LOS ANGELES — The pressure was on D’Angelo Russell when this season began to prove he is worthy of a long-term contract extension when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer, and you can believe he’s going to get it. Maybe Nets general manager Sean Marks will let other teams set the market for Russell to see if he can avoid paying the max, but there’s no doubt the All-Star point guard has established himself as a franchise cornerstone and a lure for top-tier free agents.
Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson obviously felt Russell was a bust when he traded him to the Nets two years ago, but Russell now is fulfilling the most optimistic projections for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft. He has given the Nets the lottery pick they lacked when Marks took over.
The past week might have been the high-water mark so far in Russell’s career. He averaged 32.3 points, 11.7 assists and 2.7 steals while shooting 48.7 percent overall and 42.1 percent from three-point range. The Nets went 2-1 on the road with the only loss coming on a buzzer-beater against the Clippers, and Russell scored a career-high 44 points to lead an epic comeback from 28 points down against the Kings, including a 27-point fourth quarter.
When Russell arrived from the Lakers after the trade, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was struck by his humility and by his work ethic. “Those are the two things that have elevated him,” Atkinson said.
Russell never lacked confidence in his ability, but now that his relationship with Atkinson has blossomed and his understanding of what the coach wants from him is clear, he has been empowered. “He’s got a natural confidence about him,” Atkinson said. “Now that he’s playing well, it really is coming out. It’s not an arrogant confidence. It’s just like, ‘I know what I’m doing out here.’ As he’s played better, it manifests itself more and more.
“Quite honestly, this is his fourth year in the league. This is when guys start to make a jump. I think we’re lucky in that sense. We got him at the right time.”
For the first time in his career, Russell has recorded three straight games of double-digit assists. He had two such games in two seasons with the Lakers, but he has 12 games with at least 10 assists this season with the Nets. That underlines how well he has responded to Atkinson’s emphasis on the need to strike a balance between shot-making and playmaking for teammates.
When the Lakers forced the ball out of his hands Friday night, Russell made the right decisions while creating open shots for teammates with 13 assists. “That’s my job as far as putting guys in position to make plays — balance, when to score, when to pass and facilitate,” Russell said. “They were blitzing me early and getting the ball out of my hands. I still wanted to keep guys in position to score. They weren’t allowing me to come in and dominate by scoring. I tried to do it at both ends and keep the balance right.”
Considering all the hype about Russell returning to Los Angeles with a chance to eliminate his former team from the playoffs, it might have been tempting for him to take the game over, but he let it come to him.
“He’s been locked in all year, so this wasn’t any different at all,” said Joe Harris, who topped the Nets with 26 points and was on the receiving end of six assists from Russell. “He played unbelievable. They were blitzing him pretty much every pick-and-roll, and he just did a good job making the right plays, the simple plays, making great passes out of it.
“It says a lot about his composure. He’s not getting caught up in the frenzy of him coming back here. He just stays locked in, plays his game. He’s the smartest player on our team, and he’s out there playing like a quarterback.”
So, the Nets have their quarterback, and when the free-agent signing period opens this summer, there just might be a top-tier star who jumps at the opportunity to team up with Russell and the Nets’ young core group.
“He’s mature now,” veteran DeMarre Carroll said. “We never question his game on the court. I think it was off the court — getting in early, getting a massage, doing the little things. He understands it now, and he’s showing everybody in Brooklyn what he’s made of. He is awesome.”