As if it weren’t bad enough the Lakers gave up on the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft, rookie general manager Magic Johnson added insult to injury after trading D’Angelo Russell to the Nets. Johnson questioned Russell’s leadership ability and inferred he doesn’t make others around him better and they don’t want to play with him.
When Russell was introduced by the Nets on Monday along with Timofey Mozgov, he claimed he’s not out to prove Johnson wrong, but his actions argued otherwise. Russell worked out at the Nets’ training facility at midnight Sunday as if trying to make a strong first impression.
“I can’t really control what they say,” Russell said of Johnson. “I’m gone, it’s the past, I’m here now, so it’s irrelevant honestly . . . I am tired of talking about what I do or what I am going to do. I think I have showed it. I want to get in right away and let my actions speak.”
Asked if that’s what prompted the late-night workout that attracted a flurry of attention on Twitter, Russell said, “I got a lot of young fans that I try to show support to, and they like to see that type of stuff. That is really where I’m at at that time of night. I am not anywhere else.”
Russell admitted he was surprised to be traded by the Lakers, who replaced him with current No. 2 draft pick Lonzo Ball, but he added that he is excited by the opportunity to grow with the Nets’ young core, including Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead, two players he knows well.
“I didn’t look at it as a negative,” Russell said. “I looked at it as a celebration, and I can’t wait to get in the gym with these guys and just learn from them . . . I’m going to try to lead by example first, get guys’ respect and just go from there.”
General manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson both suggested Russell arrived “with a chip on his shoulder” as a result of his unceremonious departure from Los Angeles. Marks expressed the belief Russell’s Lakers experience would “harden him up,” and added that the 21-year-old offered to jump on a plane for New York when the trade was first reported last Tuesday.
“You could sense there was a hunger, there was a drive, a purpose in wanting to be here,” Marks said. “Let’s be honest, let’s hope we all play with a chip on our shoulder. And I think he has one.”
Marks dismissed Johnson’s critical remarks about Russell and expressed faith in Atkinson to get the best out of a player who still has major star potential. Certainly, Atkinson welcomed the challenge of coaching a player who clearly frustrated Lakers coach Luke Walton last season.
“He’s going to be swept along by the culture, hopefully,” Atkinson said. “And if he’s not, we’re going to have to have a little talk in my office and get that straightened out. But he’s got a clean slate with us . . . I kind of like that he’s not coming here as the anointed one, as this savior. He’s coming here in a humble position by his own admission. That fits our kind of attitude.”
He’s joining a team that had the NBA’s worst record last season at 20-62. Russell understands he has a golden opportunity to grow into a leadership role alongside Jeremy Lin in the backcourt and as part of the core the Nets are developing for the future.
“I am looking forward to the challenge,” Russell said. “Saying my leadership is being questioned, this is an opportunity to make the best out of it . . . In this league, you want to be where you are wanted and needed at the same time.”