Of all the story lines from a season in which the Nets made a quantum leap from 28 wins to 42 and a playoff berth, the one with the most long-term significance is the evolution of D’Angelo Russell from damaged goods to All-Star point guard and prospective franchise cornerstone.
Traded two years ago by the Lakers, who questioned his leadership skills, Russell struggled through an injury-marred first season with the Nets but blossomed midway through this season to fuel their playoff run. Whatever uncertainty the organization might harbor about his future will be resolved by July 1 when Russell becomes a restricted free agent. General manager Sean Marks either will work out a contract extension before then or let the market establish Russell’s value and leave it to the Nets to match whatever offer he signs.
Following the Nets’ first-round elimination by the 76ers, Russell was asked on Wednesday if he’s looking forward to the free-agent process. “Yeah, hell yeah,’ Russell said.
If the Nets sign Russell, they will have a projected $30 million in salary cap space to spend on a top-tier free agent, or they could renounce Russell’s $21.1 million cap hold to clear at least $50 million to sign two top free agents.
“I have no idea how this is going to go,” Russell said. “I have no idea how players think of me as a recruiting tactic or whatever. We’ll see.”
The important thing is Russell controlled what he could control by forging the best season of his career, averaging 21.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists while shooting .369 percent from three-point range. That performance might have changed the perception of him around the NBA.
“I talked to Kobe [Bryant] once, and I remember him saying, ‘Make new headlines. Whatever the old headlines are or what people think about you, make new ones,’ ” Russell said of the Lakers great. “I took pride in doing that and just went out there and tried to make basketball headlines instead of [about] me.”
Comparing his first Nets season, when he was limited to 48 games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, to this All-Star season, Russell said he wasn’t mentally or physically prepared for success when he arrived. “Having one summer under my belt with this staff and performance team and understanding how to be a pro gives me a blueprint on what it takes,” Russell said. “I know the sky is the limit for me, and I want to build off that.”
Russell credited coach Kenny Atkinson for facilitating his development as a player and a person. “Coach is one of the most genuine, emotional, man he’s a great dude,” Russell said. “I thank him as much as I can for the opportunity to come here and be me and learn how to be a better me at the same time. He gave me the guidance.”
Russell previously indicated his desire to be with the Nets for a long time, but he’s also trying to be realistic. “I definitely want to be here, but I also know it’s a business, too,” Russell said. “So, I’m not going to play like I don’t know what possibly could happen. Say somebody comes here that I have to be a part of [a trade] to get them. I know that could be a possibility.”
At the same time, Russell has bought in with the Nets and delivered results. “I set so many goals going into this season — I wanted to be an All-Star, I wanted to make the playoffs, I wanted to play 80-plus games,” Russell said. “So, my prayers, all that stuff, were answered. I couldn’t be more proud of the way we handled it this year."