Life is funny. While Magic Johnson was orchestrating his exit as the Lakers' chief of basketball operations on the West Coast, D’Angelo Russell, who was traded two years ago by Johnson and branded as a player lacking leadership qualities, was on the East Coast wrapping up an All-Star season with a trip to the playoffs with the sixth-seeded Nets, starting with Game 1 Saturday in Philadelphia.
At his news conference on Tuesday, Johnson offered what amounted to his mea culpa in discussing the Russell trade that was engineered in part to clear salary cap space to make a run at Paul George, who wound up in Oklahoma City.
“We had to give up a really talented young player in D’Angelo Russell,” Johnson said. “And congratulations to him making the [All-Star team]. We saw D’Angelo mature. He wasn’t mature like he is now. He always had the talent to score, but he was immature. Now, he’s grown up, and that’s why he’s an All-Star.”
At 23, Russell played 81 games in his fourth NBA season and finished with career-highs of 21.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists and a 36.9 percent from three-point range. He scored at least 20 points in 11 of the final 12 games of the season as the Nets fought their way through a brutal schedule to make the playoffs and finish with a 42-40 record two seasons after finishing with the worst record in the NBA.
When Russell was asked about Johnson’s recent remarks, it was unclear whether he knew the specifics, but he made a point of where his priorities lay now.
"Once again to have that type of caliber guy to have an opinion or anything towards me, I take it as constructive criticism,” Russell said. “But I’ll say it again. I’m two feet over here where my feet are. I’m not really worried about what’s going on over there or what anybody over there has to say about me. I’m trying to look past that and build my legacy over here.”
After the Nets’ 113-94 victory over Miami on Wednesday night at Barclays Center to clinch the sixth seed, Russell wore the No. 3 Dwyane Wade jersey the Heat star gifted to him in their previous meeting in Miami. He praised Wade as a “role model” in a context that hinted he aspires to a similar future with the Nets.
"Man went out with a triple-double,” Russell said. “Don’t let that go unnoticed. He built that franchise for that long period of time. He’s Mr. Miami. That’s what guys want to do when they got to an organization. They want to be that for the organization. He’s a role model.”
Now, it’s on to the playoffs and a matchup with 76ers point guard Ben Simmons, who was high school teammates with Russell at Monteverde Academy in Florida.
“Man, it’s crazy, the irony,” Russell said. “But I think it’s meant to be for us to get in the playoffs and match up. May the best man win. Let’s get it done.”
The Nets’ playoff berth came as a surprise to many, especially after the adversity they had to overcome with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie both suffering long-term injuries, but Russell said they did so by staying focused and applying a “next-man-up mentality.” No one stepped up bigger than Russell.
By any measure, it has been a successful season, but when asked if he still would see it that way if the Nets lose to the Sixers in the first round, Russell demurred.
“I [don’t] feel cornered into settling for that,” he said. “No, I want to make it out of the first round. We’re here now, so keep goals coming and trying to achieve them.”