ORLANDO, Fla. — The news was a day late but far from a dollar short. Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team as a replacement for injured Pacers guard Victor Oladipo on Friday, a day after being passed over when the reserves were announced.
The moment he learned of his selection from coach Kenny Atkinson on a team charter flight from San Antonio to Orlando was moving for both. But it was especially gratifying for Russell, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2015, because it came less than two years after the Lakers traded him to the Nets as part of a deal for Brook Lopez. At the time, Lakers president Magic Johnson said Russell was not a leader who could make his teammates better.
“Coach was the first one to break it to me,” Russell said. “I was in awe on the plane. I’m a crier, honestly. I was holding my tears in.”
So was Atkinson. “It gave me chills,” he said. “I’m an emotional coach, an emotional person. I didn’t cry, but I got emotional. There’s a lot of work he’s put in staying here all offseason working his tail off, and seeing him be rewarded is a great testament to his work ethic.”
Russell had to beat out the 76ers’ Jimmy Butler, among others, for the honor, so he tried not to think about it until it became reality. Realizing he had achieved one of his life’s goals was impactful for him.
“The coaches that I’ve had, my teammates that I’ve met through this journey, it’s something you can’t take away,” Russell said. “You can’t take that away from somebody … This is a dream. My personal goals and everything that I’ve set for myself and everything I’ve been through to get to this point – I could easily dwell on it, but I’m honestly not satisfied. I want to keep going.”
Russell has improved dramatically since the Nets called upon him to step up after Caris LeVert suffered a dislocated ankle on Nov. 12, responding with career highs in scoring (19.6) and assists (6.4) He earned his first career NBA player of the week honor after averaging 28 points and seven assists when the Nets were 3-0 from Jan. 14-20. He has scored at least 30 points in nine games this season and had at least 20 in 12 of 15 games in January.
Thinking of what it will feel like to be an All-Star, Russell said, “I’m going to be star-struck. I’m not going to lie. I’m 22. A lot of these guys are a little older than me, so I watched them on TV. Dreamed of playing in that game. It’s going to be another chapter in my book. I can’t imagine being in an All-Star Game, knowing that you’re among some of the best of the best.”