupt passing lanes, averaging 1.6 steals on the year. Per Sports-Reference, he finished with 2.4 Defensive Win Shares, which was third in the Big Ten.
He doesn’t have elite quickness or athleticism, so he’ll need to prove he can stay in front of NBA-level point guards, which might be the deepest position in the NBA right now. He has drawn plenty of Harden comparisons, but has yet to show he can drive to the rim or draw free throws at a high enough rate to validate that appraisal.
According to Hoop-Math, 45.0 percent of Russell’s shots came from behind the arc and only 21.9 percent came at the rim. He did shoot 62.2 percent at the rim and showed the ability to get out in transition, but he’ll need to draw more than 4.5 free throws per game at the next level.
The mid-range shot is becoming more and more inefficient in this new age of basketball. If Russell wants to mold his game around Harden and his favorite player, Manu Ginobili, he’ll also need to cut down on his mid-range shots, where he shot only 38.7 percent.
Russell isn’t the most athletic, strong or fast player in the draft, but he’s the most dynamic, and he’s the best bet to blossom into a superstar. His game is still rapidly changing and improving, and it’s easy to forget he was rated just the 13th best prospect on ESPN a year ago. Russell’s play, along with his intangibles and feel for the game will propel him into stardom.
The new age of basketball is upon us, and in Russell, it has found its new breed of player.