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A tale of two draft picks: Russell, Okafor headed in different directions

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

When the Nets traded for Jahlil Okafor (and Nik Stauskas) in December, there was a lot of talk about how Brooklyn was now the hope of two 21-year-olds who had been taken No. 2 and No. 3 in the 2015 NBA Draft. The Nets had acquired D’Angelo Russell in the off-season but he had gone down with a knee issue the month before.

Still, there was a sense that the Nets were going to take big risks on what other Nets official had called, “fallen angels,” players who other teams may have given up two early.

Now, three months later, the gamble on Russell seems to be working out just fine. On Tuesday, he showed his great potential, scoring 32 points —24 in the first quarter— and looking like the star the Nets thought they were getting back in June.

But the game also saw Okafor sit ... again. Even with Jarrett Allen out with a sore foot, Kenny Atkinson decided to go with Dante Cunningham, a 6’8” power forward, at center. Okafor, three inches taller, didn’t get a call all game long and once again, there were post-game questions about Okafor’s future with the Nets.

Reporters who cover the 76ers had said the game before that Okafor was moving a lot better with the Nets than he had with Philly. But that wasn’t enough.

“The game’s not a post-up game anymore,” Atkinson said after the-game. “[I’m] going to go on a rant here. I wasn’t afraid or anything.

Then, he spoke about Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas.

“Valanciunas got most of his stuff on the pick-and-roll, that’s really what happened. It was two post-ups, maybe, so it wasn’t like they were dumping it down like the old days and they were beating us in the post. A lot of it was from pick-and-rolls. “

“The old days” ... “The game’s not a post-up game anymore,” was a signal that at least he coach isn’t sure what role Okafor has with the new-look, fast-paced, three point-heavy offense.

And he noted that Okafor needs to improve on the defensive end as well.

“That’s going to be the real key, defensive rebounding for him. He’s got to do that for us to get more minutes on the court,” Atkinson said of Okafor. Indeed, as Brian Lewis of the Post points out, the analytics are against him. Among players who’ve logged 20 appearances, his Net Rating (-26.6), Defensive Win Shares (-0.004) and opponents’ Effective Field Goal Percentage (.553) are all second-worst in the NBA. His Defensive Rating and plus-minus are fifth-worst.

It’s not to say there’s bad blood. Atkinson continues to praise Okafor’s work ethic, and Okafor, while mystified about his lack of minutes, isn’t going public with his frustration. He simply talks, matter-of-factly, about where he stands.

“They haven’t specified anything. The message is just stay ready and continue to work, but they haven’t told me why I’m out of the lineup or what I have to do to get back in the lineup, so I’m going day by day working,” said Okafor, who said he’s had one conversation with Okafor about his playing time since the break.

“I did after the first game after All-Star break when I realized I didn’t play against Charlotte. I went and had a conversation with coach Kenny. … But since then I haven’t. He told me it’s nothing I did wrong, he was happy with my progress, so just come in every day and work.”

The Nets front office will have to decide what to do with Okafor come July. He’s an unrestricted free agent and unless he agrees to a vets minimum deal, they will have to pay him out of cap space and hope that a full summer in Brooklyn will help remold him in the Nets image.

Meanwhile, DLo looked every bit the star that first quarter. He was on and he was often open when the Nets passers found him on the arc. There was some frustration at the end that Fred Van Vleet, the Raptors back-up point guard was able to shut him down (2-of-7 after the first) and that he was getting little help from his backcourt mates, Spencer Dinwiddie and Allen Crabbe, both of whom had poor shooting nights.

He may have been tired, too, Atkinson said.

“He was unbelievable. That was an elite performance in the first half. Give Toronto credit. They went after him. Van Vleet was part of that. They started blitzing his pick-and-rolls.

“D’Angelo played 35 minutes. I thought he got a little winded at the end, but I felt like he had a good night going. A couple of those rim finishes just didn’t go his way, but by and large, he had a heck of a game.”

All that said, Russell is picking up his pace. Since returning from injury and starting, he’s putting up numbers close to what he did the first month of the season, when he went 21/5/5 before his surgery. And as Greg Logan of Newsday points out, his 3-point shooting has taken a BIG leap.

In his nine straight starts since the Break, Russell is shooting 41.5 percent from deep. Over his last six, he’s at 46.5 percent! Overall, he’s shooting 42.4 percent and averaging 17.4 points. He’ll still have an occasional drop off, like he did vs. Charlotte (eight points) and the Clippers (six points) this month, but he’s climbing.

And unlike Okafor, the Nets don’t have to make any decision on Russell until July 2019. He’ll make a nice $7.02 million next season. The Nets cap situation should be amenable for a bigger deal in a a year.

The Nets risk-taking is unlikely to be deterred by Okafor’s lack of progress, particularly since he arrived in the middle of the season and they did get the Knicks 2019 second rounder out of the deal. And now that DLo is healthy, that deal looks better and better.

It’s a long process.