D'Angelo Russell's NBA All-Star Resume Could Mark a Historic Moment for Ohio State Basketball

By Kyle Jones on January 28, 2019 at 11:10 am
The former All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year may add line to his resume next month.

Wendell Cruz - USA TODAY Sports

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On March 2nd, 1951, a crowd of 10,094 spectators filed into the old Boston Garden to witness the first event of its kind - an exhibition game featuring pro basketball's best players.

The idea, borrowed from Major League Baseball, was conceived by NBA President Maurice Podoloff, NBA publicity director Haskell Cohen, and Boston Celtics owner Walter A. Brown to attract attention to their league in the wake of a point-shaving scandal that had rocked college basketball. Though the inaugural game featured such legends as George Mikan, Bob Cousy, and Dolph Schayes, it was "Easy" Ed Macauley of the hometown Celtics who earned MVP honors with 20 points as the East All-Stars coasted to a 111-94 victory over the West.

On February 17th, the NBA's biggest names will get together in Charlotte for the 68th playing of the All-Star game. While the game itself is hardly played at the pace envisioned by Podoloff, Cohen, and Brown, the honor of being named to an All-Star roster remains one of the biggest in the sport.

The All-Star moniker remains a draw for pro teams to sell tickets. However, the alma maters of each player that steps out onto the floor take great pride in this honor as well.

In the 67 games prior to this year, a former Ohio State Buckeye has suited up a respectable 31 times. However, 30 of those appearances were made by just four men.

In the league's second iteration of the contest, former OSU center Arnie Risen was chosen thanks to his play as a member of the Rochester Royals, marking the first of four straight appearances. The following season, Neil Johnston of the Philadelphia Warriors made his first of six straight All-Star games. Today, both players are enshrined as Hall-of-Famers in Springfield.

Nine years after the NBA's first All-Star game, Fred Taylor would lead the Buckeyes to a national title for the only time in school history. His team was, of course, led by a pair of stars who'd go on to find even more success at the pro level.

After being named AP national player-of-the-year twice in college, Jerry Lucas would make it to the NBA All-Star game seven times while playing for the Royals, Warriors, and New York Knicks, even earning MVP honors after the 1965 contest. His roommate in Columbus, John Havlicek, would hoist even more trophies as a heralded member of the Boston Celtics, winning eight NBA titles and earning 13 trips to All-Star Weekend.

But despite producing 61 NBA players, including 24 first-round draft picks, the Buckeye hoops program has seen few alumni find success similar to Havlicek and Lucas at the next level. Seven times has the Big Ten Player of the Year worn the Scarlet and Gray since Havlicek retired from the league in 1978, but the likes of Dennis Hopson, Jim Jackson, Scoonie Penn, Terrance Dials, or Evan Turner never emerged as anything more than role players in the pro game. The jury is still out on last year's winner, Keita Bates-Diop, but after being drafted 48th overall he must first figure out how to get off the end of the Minnesota Timberwolves' bench.

Since "Hondo" hung up his Celtics jersey for good, only a pair of guards has followed even close to his footsteps. Like Havlicek, Michael Redd and Mike Conley Jr. both starred on OSU squads that reached the Final Four before eventually finding their way to stardom in the NBA.

After a quiet rookie year, Redd quickly became such a key cog in the Milwaukee Bucks' rotation that star guard Ray Allen was traded to Seattle in order to provide more playing time for the Columbus native. Once established as a full-time starter in 2003-04, Redd made his first and only All-Star appearance while averaging 21.7ppg. 

While Redd was entrenched as one of the league's best three-point shooters, Conley fought to be named the starting point guard in Memphis after being drafted fourth overall in 2007. Now, in his 12th (and likely final) season with the Grizzlies, it appears that the greatest point guard in both franchise and Ohio State history will go his entire career without making an All-Star appearance thanks to the constant presence of perennial MVP contenders like Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook in Western Conference backcourts.

No such surplus of talent exists today in the NBA's Eastern Conference. With the movement of stars like LeBron James and Paul George across the Mississippi in recent years, the All-Star Game itself has changed formats to accommodate such moves. 

All-Star selections are still made across conference lines, however, meaning there will still likely be five or six guards chosen from the East. With starters Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker already announced, a handful of spots remain yet to be filled by a mix of new and old faces.

Former Buckeye D'Angelo Russell is among the list of contenders, thanks to a breakout effort that has lifted the Brooklyn Nets out of a rebuild and into playoff contention for the first time in four long years. In his second season playing at Barclays Center, the lefty combo-guard is averaging career highs in points and assists while improving his shooting at every spot on the floor.

He recently followed a 34 point performance in a win over the division-rival Celtics with a career-high 40 points just four nights later, earning him his first Eastern Conference Player of the Week award.

While he's gained the most attention this season for his improved shooting, Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson noted following the 40-point performance that it's Russell's embrace of his role as a passer that has made the biggest difference this season.

