Be like Manu? D'Angelo Russell patterns game after Spurs star

ByBaxter Holmes ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

D'Angelo Russell had to say something. After all, his favorite player was right there, standing a few feet away, on the same court -- someone he had studied for years, devouring countless hours of footage, then rewinding and playing it again before trying to mimic it on the court.

For years, Russell's friends and family couldn't quite understand his adoration. The player he had long admired wasn't one of the NBA's biggest stars. He didn't play for a major-market team. He didn't even start.

To Russell, none of that mattered, and when the game's action paused for a pair of free throws during one of their matchups last season, the Los Angeles Lakers point guard, then a rookie, made his move and approached his idol the same way a fan might.

"Man," Russell told Spurs guard Manu Ginobili."It's a pleasure to be out here with you."

Russell can't remember what Ginobili said in return, but for Russell, the moment was cool enough.

"I was like, 'Damn,'" he said, "because he was one of my favorite players growing up."

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Antonio Russell Jr., like many his age, pledged allegiance to Kobe Bryant, but when it came time to pick sides, his younger brother went in a different direction.

"He used to tell me that his favorite player was Manu Ginobili," Antonio Jr. said. "He always used to be like, 'Manu Ginobili, Manu Ginobili, Manu Ginobili.'"

Antonio Jr.'s response: "Whoa."

For years, Antonio Russell Sr. considered his 6-foot-5 son to be a blend of Jalen Rose and Lamar Odom, two left-handers with size who could handle the ball and do a bit of everything. He soon noticed that D'Angelo just wasn't as interested in those players -- or anyone else -- as he was in Ginobili, an acrobatic lefty with court vision and, above all, a fearless nature.

"As time went on, I saw him pattern his game [after him] and doing the things that Ginobili does," Antonio Sr. said.

D'Angelo Russell studied film of Ginobili, trying to learn whatever he could.

"Yeah, basically everything Ginobili did," said Jamie Johnson, a childhood friend. "He tried to watch how Ginobili moved off the ball -- just everything, as far as IQ-wise too, because Ginobili, of course, isn't the fastest guy. [D'Angelo] understood that he wasn't fast either, so he tried to find players that were similar to him."

That's perhaps the largest reason Russell came to admire Ginobili so much: He believed Ginobili's style was one that he could emulate because their bodies, athleticism and skill sets seemed similar.

"See, it's different when you ask who your favorite player was. You can say those American guys who made their name, like Kobe and Allen Iverson and Shaq and all those types of guys," he said. "But I really look at it and say, if I could model my game after somebody [it would be Ginobili]."

Russell explained further by saying that if a player wanted to emulate, say, Dwyane Wade, he might focus more on pump-faking and midrange jumpers. If that player liked Bryant, precision footwork would be a priority. It depends what suited that specific player.

"You try to go to what you're accustomed to," he said. "And Manu was never as athletic, but he could really pass the ball. He could score the ball, and he was just so unpredictable, and he was a lefty, so he was a player that I really prided myself on being."

Throughout Russell's youth, it seemed the Spurs were always in the NBA Finals, and Ginobili always seemed to be making a huge impact as a spark off the bench, helping San Antonio win four championships after he joined the team in 2002. For years, Russell followed the wily Argentinian, wondering how Ginobili remained so comfortable as a backup and seemed so ready coming into games, so bursting with energy.

"When he gets in the game, it's like, the whole persona of the game just changes," he said. "I was like, man, if I can pride myself into being like that, just being a guy that's so unpredictable that even at the age he's at now [39], he's so hard to guard."

More than that, Russell said Ginobili was one of the first players to popularize the "Eurostep" dribble.

"Ever since then, everybody really started doing it," he said.

As a rookie, Lakers staffers showed Russell footage of Ginobili, particularly how the Spurs ran plays to get him the ball -- a film assignment that didn't take much coaxing.

"He was just, like, so fiery, and he makes winning plays, and he's so unpredictable, so it's hard for teams to scout him," he said.

Russell hopes to develop all those traits, but there's one, above all, that he wants from his idol.

"Just the energy he has," he said. "When he gets in the gym, I don't know, he's always ready. It's hard to come off the bench and be ready all the time. He's always ready, and that's a skill."

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