Three months after being traded from the Lakers for Brook Lopez, the shock has worn off for D’Angelo Russell, who understands the chance he has for a fresh start with the Nets and the importance of gaining the respect of his new teammates when training camp begins Tuesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
On Media Day Monday at the Nets’ Brooklyn training facility, Russell said he always has considered himself a leader and doesn’t believe he was traded because he fell short in that department. But Lakers general manager Magic Johnson charged at the time of the deal that Russell lacked leadership and failed to make the players around him better.
Stung by those harsh words, Russell has spent the past three months working to ensure his new teammates enjoy playing with him. “I thought I was always a great teammate,” Russell said. “I try to make sure of it. But as of now, I’m in a new situation, and I’ve got to earn that trust and relationships with guys. So, I’m going to go out of my way to make that happen.
“I want this to be home for me. Getting traded and moving, changing your whole environment and situation is not easy. So, I don’t want to do that again. The easier and the quicker I can get that relationship with guys, the easier that will be.”
Center Timofey Mozgov, who came with Russell from the Lakers, said he saw no problem with Russell’s leadership during his first two NBA seasons, but he acknowledged Johnson’s critique might serve as a wake-up call. “I think it’s going to help him growing up,” Mozgov said. “It should be a ring for him, like, ‘OK, this means I [did] something wrong. So, let me see what I can do better.’”
Job No. 1 for Russell is learning how to blend his talents with those of veteran point guard Jeremy Lin. Coach Kenny Atkinson recently said both effectively will share point guard duties because their roles are interchangeable in his motion offense.
Noting that he has played shooting guard throughout much of his career, Lin said, “I know how to play off the ball, he knows how to play off the ball. But his IQ is so high. Playing pickup [games], his passing is so phenomenal. I think it’s going to be so much easier than maybe I had anticipated at first or other people had expected.
“I think you’re going to see us playing off of each other. The reality is we were in last place last year, and we need both of us to play extremely well for this team to continue to take steps forward. We’ve discussed that a little bit, and we’re ready to take on that challenge.”
Russell said Atkinson’s offensive system best suits his talents and agreed with Lin that they will mesh with experience. “We’ll start to get that relationship, get a feel for each other within the system,” Russell said. “I like to cut and I like to move without the ball, so, I don’t really feel like I need the ball necessarily in my hands.”
For now, the Nets will rely on veterans like Lin, DeMarre Carroll and Trevor Booker to provide the voice of experience in the locker room. But the 21-year-old Russell represents the future, and Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks expressed their faith in him to develop leadership skills.
“To hear them say that, I definitely take it into consideration and want to take as many leaps as you can with that,” Russell said. “I think it starts with earning your teammates’ respect, so, the whole summer with me being here, that’s what I started trying to do.”