SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is the place where D’Angelo Russell’s fledgling NBA career threatened to be derailed. It was just 16 months ago that he injured his left knee near the end of a loss to the Jazz and needed arthroscopic surgery.
His Nets career was off to a flying start as he averaged 20.9 points through 12 games, but he missed 33 games in the next 10 weeks and was forced to come off the bench for 13 games after he returned before finishing with a 15.5-point average in 48 games.
But the Russell who will make his 70th start in as many games this season when the Nets face the Jazz on Saturday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena returns to the scene of his misfortune as an All-Star who turned adversity into an opportunity for growth.
He is averaging 20.2 points and 6.8 assists, both career highs, and is leading a team that surprisingly is in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Asked after Nets practice Friday to reflect on how far he has come, Russell said he has been working too hard to give it much thought.
“I’ve been in kind of a head-down mode, and then I look up and I’m in this position,” he said.
Russell used his rehab time not only to rebuild his body but also as motivation to do everything necessary to become the best player he could be this season.
“I knew I was in a position, going into a contract year, where you want to prove to yourself and to your peers that you’re meant to be here,” Russell said. “I would say that was the first year of my career that I’ve had to spend time to get my body right and be prepared for 82-plus games.”
Understanding how precarious his athletic career might be, Russell took his rehab experience and incorporated it into his daily work routine, including improved sleep habits, hiring a full-time chef and simply taking a responsible approach to every aspect of his career.
“Just preparing each day with a business approach to whatever it is — practice, weights, film, road trips,” Russell said. “The norm was me being immature, so I definitely had to prove that a little bit as well.”
All of Russell’s work and his newfound maturity have paid off in the Nets’ current playoff race, and Russell is enjoying his first exposure to playoff pressure.
“Every team we play, their arena is packed and sold out,” he said. “I think we’re coming together as a team. The result may not be the same every time, but we’re getting better.”
Notes & quotes: Guard Allen Crabbe is out for at least two games with soreness in the same right knee that cost him 27 games earlier this season, but DeMarre Carroll, Treveon Graham and Shabazz Napier all are probable.