"I think I've said that from the beginning," Atkinson said. "That's his elite skill. I'm thrilled. From the beginning, we said, 'you're a point guard. You're a point guard.' We just made it clear. You're not an off-guard, you're not a 3-man. You're a point guard. You have great vision. You're a great passer. But I think he's finding the balance now between scoring and finding guys."

Of course, former Buckeye head coach Thad Matta was one of the first to recognize Russell's passing ability, offering him the lead guard spot while other schools like Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina, and even his hometown Louisville Cardinals wanted him as a two-guard. In only one season in Columbus, Russell showed why the ball belonged in his hands, quickly emerging as an elite passer before declaring for the NBA Draft in 2015.

For Russell to earn a place among the league's elite next month, he'll have to have convinced the league's head coaches that he's worthy of such an honor. After fans, media, and player voting determined who will start the game, the head coaches are responsible for filling out the rest of the rosters, with their decisions announced this Thursday night during TNT NBA Tip-Off at 7 p.m. ET.

The other Eastern Conference backcourt candidates sport a variety of resumes, making the selection process a tricky one. With Victor Oladipo on the sidelines following a gruesome knee injury, four likely spots are up for grabs among a veteran trio of Dwyane Wade, Kyle Lowry, and Bradley Beal while Russell, Ben Simmons, and Zach LaVine hope to signal a literal changing of the guard.

Eastern Conference All-Star Reserve Candidates - Traditional Stats
Name Team Team Record (Current Playoff Position) PPG APG RPG FG% 3FG% FT%
Bradley Beal Wizards 21-28 (10th) 24.7 5.0 5.1 46.7% 35.4% 78.7%
Zach LaVine Bulls 11-39 (13th) 23.0 4.2 4.2 45.2% 36.9% 83.2%
Kyle Lowry Raptors 37-15 (2nd) 14.1 9.4 4.5 41.2% 31.6% 84.0%
D'Angelo Russell Nets 27-23 (6th) 19.2 6.4 3.8 43.8% 37.6% 80.9%
Ben Simmons 76ers 32-18 (4th) 16.6 8.3 9.5 57.8% 0.0% 57.6%
Dwyane Wade Heat 24-24 (7th) 13.8 4.1 3.7 42.7% 32.6% 68.6%

Each of Russell's competitors can make a unique case for their inclusion:

  • Beal: While off-court drama has affected the on-floor product in D.C., the seventh-year guard appears to have taken the mantle from backcourt mate John Wall as the team's most important (and reliable) player. After breaking into the All-Star game for the first time last year, Beal is a likely candidate to return in 2019.
  • LaVine: While Russell's play has helped elevate his team into playoff contention, LaVine has benefited from seeing the ball in his hands more than anyone else on a young Bulls team that appears to be in full-on tank mode. While he's posting better marks than at any other point in his five-year career, it's only led to 11 wins in 50 games.
  • Lowry: The four-time All-Star has adjusted his game in hopes of finally getting to the Finals for the first time while playing next to Kawhi Leonard. The veteran is still a solid defender, but he's impressed many by posting a career-high in assists-per-game despite handling the ball less than at any point in his 14 NBA seasons.
  • Simmons: Few players elicit stronger opinions in today's game, as his beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Playing point guard on offense and power forward defensively thanks to a 6'10" frame, Simmons has found ways to contribute in numerous ways all around the court...except as a shooter. As a rookie last season, the Australian went 0-11 from deep and missed his only three-point attempt so far this year.
  • Wade: Perhaps the most serious threat to Russell's candidacy, the 12-time All-Star announced in September that this would be his final season in the league. Though he is now clearly a shell of the player he once was, the league's coaches may decide he's earned one final chance to play in its marquee talent showcase.
Eastern Conference All-Star Reserve Candidates - Advanced Stats
Name P.E.R. True Shooting % Usage Rate % Win Shares Box +/-
Bradley Beal 19.3 56.7% 28.3% 3.5 +1.8
Zach LaVine 17.7 56.2% 31.4% 1.2 .-0.8
Kyle Lowry 17.1 55.3% 19.5% 4.9 +2.7
D'Angelo Russell 18.8 53.5% 30.0% 2.8 +2.4
Ben Simmons 21.3 59.1% 22.1% 5.6 +4.8
Dwyane Wade 14.8 50.9% 26.6% 1.1 -1.2

For Buckeye fans unconcerned with pro basketball, focusing on such an honor may seem trivial. But for a hoops program looking to return to the Final Four, attracting top-tier talent is crucial.

Though Davidson College and Fresno State have shown that producing an All-Star does not correlate directly to program success, only Michigan State (Draymond Green) and Indiana (Oladipo) can boast of producing an active NBA player with All-Star experience among Big Ten teams.

It's quite possible that the success of Green and Oladipo had nothing to do with the commitments of the conference's most recent prized recruits, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Romeo Langford, but it certainly wouldn't hurt the Buckeyes' chances with future top prospects by sharing the details of Russell's path to NBA stardom.

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