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D’Angelo Russell and free agency: it’s not what you think

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Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Candace Parker, the women’s basketball legend, was on NBA-TV the other night after the Nets fifth straight win against the Hawks. Among other things, she spoke about the Nets and free agency, but not in the way it’s been discussed here and elsewhere in the media. She didn’t talk cap space or cap holds or market. No she talked about D’Angelo Russell and how he is becoming a big factor in the Nets summertime moves.

“D’Angelo Russell has played an outstanding December,” she started. “The way that he’s playing, the patience that he’s playing with, the changes in speed. He’s really running the team and that was a question mark: Was he capable of running a team that could compete and win? You talk about free agency: would guys want to play with D’Angelo Russell.

“Well, the way he’s playing this year ... He’s running the team and sharing the ball, knocking down his shots. I think the answer is yes.”

We could recite the numbers he’s put up this month in the absence of Caris LeVert: 18.6 points, 7.7 assists, a 39 percent shooting average from three. But as Parker noted, his development is more than the numbers. He has shown that Magic Johnson’s harsh critique of his leadership two years ago is no longer valid.

“What I needed was a leader,” Johnson said unsolicited about his then 21-year-old point guard. Well, Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson found one, developed him and now, he’s proving it all night.

Atkinson in particular has pushed his 22-year-old point guard to be aggressive while also being creative, particularly close to the rim.

“I’m all over him,” Atkinson said of DLo in Shlomo Sprung’s Forbes profile. “With D’Angelo, we do give him freedom because I think he’s a better than average mid-range shooter.”

And it’s working. Russell has been aggressive in his decision- and shot-making, getting to the rim and finding open teammates, particularly early in games, as he did Sunday vs. Atlanta and again Tuesday vs. Los Angeles.

“He was spry, he was aggressive, he was energetic,” Atkinson said after Sunday’s game. “When D’Angelo is like that, we take it to another level.”

Giving Russell that freedom breeds confidence and not just in game situations, but in general. He’s becoming a different player, rising to that other level. And he appreciates it all. He loves Brooklyn, loves his teammates. He’s said he wants his legacy to be about the Nets, not his two (miserable) years with the Lakers.

His teammates see it as well.

“Are you going to take the next step? Are you trying to be an All-Star or just a guy who’s a starter? For him it’s how far of a jump can he make? Caris [LeVert] has done it, Spencer [Dinwiddie] worked his ass off, now it’s his turn,” said Jared Dudley.

What’s the next step? You may have seen it Tuesday night. Not just in the dagger or the ice-in-my-veins moment afterwards, but in his postgame conversation with YES Network’s Michael Grady. He was all about the team, the “collective,” he called it. No, it wasn’t about him seeking revenge on Magic Johnson (or outplaying Lonzo Ball). It was about being humble. He got 13 assists, a career-high, because “my teammates were hitting shots.” They won not because of his awe-inspiring performance, but because “it took the whole team to do that.” And he spoke about defense, which is no longer a huge deficiency, but is in fact an asset to his team.

Then in the locker he talked about the playoffs.

“That never went away from my mind. I thought we always had a chance,” Russell said. “We had adversity, things happened, but I feel like we handled it well.”

Sounds like leadership to us!

Of course, DLo is a free agent this summer. It will take a lot to sign him, and if he keeps playing at this level, it will be money well worth spending. In truth, while some Nets fans may have had their doubts about DLo, the team’s management has barely wavered in their belief in him. They’ve been patient and now it’s paying off. Green lights come in a variety of shades.

And if Candace Parker is right, it may pay even bigger dividends come July.