D’Angelo Russell officially announced his intentions to leave the Ohio State men’s basketball program for the NBA, leaving after a year in which he earned a first-team All-American honor, the inaugural Jerry West Award for the nation’s top shooting guard and the eternal admiration of OSU coach Thad Matta.
“I got to the point where I just kinda enjoyed the game,” Matta said about watching Russell play. “There were times in the game where I could say to him, ‘take over,’ and he’d look, wink and he’d do it. I think that’s what I’m going to miss the most.”
In OSU’s regular-season opener, a 92-55 win at home against the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, the freshman scored 16 points to go along with four rebounds, six assists and three steals. This performance inspired UMass-Lowell coach Pat Duquette to call Russell “as good a freshman as I’ve seen” following the game.
It didn’t even take until the regular season for Matta to see that same spark.
“It was probably our preseason scrimmage at West Virginia when he scored 33 and he hit the game-winner,” Matta said. “I kinda scratched my head and said ‘Uh oh, this kid.’ He was doing things that we hadn’t even talked about yet in terms of drill work.
“‘If he plays half this well (as the scrimmage), he’s one of the best guards in the country.’ And he only got better from there.”
Not everything was smooth sailing for Russell and the Buckeyes throughout the season, however. In losses to Louisville, in which Russell shot 6-of-20, and Indiana, in which he shot 3-of-15, the guard was criticized by some for trying to do everything himself.
Russell, who declared for the draft on Thursday, said he never had NBA goals in mind, but rather that he was returning the trust in his coach when Matta trusted him to try to take over the game.
“I didn’t think about ‘I’m trying to be a top-five pick, I’m trying to be a first-team All-American, I’m trying to be this, that,’” Russell said. “I just came in like, ‘Coach, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’”
According to ESPN, Russell had offers in high school from powerhouse programs such as North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville, which is his hometown.
But it wasn’t the number of Final Four appearances that ultimately was the deciding factor. Nor was it the opportunity to put up flashy numbers or the quality of the rest of the starting lineup.
“The reason we picked this school is he built a great relationship with the head coach … Once we made that bond and that connection, there was no other school,” Antonio Russell, D’Angelo’s father, said.
Matta said he knew from just about the first time he saw D’Angelo Russell in practice that there was a high probability he would leave after his freshman season — despite the guard being brought in on a two-year plan. It was at that point when Matta realized he might need to find D’Angelo Russell’s replacement for next season.
It was also at that point when D’Angelo Russell became a recruiter in addition to a leader on the court, as he was instrumental in landing his likely replacement — guard JaQuan Lyle.
“Getting JaQuan, he and D’Angelo were very close during the process, and D’Angelo helped us get him, which, once again, speaks volumes to how committed he is to our program,” Matta said.
Lyle, originally in D’Angelo Russell’s high school class, committed to Oregon before last season. The Huntington, W.Va., product was denied admission in Eugene, however, after he was found to have not completed enough credit hours.
Lyle ended up playing a post-graduate season at IMG Academy in Florida before he committed to OSU in January.
Although there was nothing he would have liked more than seeing D’Angelo Russell return for another season, Matta said the bond formed between the two over the last year made it impossible to not advise him to do what he felt was best for him and enter the draft.
“This is a goal achieved for me, in terms of being a head coach, because I think one thing I’ve always tried to be in situations like these is selfless,” Matta said.
OSU has not had a player leave for the NBA after one year since Byron Mullens in 2009, who at the time was the fifth player in three years to be one-and-done.
While Matta has since put a stronger emphasis on building a program with players who stay for longer, he said he knows D’Angelo Russell is not a typical talent, but rather one who will excel at the next level.
“He’s one step ahead of the game,” Matta said. “And that’s very, very rare, from the time he was 18 years old, to be thinking that way.”