D’Angelo Russell wore the No. 11 on his jersey up until high school.
Then Russell, now a freshman at Ohio State, switched to No. 3, he said. But when he got to Columbus, No. 3 was taken by senior guard Shannon Scott and No. 11 was retired. After fellow freshman Jae’Sean Tate chose No. 1, Russell settled on the number that most closely resembles OSU’s block “O” logo on his jersey.
The Louisville, Ky., native said he’s not really sure why he chose zero, but threw out one idea with a smile on his face.
“Zero people can guard me, that’s probably what it was,” Russell said Wednesday.
Jokes aside, Russell has proved to be a difficult matchup for many of the Buckeyes’ opponents throughout his first collegiate season. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year averaged 19.2 points per game during the regular season, including 20.3 points per game in Big Ten play.
Those numbers put him a full nine points ahead of senior forward Sam Thompson, who finished second on the team in scoring. Russell also led the team with 5.6 rebounds per game for the entire season, and finished first in conference play with 5.1 assists per game.
Russell said he recognizes his ability to take over games, but added that success going forward will have to be a team effort.
“It’s all about timing and shots falling and just being aggressive every possession I get,” he said. “And just coming together as a team when adversity hits, and whenever it sets in, we just gotta be stronger and everything’s gonna happen from there.”
Coming off a 72-48 loss to Wisconsin in Sunday’s regular-season finale, Russell and the Buckeyes’ next step is set to be in the Big Ten Tournament. OSU is scheduled to take on Minnesota on Thursday night in Chicago.
After the Buckeyes’ Big Ten run comes to an end, they’ll find out their NCAA Tournament fate Sunday night.
While he’s been one of the key reasons OSU has won 22 games, Russell shook off comparisons to former University of Connecticut tournament heroes Shabazz Napier and Kemba Walker when it comes to his plans for his first collegiate postseason.
“I wouldn’t say (a) Shabazz or Kemba type thing, but I would definitely do a D’Angelo Russell approach and do whatever I got to do to lead this team,” Russell said. “If it’s scoring, rebounding, whatever coach needs me to do, I’m willing and I just want to win, and I know the guys that I got around me and the coaching staff want the same thing.”
OSU coach Thad Matta said he’d be willing to “swear to” Russell’s drive to win games, not to put up individual statistics.
“D’Angelo would probably rather average 15 points, eight assists and six rebounds and win than score 25 points and that sort of thing,” Matta said Wednesday. “That’s kind of his mentality, he doesn’t take to losing easy.”
Matta added that Russell spends “a lot of time” discussing exactly what the coaches need the team to do to win games.
“Just saying, ‘Hey, what do we gotta do since Sunday, what do you want me to do? How can I get these guys? Let’s do whatever we need to do,’” Matta said. “You know that kid cares.”
Matta acknowledged that Russell’s success amid the team’s times of struggle have led to extra pressure on the freshman.
“I think we’ve put so much pressure on him, we’ve gotta get these other guys playing,” he said. “D’Angelo didn’t play well Sunday, he’ll be the first to tell you that.”
Russell, who scored 17 points but made just 1-of-7 3-point attempts in the loss to Wisconsin, said the team as a whole has to find a way to put that loss behind it.
“I think we’re all on the same page and we know that that was a tough loss,” he said. “But like I said, it can trigger anything with success and just playing well for the tournament and then the NCAA Tournament and so forth.”
While the Buckeyes’ season will end whenever their postseason run concludes, Russell will be faced with a decision as to whether he wants to do it again. Projected as a top-five pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Russell said his focus hasn’t strayed from the task facing OSU in the postseason, beginning with Thursday night’s matchup.
“It’s not on my mind,” he said. “Not really preparing for any of that right now, just trying to get the most wins we can and be as successful as we can.”