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At his basketball camp, D'Angelo Russell avoids talk of free agency

Brooklyn Nets guard D'Angelo Russell reacts during the

Brooklyn Nets guard D'Angelo Russell reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors at Barclays Center on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

METUCHEN, N.J. — D’Angelo Russell’s two-day basketball camp was winding down Sunday at a sports facility in Metuchen, where 118 kids sat on the floor and paid attention to every word from the Nets star. A camp organizer asked Russell to think of a number between 1 and 18 because that was how many raffle tickets there were for an autographed basketball.

“Eleven,” was Russell’s answer.

The answer was a remarkable coincidence. That’s the number worn by free-agent point guard Kyrie Irving, the player who might replace Russell in the Nets’ lineup if the organization allows him to walk as an unrestricted free agent to create enough salary-cap room to sign two maximum-salary free agents.

A group of reporters who showed up expecting to speak to Russell about free agency, which opens at 6 p.m. Sunday, would have liked to ask him about his thoughts on his uncertain status with the Nets, but an organizer made it clear that was verboten.

So the elephant in the room never was addressed during the formal interview. When the camp ended and two reporters who lingered long enough to follow Russell to his waiting car asked him if he had a minute, he said, “I’m done.”

Will those wind up as his famous last words? Or will the Nets possibly hang on to him as a restricted free agent, extend his contract and try to pair him with Irving in the backcourt for at least one season?

If this was the last of Russell’s two seasons in a Nets uniform, he made the most of it, earning All-Star recognition and leading the Nets to a 42-40 record and the first round of the playoffs.

When he wrapped up camp with a speech to the kids, he told them how much he had learned in various basketball camps and said, “Dreams do come true.”

They offered a standing ovation, which seemed a measure of the popularity he achieved in a short time while helping to revive a flailing franchise.

Asked about his popularity locally, Russell said: “Yeah, it never goes unnoticed. I love kids telling their parents, ‘He’s my favorite player. I want to go to his camp.’ Things of that nature. I enjoy that every time.

“The work that you put in, you’ve got to get some type of slap on the back. That’s my slap on the back is just seeing these kids smile every day and enjoying their company.”

During the course of the past season, Russell said on several occasions that he hoped to finish his career with the Nets. When he spoke to the media about how much he liked doing community events such as his camp, that came through.

“It’s fun, it’s fun,” Russell said. “This is a city that loves basketball. There’s a court on every corner. Just getting out there and seeing how many guys are going hard every day in their school uniforms is something that can really change people. It can change their lives.”

It changed Russell’s life, but the question now is how much more change lies ahead for him in free agency. We’ll know soon enough.

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