The “Magic words” when D’Angelo Russell was traded from the Lakers to the Nets less than 20 months ago were harsh: “immature, not a leader, doesn’t make his teammates better.”
Coming from Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, it created an impression of a then-21-year-old player that would follow him and shape the narrative until Russell could do something to change it.
In interviews, he often deemed Johnson’s remarks “irrelevant” to his new situation, but on a practical level, Russell had to confront it the way he has so many challenges by adhering to the family mantra set forth by his father Antonio: “Turn a negative into a positive.”
Recalling that moment, Antonio Russell said, “D’Angelo and I had the conversation. I said, ‘You’ve got to understand this is Magic Johnson. We’re speaking of a basketball icon, a Hall of Famer saying you might not be elite. You need to take that as a lesson.’
“I could have said, ‘Magic shouldn’t have said it,’ but it was, don’t take it as a negative. Take it as a Hall of Famer giving him some constructive criticism. That’s exactly how we took it.”
In a real sense, Russell turned Johnson’s criticism into his to-do list, but it wasn’t readily apparent when he joined the Nets.
Where some saw Russell dealing with rejection for the first time in his career, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft saw opportunity. Turn a negative into a positive.
“I looked at it like where Steve Nash took his career when he left Dallas, how Chauncey Billups got drafted to Boston and made something in Detroit],” Russell said. “I looked at it as a better opportunity, not a rejection or anything.”
Considering where the Nets were when Russell joined them, coming off an NBA-worst 20-win season, he has changed the narrative and the trajectory of his career more quickly and dramatically than anyone could have imagined.
On Sunday in Charlotte, Russell will appear as the Nets’ first All-Star representative since Joe Johnson in 2014, and it’s happening six days before his 23rd birthday.
The Nets have turned into a 30-29 team that ranks sixth in the Eastern Conference, and Russell has been in the forefront of their development, averaging career highs in points (20.3), assists (6.6), field-goal percentage (.436), three-point percentage (.372), free-throw percentage (.824) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.20).
“My confidence is slowly rising every game,” Russell said. “With us having injuries, it forces me to look in the mirror and reflect on who I can be in this league. I have the confidence to be that person, to be one of the top elite guards. I want to be in that category.”
When Russell was named to the All-Star team as a replacement for injured Victor Oladipo, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson noted that Russell, his father and Thad Matta, his coach at Ohio State, all told him to coach Russell hard. That was a sign of maturity.
“I just wanted to go in the best way I could and know what the coach wants and expects from me,” Russell said. “I wanted to put the coach in the best position to do that, and I knew I needed that structure. Whatever my persona was coming in, I don’t want that. I want it to be, ‘We’re nurturing this guy, we’re coaching him from the ground up.’ ”
Antonio Russell said his son was used to structure as he moved through AAU basketball to the elite program at Monteverde Academy in Florida and then to Ohio State. But that disappeared when he was a 19-year-old joining a Lakers team dominated by Kobe Bryant in his final season.
“One of the key things my son said to me was, ‘Pops, when I came into the league, I didn’t know how to be a professional. I didn’t know how to be a leader. I was just learning how to transition from college to the NBA,’ ” Antonio Russell said.
That changed under general manager Sean Marks and Atkinson and the structure they have in place with the Nets. Antonio Russell knew his son would respond to the challenge.
“Once he understands that you’re for him and you’re pushing him because you see the potential in him and it’s for the right reason, he’s all in for it,” the elder Russell said. “It’s all about the process. He understands about building the foundation.”
Atkinson made it clear to Russell that he would not get star treatment. “We treated him like, ‘You’re going to have to earn this,’” Atkinson said. “He never came off like he was some stud. There were never any superstar airs.”
Russell’s first Nets season was a bumpy ride. He started fast but suffered a knee injury after 12 games that required arthroscopic surgery. When he returned 10 weeks later, he was coming off the bench behind Spencer Dinwiddie. Even after Russell regained his starting spot, he often found himself on the bench in fourth-quarter crunch time.
Asked if Russell ever complained, Atkinson said, “Never. Never, never. Not one single time. He took it because I think he knew he hadn’t arrived yet. That’s also buying into the team philosophy.”
Take a negative and turn it into a positive. It would have been easy for Russell to turn a deaf ear to the coach, but his character has carried him through all the rough patches. Atkinson said it was evidenced by the work ethic Russell displayed during the offseason program last summer.
“I really prioritized myself on changing my mentality,” Russell said. “The mentality of like, ‘Oh, yeah, I should be in those games. I’m supposed to be playing in those games.’ I went from that to: ‘No, let’s earn it.’ If Coach doesn’t feel like I’m the best option, I’m not doing something right. Let me see how I can better myself.
“I couldn’t control when I’m put in a situation and it may look awkward, but I can control my reaction and my response, my attitude.”
Russell took a backseat at the beginning of this season to third-year player Caris LeVert, and when LeVert was lost for three months with a dislocated ankle, Russell basically shared the lead role with Dinwiddie. But over the past two months, even before Dinwiddie underwent right thumb surgery, Russell simply blossomed, improving defensively as well as offensively.
He’s a terrific midrange shooter, but Russell has come around to Atkinson’s view that he needs to shoot more three-pointers to improve his offensive efficiency. Last week, Russell became the youngest player in NBA history to reach 500 made three-pointers.
“Kenny does a great job of making it make sense,” Russell said. “He puts it in a context where you can really see it statistically with the numbers and with your play. It gives you the confidence to take those shots.”
The change in Russell’s game is what helped him earn All-Star recognition, and if you listen, you can hear the narrative change.
Recently, Nuggets coach Mike Malone, who is coaching the West All-Stars, described Russell’s transformation and made sure to say, “He’s making all of his teammates better . . . He is out there looking very poised, under control and confident. That’s what you want from your young point guard that is the leader of your team.”
The “Magic words.” Leader. Making his teammates better. Malone’s remarks could not have been more pointed.
Now Russell can look back on being traded to the Nets and say, “I couldn’t ask for a better situation.” And his father could not be prouder.
“I guess the best thing is knowing what this is doing for his confidence, for his self-esteem, his mentality,” Antonio Russell said. “It makes me happy because I see the joy in him.
“Yes, he’s an All-Star. It’s validation of his hard work and dedication. But seeing him so happy and excited about the Brooklyn Nets winning and what they have a chance to do is a story in itself. You want your kids to have a job they love that forces them to more maturity and growth, and that’s what he’s doing. It’s all testimony to Brooklyn Nets.”