‘Most skilled’: The praise that will keep D’Angelo Russell out of Knicks’ grasp

As a ninth-grader who already was playing varsity at formidable Central High School in Louisville, Ky., Antonio Russell routinely bounced little brother D’Angelo around in competitive, but often lopsided, one-on-one games. If D’Angelo got a step on him, Antonio turned physical and knocked him to the ground, when little brother would call “foul” and be ignored. That’s just the way it was.

Until this one day …

“I nudged him a little and he didn’t go down. It was like a 9-foot rim and he just went up and dunked on me,” said Antonio, now a senior at Northern Kentucky University. “I was in ninth grade playing with seniors, playing varsity, so I was like, ‘This can’t be real. My seventh-grade little brother did not just dunk on me.’ ”

But he did.

Antonio perhaps became the first observer whose jaw dropped, eyes blinked and head shook over on-court displays by D’Angelo Russell, a 6-foot-5, 180-pound, left-handed talent — who Knicks fans hope lasts to the No. 4 pick on NBA draft night.

Despite the presence of big-men studs Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky and Jahlil Okafor of Duke, some see Russell, leaving Ohio State after one season, as the premier chip in the draft. Start with Russell himself.

“I’m the best player in the draft,” Russell said at the Chicago draft combine last month.

He has support.

“He’s got a prototype NBA game,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino — who recruited Russell but lost him to Ohio State, where the teenager saw an immediate chance to start. “If you asked me, ‘Who’s the most skilled player in the NBA draft?,’ it would be him by far.”

D’Angelo RussellGetty Images

Pitino likened Russell to Jalen Rose, a point/shooting guard hybrid. Russell does the best of both positions. His passing and shooting displays at Ohio State made him a YouTube sensation.

“Nobody passes like him. He’s an erratic scorer but he can score. He’s got great size, quickness, good hands. He’s an adequate defender. He goes left predominantly, like a Jalen Rose,” Pitino said. “He’s a better shooter than Rose was when Rose came into the league. He’s got unbelievable vision. He’ll see everything going on.”

All of which the Knicks would welcome. If, and it’s a major if, he lasts until four.

Russell began his journey to draft night in Louisville’s tough West End, a drug- and gang-riddled area that his family fled when he was a sixth-grader. He played football and baseball before concentrating on basketball.

“There were probably like 20 different gangs within gangs in that area,” Russell said in a Big Ten Network podcast. “[Sports] was just motivation to get away from those guys that weren’t on the right path, knowing there were two routes down that road. It was either in jail or the graveyard.”

With an ever-expanding game and a set of ethics and work habits from his father, also Antonio, D’Angelo’s reputation grew.

Eventually, it led him to Central High in Louisville, the school that produced Muhammad Ali. Before Russell set foot on a varsity floor, coach Doug Bibby, the cousin of Mike and the nephew of Henry, knew who he was. And he knew talent. He coached Rajon Rondo for three years at rival Eastern.

“With D’Angelo, you saw his knack to play the game the right way, to see the floor, to read two and three plays ahead,” Bibby said. “His passing might not lead to a score, but it might lead to a pass that led to a pass that led to a score.”

Heather Cox of ESPN speaks to draft prospect Russell prior to the 2015 NBA Draft Lottery.Getty Images

Bibby enjoyed Russell for one season before the youngster left for prestigious Montverde Academy in Florida, where he won two national championships under coach Kevin Boyle, who had moved south after forging a national powerhouse at St. Patrick’s in Elizabeth, NJ.

“The level of competition that he was going to play every day in practice would be special,” Bibby said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the success of the kid, being on a stage like that.

“I always told him, ‘Once you get to the next level, everybody has a scrapbook. Everybody can do what you can do. What is going to separate you from the best is doing the little things that make the big things happen.’ ”

At Montverde as a senior, Russell won four of five national tournaments. He continued impressing with athletic skills as his court IQ and confidence flourished.

“Very confident. He has great belief in himself that he can score and he can play against anybody,” Boyle said. “He has backed it up. He has had great success winning.”

That alone should make the Knicks drool. “Winning” was something the Knicks did all of 17 times last season — hey, you don’t get to pick fourth in the lottery by accident.

“He would be a great fit in New York,” said Boyle, who coached top-three picks Kyrie Irving, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Joel Embiid. “He has a chance to be Rookie of the Year because he’s going to score more at the NBA level.”

