Last season, Jeremy Lin only played in 12 games before All-Star Break. While the Brooklyn Nets won only three of those, it’s not hard to remember that wins came at a premium last season, especially considering the Nets were a league worst 20-62 on the season.
Last year at this time, the Nets were 9-47, and 6-38 in games without Lin, who was to be their starting point guard, a role then taken over by Spencer Dinwiddie and Isaiah Whitehead.
Lin finally returned from his hamstring strain after the break, and the Nets went 10-14 in games he played for the remainder of the season. Lin missed two games, which the Nets split, leaving them at 13-23 with Lin and 7-39 without him last season.
Fast forward to this season. D’Angelo Russell has played a total of 25 games, but has only started 12. All those starts came before he underwent arthroscopic right knee surgery in mid-November, which sidelined him until January 19, and since his return on that date, Russell’s played 13 games, all while coming off the bench, all, like Lin last year, on a minute’s restriction.
The records? Nothing special. With Russell as a starter, the nets were 4-8 this season, and are 3-10 with him coming off the bench.
But now the question is can Russell replicate the role Lin played last season and give the Nets a late season boost?
First things first, will the Nets give him a chance?
“I don’t think I’ve done a great job of getting D’Angelo with that first unit a little more,” head coach Kenny Atkinson said 10 days ago regarding Russell’s minutes, the last time there was a detailed discussion of minutes. “I think it would help us, we’d be better. And keep some of our starting unit with that second group. I’ve been maybe playing them too isolated. You don’t really have a starter on that second group out there too long, and that’s all me, still figuring it out.”
“It’s like anything, I think we’re going to get there, and I think there’s a progression to it, and quite honestly, he’s got to perform better,” said Atkinson. “You’ve got to earn it a little bit. So it’s a combination of yes, I think we’ll get there, and he’s got to earn it.”
Is he 100 percent yet? We have reason to believe Russell could be 100%, based off the same intel.
“I mean it is what it is,” said Russell, minutes before Atkinson spoke to reporters that same day. “I feel like it’s a situation where the performance team has a say, the coach has a say, and they go by that. I feel great, it’s up to the coaches to make those decisions.
“I have no idea,” he later added, regarding whether or not he knows how many minutes he’ll play beforehand, a number mutually agreed to by the coaching staff and performance team. “Honestly, I just show up to the game and play. I don’t really worry about their communication.”
In any event, whether it’d be starting, or coming off the bench, we have reason to expect a larger role for Russell when the Nets resume in-game action on February 22 vs. Charlotte.
Last year, Lin was also on a restriction, but his presence alone, particularly with the first unit, was highly impactful and stabilizing for the Net roster. Lin’s numbers weren’t gaudy either, but he was highly efficient, effective, and careful with the basketball as his line read: 14.8 points, 4.8 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 turnovers, 42.2% field goal shooting, 38.9% three-point shooting and 86% free throw shooting in 24.3 minutes per game during those 24 appearances after the break.
Now, let’s take a look at Russell’s production since his return...
As a starter, Russell was an All-Star caliber guard, putting up 20.9 points, 5.7 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 46.3% field goal shooting in 27.7 minutes per game through 12 games. Although, he only shot 30% from deep, 68.3% from free throw and turned the ball over 4.0 times per game, placing him amongst the league’s leaders.
Since returning? 10.8 points, 3.6 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 85% on free throws in 20.4 minutes per reserve showing. Russell’s only shooting 36.9% from the field and 25% from three while turning the ball over 2.7 times during that stretch. Kind of meh.
However, if you negate Russell’s lackluster, rust-coated first five games and make your starting point his 22-point outburst in less than 17 minutes of play on January 31, what we like to call his actual return, then the contributions of the former Ohio State Buckeye look, not great, but a lot better.
We’re talking 13.6 points, 4.9 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.5 turnovers while shooting 40.2% from the field, 26.3% from three and 86.7% on free throws through 22.5 minutes per eight-game sample size.
Moreover, in Russell’s last three games, where he logged 32, 25 and 29 minutes, respectively, Russell netted 21, 16 and 18 points, dished out 6.3 assists to 3.0 turnovers per game, and shot 42.9% from the field. Still, only 27.3% from deep, but that has to come at some point, right?
In plain English, Russell’s trajectory has gradually risen over time since his January 19 return. The numbers and the eye test don’t lie. Will he return to how he was pre-injury?
But there’s no question that he’s poised for a bigger role coming out of the break, which the Nets seemingly made apparent by playing him more in the last three games than they have since the injury, all while mixing and matching him with Spencer Dinwiddie late in games more often, something the organization has been wanting to experiment with.
Or maybe, he was just ready.
Will a larger role for a healthier Russell help guide the Nets to a near .500 record down the stretch like the team had last year when Lin came back to steer the sinking ship? The 2018 NBA Skills Challenge Champion certainly hopes so.
“We’d love to have any facsimile to that (last season). We’d love to go .500 or roughly .500 or above .500 and kind of turn our season around a little bit to have a little more optimism heading into the off-season,” Dinwiddie said before the Nets played Indiana in their final pre-All-Star Weekend regular season game on Wednesday.
Ideally, it would be a combination of Russell and Dinwiddie that leads the Nets toward respectability down the stretch, along with the return of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert.
If the Nets goal the rest of this season is, as Sean Marks said, progress, the Nets are better equipped than they have been in a long time, like since mid-November. They have 23 games left, but only nine in the friendly confines of Barclays Center, about the same as they did at the end of last season.
In any case, it’s something to look forward to.