Saturday at the NCAA Tournament featured a highly touted matchup between potential No. 1 pick D’Angelo Russell of the Ohio State Buckeyes against Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and the Arizona Wildcats. Johnson is a potential top five pick, while Hollis-Jefferson is a likely first-rounder. Both players are elite perimeter defenders and the Wildcats are one of the best defensive teams in the country, meaning it was going to be quite the test for Russell.
And sure enough, it was, although the primary defenders against Russell were actually Hollis-Jefferson and point guard T.J. McConnell. After putting up 28 points on 10-of-20 shooting overall and 4-of-7 from three in the overtime victory over VCU, Russell struggled to the tune of nine points on 3-of-19 shooting, his worst shooting performance of the season. He did have seven rebounds and six assists, and he only turned the ball over once, but the poor shooting was just too much for Ohio State to overcome in a 73-58 loss.
Typically a good finisher at the rim (over 65 percent), Russell struggled to finish in the paint against the athleticism, size and length of Arizona. He didn’t get the benefit of many calls on his drives, and his lack of elite athleticism and explosiveness showed at times. He went just 2-of-2 from the line, and he entered play taking 4.5 free throws per game.
Russell also forced a few three-point shots against solid defense, and there was at least one time it looked like he was hunting for a foul on his shot. The freshman entered the game shooting 42.0 percent from three, so his 1-of-7 mark from deep was certainly uncharacteristic.
Since Ohio State primarily played zone defensively, it was a bit tough to judge Russell on that end. There were a few instances of laziness that led to easy shots for Arizona (one that gave sharpshooter Gabe York a wide open three), but he also had a really nice chase down block in transition.
However, as rough of a game as this was for Russell, he still showed why his potential is so tantalizing. Some of the pick-and-roll work he did was great, and he showed off his excellent passing and court vision on multiple occasions.
Here’s him finding a cutter off a pick-and-roll:
And here’s a beauty of a dish off a curl:
And the coup-de-grâce:
There were several other things that Russell did that were nice, and the CBS broadcast pointed one out when Russell set up a teammate with an open jumper after tracking down a loose ball in the corner, then immediately pushing the ball up the court and finding his teammate with a beauty of a cross-court pass. Russell also schooled Hollis-Jefferson on one isolation play, taking it right at the Wildcats defender and finishing strong.
Overall, this was a rough outing for Russell, but that’ll happen to a college freshman facing not only several great defenders, but an elite team defense as well. Obviously Russell will be facing elite athletes with great size on a nightly basis in the NBA, but his skill level is so high that he’ll surely adapt and improve. This performance doesn’t help his case for being the No. 1 pick, but there’s little reason he shouldn’t be a top five pick.
On the other side, Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson both shot poorly as well, combining to shoot 4-of-24 from the field. However, like Russell, both guys made impacts without shooting the ball well. Their defense was strong, and both players grabbed 10 rebounds, with five coming on the offensive end for each player. Hollis-Jefferson also racked up five assists, and one of them was filthy:
Although the final score wasn’t close, this was a fun game to watch for scouting purposes. We saw both good and bad from the top prospects, and we’ll see how the Arizona kids perform moving forward.