When the Nets traded Jeremy Lin to Atlanta in July as part of a move to clear salary cap space, it widely was viewed as a decision by general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson to hand the keys to the car to 22-year-old point guard D’Angelo Russell. After all, most fans view the former No. 2 overall draft pick in 2015 as the future face of the franchise.
But as he approaches his fourth NBA season, Russell has matured to the point where he has learned to be wary of outside expectations. Speaking at media day on Monday before training camp opens Tuesday, Russell said, “This organization is not really a ‘hand the keys’ type of organization. I haven’t really got that vibe.
“It’s more team-oriented. Sean and Kenny preach team basketball, team face, team Nets. No keys to a specific guy. I bought into that.”
It certainly appears Russell has a clear opportunity to establish himself as the team leader, but he wrote that notion off as too cliché. “You only can say so much,” Russell said. “You only can lose so much before guys start wanting to buy into winning.
“I can come in every day and lead by example and perform day in and day out, and I think that’s what develops that trust in your teammates versus speaking on it or the fans speaking on it or [the media] speaking on it.”
Russell was acquired in a trade with the Lakers, a place where the star system always has ruled. But a year later, he has come to reflect the Nets’ team-oriented cultural values. Marks and Atkinson have praised the sweat equity Russell invested in the summer program.
Another factor that should help Russell’s development is the fact this will be his first season since high school when he has played consecutive seasons under the same head coach. Russell endured a tough stretch when he returned from a 10-week absence after arthroscopic knee surgery last season and came off the bench for a while, but he and Atkinson are in a good place now.
“To have Kenny back is great, and to be back [with him] is great,” Russell said. “I think we’ve developed a relationship over time, and it allowed us to be honest with each other, dissect each other in the film room and get my opinions versus his. I think that’s a sign of growth.”
Russell’s teammates certainly have seen clear signs of his progress during their offseason pickup games. Jared Dudley, who signed as a free agent, said Russell has been a forceful, vocal leader on the floor. As an 11-year veteran, Dudley has told Russell the surest way for him to earn the max contract extension he is seeking is not just through scoring but also by helping to make his teammates better.
“I always tell D’Angelo, ‘You can average 20 points and five rebounds and not get the contract you want,’” Dudley said. “If I told him a player to look at, it would be Chris Paul. The assists have to go up. There’s no star player here. There’s no one saving the game. You’ve got to have some players on the team make other players better.”
That is the perfect expression of what Marks and Atkinson would like to see from Russell, who says he has embraced that philosophy. Asked what the Nets must do to improve on last season’s 28-54 record, Russell said, “I think it’s just buying in to what coach is preaching. It’s him putting guys into a system, him putting guys in the best position for them. As the point guard, I have to interpret that every game, every practice.”
That starts now.