D’Angelo Russell arrived in Brooklyn last June with a cloud of condemnation hanging over his head, courtesy of venerated Lakers president and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. Shortly after trading Russell to the Nets, Johnson said the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft had “All-Star talent” but added, “What I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make other players better and also that players want to play with.”
Naturally, Russell welcomed the opportunity for a reboot with the Nets, a chance for “DLo 2.0.”
But what transpired was a bumpy ride that included a quick start out of the gate followed by arthroscopic knee surgery, a 32-game rehab absence, a 14-game stretch in which he came off the bench because Spencer Dinwiddie had usurped his role as starting point guard and then a return to the starting lineup for the final 22 games that was marred when coach Kenny Atkinson benched him at Miami, where he was scoreless in six minutes.
Looking back on the experience, Russell said, “All around, I felt it was a wavy season — it was up and down. A lot of adversity happened that we couldn’t really control, but I think we did as well as we could. I could always do better, but I’m learning myself as a player better and better. Going into the offseason, I can have a better feel on what I can do to better myself.”
Russell’s numbers were a virtual carbon copy of his second season with the Lakers. He averaged 15.5 points and shot 41.4 percent but had career bests of 3.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists. His three-point shooting percentage plummeted to 32.4 percent and he had a career-high 3.1 turnovers per game, two numbers that reflected his lack of good judgment at times.
There were games in which he seemed disinterested and careless, but those paled in comparison with the times when his play was utterly sublime. It wasn’t just that Russell could find ways to score at crunch time. He had five double-digit assist games in which the Nets went 3-2 and Russell was plus-36 when he was on the court. It seemed like a window into the potential of a 22-year-old player who would just now be graduating from Ohio State if he had stayed all four years.
On Thursday, when the Nets went through exit interviews, Russell offered this candid assessment of his first season in Brooklyn: “I came into this situation, played a few games and got hurt, went down and came back. I had to earn my stripes all over again and start over.
“That’s what it was — the reality of it, the whole situation. I had to gain Coach’s trust back and show them that I was willing to do that again.”
Never in Russell’s career had he been held accountable as strongly as Atkinson did. The Nets’ coach went with Dinwiddie’s hot hand, but when it became clear that Russell was better starting than off the bench, Atkinson restored him to that role. At the same time, he didn’t always trust Russell with the ball at crunch time.
To hear Russell, he might have grown from the tough love. “The time off the court being hurt, having the opportunity to communicate with guys and learn guys and watch from the sideline put me in a better perspective for when I got back on the floor,” he said. “How to control things, how to voice my opinion as well.”
From his final year in high school through this season, Russell has operated under five head coaches and systems in as many years. Next season under Atkinson will be Russell’s first experience with consistent direction. It’s fair to assume that level of stability will help him grow.
“That’s pretty cool, honestly,” Russell said. “Not the fact of having that many coaches but as far as knowing that there’s some type of security. There will be repetitive guidance from a coach that you know you’re going to be around. I think it’s great.”
Russell’s teammates understand the impact he can make when he’s on his game, and they recognize the negative effect when he has a “walkabout” game. When the Nets brought in veteran DeMarre Carroll last summer, they purposely placed his locker at the team’s training facility next to Russell’s.
There were times during the season when Russell made comments that echoed Carroll’s advice to him and you could hear the knowledge being passed on. But even Carroll recognized Russell’s inconsistency.
“His talent — nobody in this arena will question his talent,” Carroll said. “You just want him to do it consistently. D’Angelo is probably the closest thing we have to an All-Star on our team if he did it consistently. Me being his big brother, being a leader, I just challenge him to come and hit it hard every day.
“He just has to come in this summer and buy in, hit the weights, do what the performance team tells him to do, live in the gym like Caris [LeVert] did last year.”
Although Russell might benefit from consistent instruction from Atkinson and the Nets’ performance team, he still must deal with a certain degree of upheaval. He came into last season understanding the need to figure out how to share the backcourt with Jeremy Lin. That experiment ended one game into the regular season when Lin ruptured his right patella tendon.
But Lin is healthy now and expects to resume his starting point guard role. He has Atkinson’s confidence, so the experiment will begin anew, with Lin and Russell re-learning how to share the ballhandling and how to play off the ball.
Although he spent most of the season rehabbing at a physical therapy facility near Vancouver, no one followed the Nets more closely than Lin, who especially focused on Russell’s experience.
“ ‘DLo’ obviously went through a really up-and-down season,” Lin said. “But maybe what’s a little bit lost is his ability to fight through it and make the most of whatever situation he was in — injured, coming off the bench, in a rhythm, playing great. In every situation, I felt like he was really resilient in what he was doing. I think he grew up a lot mentally and physically.”
Lin may have sugar-coated his assessment a bit, but his comments suggest he might be a voice of positive reinforcement and gentle criticism in Russell’s ear. Russell said his mentality this season was that “I just wanted to be a sponge.” If that’s the case, when he’s paired with Lin again, all the better.
Russell understands how intense the competition in the Nets’ backcourt will be next season. Given the way Atkinson handled him this season, he knows nothing will be handed to him. But he can draw on those moments when he rose to the occasion and made everybody on the Nets better around him.
Did he prove Magic Johnson wrong? “I guess it puts that statement under the rug,” Russell said. “I know what I’m capable of. I trust my craft. I spent numerous hours working in the summer, in-season, whatever it may be . . . I always felt like I was that dude. I don’t know what my ceiling is. I just want to get better every year and go from there.”
D’Angelo Russell’s 2017-18 season:
41.4 FG pct.