Shortly after the news broke on June 22 that the Nets had acquired D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, from the Lakers as part of a deal for Brook Lopez, Stony Brook basketball coach Jeff Boals sent a congratulatory text to Russell. Within minutes, Russell, who previously was recruited by Boals to play one year at Ohio State, contacted his former coach.
“The minute it popped up that he was getting traded to the Nets, he FaceTimed me,” Boals said, “and he was really, really excited to come to Brooklyn.”
After two sometimes turbulent seasons with the Lakers, Russell clearly was ready for a dramatic change of scenery. His reasons were clear after Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson delivered a parting shot in which he questioned Russell’s maturity and said he didn’t make the players around him better.
With the rebuilding Nets, Russell senses the opportunity to put down roots and build a brighter future within the nurturing environment general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson are trying to create.
“You could easily be thrown into a situation in the league that doesn’t help yourself,” Russell said recently in an interview with Newsday. “I feel like this situation is perfect for me, a young guy in the league, trying to find myself, and I’m going to get a lot of opportunity here. So that’s all you can really ask for. I just want to make it home. I don’t plan on getting traded [again] anytime soon. It’s not up to me. It’s always a business, but I want to make this my last stop, if possible.”
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
If Russell joined the Nets with some baggage, consider all he had been through by the time he turned 21 in February. His father Antonio moved Russell away from the negative influences of a tough neighborhood in Louis ville to spend his final two years of high school at Mont verde Academy in Florida. After one season at Ohio State, he joined the Lakers as a raw 19-year-old playing alongside Kobe Bryant, who was in his final season.
In his second season, Russell eventually lost his starting point guard job under coach Luke Walton. Now, Atkinson will be Russell’s fifth coach in five seasons, but with his reputation for developing players, the relationship figures to be far more productive.
“I think it’s the perfect fit for him,” Boals said. “I think D’Angelo will reap the benefit of being in that structure and being in that culture. The first year he was with the Lakers, that was Kobe Bryant’s swan song. How much was it about the development of the guys who were there as opposed to Kobe’s last year, retirement?
“Then, you’ve got Luke Walton coming in. Everyone always said, ‘Is [Russell] a one or a two? Is he a pure point guard or is he a scoring guard?’ He’s a basketball player with a high IQ. I’ll be interested to see how he evolves in year three.”
Russell said playing for five coaches in five seasons shows he can adapt to any situation, and he claims playing with Bryant was a good learning experience.
“I actually enjoyed it just to get to play with him and be around him and kind of get a feel for what it takes to be in his position,” Russell said of Bryant. “I looked at it as a positive, not as a negative.”
NETS GET STYLE POINTS
At the same time, when Bryant retired, Russell suggested the Lakers could play a more team-oriented style like the Spurs. Now, he finds himself with an organization following that model because Marks came from the Spurs.
“I feel like it takes a lot of pressure off individuals,” Russell said of the Nets’ style. “Some teams, when you’re one of the top players, you’ve got to do more than what’s needed. Being in a system like this where everybody is capable of doing something and is good at what they do at their position, all you’ve got to do is come to work and do your job. I feel like what’s successful in the league nowadays is team basketball.”
One thing Russell especially appreciates is the hands-on approach Atkinson takes with all his players. “I would say Kenny lays out a great format just bringing that hard work, energy and intensity every day,” Russell said. “When you’re around that every day, you kind of adapt to it. All the coaches are the same way. I wouldn’t want to be in any other place.”
It’s no accident the Nets placed Russell’s locker at their training facility right next to one occupied by ninth-year veteran DeMarre Carroll. Russell also previously developed a good relationship with second-year Net Caris LeVert from playing against him in the Big Ten and in national AAU basketball.
Carroll said his experience playing alongside point guards Jeff Teague in Atlanta and Kyle Lowry in Toronto is something he’s trying to pass on to Russell. “I talk to him all the time,” Carroll said. “He looks up to me, he texts me all the time. I’m always trying to tell him what he can get better at, how he can be one of the top premier point guards in this league.
“This is a team. It’s not all about D’Angelo. It’s about the team, a culture, not one individual. He’ll stick out like a sore thumb if he tries to go his own way or do his own thing like he kind of did in L.A. Now he’s in a stable environment. I think that really is going to help his game, help him and it’s going to challenge him and make him a better player.”
Russell said he welcomes the advice he gets from Carroll and, in general, he has found the atmosphere in the Nets’ locker room warm and welcoming. “You adjust to having great people around you,” Russell said. “There’s no negative energy or negative vibes from anybody, and that develops great chemistry.”
When you stop to think about it, this should be Russell’s senior year in college, but at 21 with two NBA seasons under his belt, he just might be poised to make a leap forward with the Nets.
“I look at it more like I’m supposed to be here and I’m going to keep working on my craft and stay here as long as I can,” Russell said. “You never know what the future holds, but I know how much work I put in and I see the work these guys put in. We want to make winning a habit. If we can keep buying into doing that, I think we’ll make the people proud.”
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