The Nets’ point guard curse struck again when franchise centerpiece D’Angelo Russell suffered a knee injury at the end of their loss Saturday night at Utah. After an MRI examination at home on Sunday, the team announced Russell has been diagnosed with a left knee contusion.
According to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, who cited league sources, Russell “will miss several games.” The team merely said “return to play updates will be provided as appropriate,” but it seems clear Russell, who is the Nets’ leading scorer with a 20.9 average, is certain to miss their next game against the Celtics Tuesday night at Barclays Center.
Russell is the third Nets point guard to be injured this season. Jeremy Lin suffered a season-ending ruptured patella tendon in the season opener. Backup Spencer Dinwiddie did not play at Utah after suffering a sore hamstring following a victory Friday night in Portland.
The Nets experienced similar troubles last season when backup point guard Greivis Vasquez failed to make a comeback from ankle surgery and saw his career end. Hamstring injuries limited Lin to just 36 games.
Suddenly, second-year man Isaiah Whitehead, who was pressed into extensive service as a rookie last season when those injuries occurred, likely will be thrust into a starting role depending on Dinwiddie’s condition. Nets coach Kenny Atkinson has used backup shooting guard Caris LeVert, another second-year player, to handle the ball on a limited basis this season, and alternative is Sean Kilpatrick, who was the Nets’ leading scorer off the bench last season but barely has played this season.
After Whitehead struggled in the preseason, a decision was made to send him to the G-League Long Island Nets so that he could get valuable playing time and continue to develop. He had a great game in their opener a week ago on Saturday when he scored 26 points, but he was recalled to join the Nets Tuesday in Denver when injuries at other positions thinned the roster and wound up playing the fourth quarter in a loss to the Nuggets.
Atkinson described Whitehead as the Nets’ “best point guard” that night, but then he didn’t use him at all in Friday’s win at Portland. Whitehead played in the loss at Utah, struggling badly in the first half but recovering to help lead a second-half comeback.
Describing his up-and-down game, Whitehead said, “I think it started off with just confidence. I didn’t have much confidence to begin the game with. I did a much better job the second half just being aggressive and feeling like I should be out there.”
When Whitehead spoke after the Utah game, there still was uncertainty about Russell’s status, but he understood the possibility he might have to step into the starting role once again.
“Like I said before, I’ve just got to be confident out there, just be ready to play,” Whitehead said. “Either I’m going to play a lot or I’m going to play a little bit. Be ready to play all the time. I did that in Denver, but I took a step back today.”
Playing as much as Whitehead did last season undoubtedly helped prepare him for the demands coming his way, and the way he handled the G-League assignment underscored his maturity.
“It’s not disappointing,” said Whitehead, who starred at Seton Hall but was a second-round pick in 2016. “I think last year I played a lot because of injuries. It’s not like I came in as a top pick and had to play. It definitely was humbling. But the team believes in me. So, I just have to play the part.
“When coach told me I was going down, he said, ‘You’re not going to stay. You’re going to be up and down. Be ready for the opportunity.’”
That opportunity just arrived.