Everyone, from high school coaches to family members to teammates, raves about Russell’s knack for the big stage. Doing it in Louisville or Florida or Columbus, Ohio, even in NCAA Tournament games, is one thing. New York is another. Patrick Ewing, the Knicks’ greatest lottery catch ever, preaches sage advice.

“If you don’t have a tough skin, get one,” Ewing said of New York.

Russell directs his team in the second half during the 2015 Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Ohio State Buckeyes.AP

Russell, some say, already has a rawhide covering. But remember, he’s a teenager and won’t turn 20 until February.

“He survived my dad,” brother Antonio said with a laugh. “My dad growing up really instilled a lot of respect, morals and values into us and made us see a bigger picture — to want to be more than just staying in the west end of Louisville, which is very gang-related and drug-infested. My dad moved us out of the West End and showed us there is so much more to life.”

Mother Keisha Rowe obviously had an impact — the parents live apart on good terms — but “as far as basketball, she doesn’t know how any of that stuff goes,” said Antonio, who stressed his dad’s insistence on no shortcuts to himself, D’Angelo, brothers Lashaun and Tayshaun and sister Cloee.

“Everything we had, we had to work for it,” the younger Antonio said. “Look at D’Angelo. He’s not the most athletic player, but he’s one of the most skilled and that’s all because of hard work and dedication my dad instilled in us. And we pushed each other.”

All that pushing from family, friends and coaches has honed a top-end lottery pick.

“He belongs, no question,” one NBA assistant said. “Will he struggle some? I’m sure he will. There are … things he’ll have to adjust to, [like] how fast the game is. He’s more of a deliberate player. And defensively guarding some of those good guards in the league.

“I know the word is like poison, but his ‘upside’ is very up. He sees the floor. It’s almost like he sees the play before it happens.”

But as ready and fine-tuned as Russell may seem, he remains a basketball baby.

“He’s probably the most skilled basketball player in the draft: shooting, passing, catching, all the fundamentals,” Pitino said. “He’s about as skilled as it comes. I’ll tell you what he needs to learn: He has to learn what it means to be a professional. Every rookie does.”

“He will be a very good player,” an NBA general manager said. “But I don’t think a rookie coming in at age 19 is going to be ready right away, not at our level.”

But Russell has handled tasks seemingly beyond his years before.


Quentin Snider tried to lure Russell to Louisville with him but failed. Snider knows what Russell brings.

“I’ve known D’Angelo since the third grade,” Snider said. “He’s very confident. He’s got a great personality. He’s real goofy but when the game’s on the line, he’s ready to play.”

But Snider points to one aspect about Russell, as do many.

“When it’s a big game, he definitely shows up,” Snider said.

“He does like the big stage,” Boyle said. “A lot of kids can’t handle that but he’s got the mentality of, if he misses five shots in a row, there’s something wrong with the ball. He doesn’t think it’s him and that’s a great quality about him.”

“He’s not going to be afraid. The bigger the stage, the more he’ll excel,” Pitino said, recalling a conversation he had with Snider, who told him if Russell has a weakness, it’s “‘He loves the big game. If you’re playing against Coppin State, he may not bring it like he would bring it against Kentucky.’ ”

But Russell has brought it throughout his life. There was a packed-house state high school regional game his freshman year for Central against notoriously powerful Ballard, which produced, among others, Snider and Allan Houston.

“Ballard was ranked No. 1 in the state and we couldn’t execute our offense. They were a step ahead of us the whole game,” Bibby said. “[In] the fourth quarter D’Angelo was like, ‘Coach, just give me the rock.’ And I pretty much let him do his thing one-on-one because the other guys were tentative.

“We didn’t win but he scored 14 points in the fourth quarter,” Bibby said. “As a freshman, to stand up on that stage in a packed house and in the fourth quarter, instead of putting his tail between his legs like the other guys did, he basically put on a clinic.”

Most draft analysts slot Russell No. 3 to point guard-starved Philadelphia. The Knicks may hope Russell drops to four after his one year at Ohio State, where “he was the best I’ve had as a freshman,” coach Thad Matta said on ex-NBA player Steven Bardo’s podcast. “He was as diligent as I’ve ever seen in terms of getting better every single day.”

Which Russell has done ever since dunking on his ninth-grade brother.