MILWAUKEE — The excitement D’Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor expressed when the Nets traded for them and offered the chance for a do-over to the Nos. 2 and 3 overall picks of the 2015 NBA draft has given way to skepticism and possibly some anxiety about where their futures with the franchise might be headed.
Russell missed 32 games as a result of a knee injury, had to wait to regain his starting job and recently was benched for all but six minutes of a win at Miami. Coach Kenny Atkinson said Russell and the Nets’ past two first-round picks, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, “are our lottery picks, and we have to get them to a level where they’re elite players in this league.”
But coming off a tough loss in Philadelphia before the Nets traveled to Milwaukee to face the Bucks Thursday night at BMO Harris Bradley Center, Russell reacted to Atkinson’s words with a grain of salt.
“It sounds good, but at the end of the day, the guys he named, we’ve got to produce,” Russell said. “Next year, if we’re not producing or the year after we’re not producing, there will be a new DLo, Caris, JA. I’ve been a part of that situation, too. You don’t get a lot of chances in this league, so taking advantage of that one is big-time.”
It seemed telling that Atkinson omitted Okafor from his list of Nets “lottery picks.” Okafor, who has played in only 26 of 53 possible games since joining the active roster in December, has struggled to adapt his skill set to Atkinson’s playing style in limited playing time. Playing late in a blowout loss to the Sixers, Okafor scored 15 points on 7-for-9 shooting and grabbed five rebounds in 16 minutes.
Asked if he can make a strong impression before heading to free agency after the final four games, Okafor said, ‘I’m not even thinking about that. The next four games, I think my teammates and I just want to finish off on the right foot so we can have a good offseason.”
Joining the Nets in midseason complicated the adjustment for Okafor, who will be a free agent this summer. “Obviously if you start out in training camp with a team, that helps everything just because of the camaraderie and the chemistry and you start the season all on the same foot,” Okafor said. “You come in at midseason and it is a challenge, but it’s something guys deal with all the time.”
Asked if he has helped Okafor persevere, Russell was pragmatic. “I definitely try to help him through, but at this level, it’s a business,” he said. “All I can do is say what I can say. There’s nothing I can really do. Everybody knows it’s a business.”
As for his own progress with the Nets, Russell didn’t sugarcoat it. “It could be better,” he said. “Yeah, it could be better . . . I think I’m feeling it out. Everything I’m doing is new. I’m playing under new coaches, new teammates. So, it’s a feeling it out type of deal with me. It could always be better.”