Nets coach Kenny Atkinson feigned innocence, if not downright confusion, why anyone might ask if he spoke to point guard D’Angelo Russell about playing his former team when the Lakers and newcomer LeBron James visited Barclays Center Tuesday night.
“I know I didn’t think about it,” Atkinson said before the game. “I think of D’Angelo as a Brooklyn Net and that’s it. Now that you bring it up, I remember he played for the Lakers.”
Of course, a major part of the narrative when the Nets acquired the No. 2 player from the 2015 draft from the Lakers more than a year ago not only was that he was available because the Lakers were intent on drafting Lonzo Ball but that team president Magic Johnson added insult by saying Russell didn’t make players around him better. If Russell wanted revenge last season, it escaped him in two losses to the Lakers in which he scored 17 and 15 points and shot a combined 2 of 13 from three-point range.
But this season, Russell has been trending in a positive direction, averaging 18 points per game and leading the Nets in assists (6.0), steals (1.3), deflections (61) and made three-pointers (76) entering Tuesday night.
This time he had big night against the Lakers, scoring 22 points with 13 assists in the Nets’ 115-110 victory.
Going into the Lakers game, his shooting on corner three-pointers bordered on unconscious at 60.7 percent (17 of 28). Russell’s defense also has improved as evidenced by his plus-54 during the Nets’ six-game winning streak.
“He’s taken a step forward from last season,” Atkinson said. “I think he’s on this natural progression. He’s obviously a very talented guy, and we love the progress we’re seeing so far.”
Lakers coach Luke Walton took note of Russell’s 46.4 percent shooting on midrange shots, which are his specialty. “He’s scoring the ball,” Walton said. “His midrange shooting is very hard to stop. He’s tough. He can go both directions. I’m happy for him to see that progress still happening.”