Asked about his individual season, D’Angelo Russell answered by talking about the team. Asked about the ‘young core’ in Brooklyn, D’Angelo asked, “What young core? We’re a young team.”
There is no doubt that Russell matured on and off the court this season, despite some ups and downs throughout. Judging from the way he speaks, it sounds like he’s buying in. That needs to be the case in order for him to succeed in a team-oriented culture.
After he was traded to Brooklyn from L.A., there was a “chip on shoulder” attitude when he arrived, saying how he wanted teams to “hate playing against the Nets” in the off-season. He was ready to show the NBA why Brooklyn DLo would be different than Los Angeles DLo.
“I think we did that,” Russell said when asked if he thought teams hated playing the Nets this season. “With all the adversity we faced it was tough to maintain it, but I think as a whole we did a good job of making that our identity.”
As we know, things don’t rarely go as planned. The Nets were 5-7 and DLo had Brooklyn buzzing with his unique offensive skillset; plays that left fans in awe.
But just 12 games into the season, he suffered a non-contact injury to his knee and was forced to miss 33 games. It was early, but he was averaging 21 points and nearly six assists per contest, looking more and more quipped to have the best season of his career.
“Like I said, I came into this situation, played a few games and got hurt, went down and come back. I had to earn my stripes all over again and start over. That’s kind of what it really was – the reality of it, the whole situation. I had to gain coach’s trust back and show them that I was willing to do that again.”
Things were already tough for the 21-year-old before he arrival in Brooklyn. His rep was bashed in L.A. and he was on his third NBA coach in three seasons. Lakers GM Magic Johnson only made shined the spotlight brighter when he dissed him on the way out, implying that Russell wasn’t a leader.
Russell was hungry to start fresh with Brooklyn. By time he returned from injury, it was mid-January and the Nets were falling out of the race. He played 20.4 minutes before returning to the starting lineup (13 games).
Plus, Jeremy Lin was already out for the season. But, DLo says, the Nets had a hidden advantage, their coach.
“The adversity we went through this year was like no other. Your backcourt gets injured to start the season and that’s something that’s especially tough on our coaches. For Kenny [Atkinson] to do the job that he’s done to maintain that composure in his second year, keep the atmosphere positive in here for all of us is tremendous. I give him a lot of credit. We all know it isn’t easy to win in this league, especially with the adversity we went through this season.”
Russell and Atkinson had their moments, but all for good intention. In late March, after playing just 6:33, Atkinson benched Russell for the rest of the game. He never gave a reason for the benching other than the fact that Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert were playing well.
This is what the Nets are all about now. This is Kenny Atkinson’s team; his identity. Russell has always been “the guy” or at least hyped up that way. But Atkinson knows how special Russell can be and wanted him to buy into the team-oriented culture that he’s trying to set.
There was never anything “bad” about these situations. Atkinson simply held DLo more accountable because he has high expectations for him. As a player, that’s a good sign. And although this season is tough to evaluate due to his injury, Russell understands that Atkinson is the coach that can bring him to that next level.
“We’re going to get better together as our time plays out. You can’t evaluate our relationship or progress off this one season,” Russell added. “Hopefully I’m here for many years to come and we can develop together. He’s been amazing since day one with me as far as letting me run the team, letting me quarterback things. I turn the ball over and he lives and dies with it.”
The feeling is mutual. Atkinson has often referred to Russell as a “quarterback” because of his great court vision and ability to squeeze passes in such tight pockets. However, both understand there is room for improvement.
Asked where he wants to improve the most, DLo hinted at wanting to be more of a leader for the team.
“I want to be that point guard or better yet, lead guard when I have the ball in my hands. I want to develop that trust with the coaches and the players around met that I’m going to make the right play when the ball is in my hands, especially at the end of games. I want to show that I can finish it out,” Russell told NetsDaily.
“We lost a handful of games we lost by single digits – I want to be that guy that makes the big pass or hits the big shot that helps us win those games.”
He appreciates the coaching staff, his teammates and the culture they’re all trying to build. One of the important aspects of building trust on the court is the trust off the court. Or chemistry.
“There were a lot of good things this season, a lot of guys got better and elevated their games. Everybody was coach-able this season, nobody got down or tried to isolate themselves from the team just because we were losing games. I think the pros outweigh the cons.”
“The time off the court being hurt, having the opportunity to communicate with guys and learn guys and watch from the sideline. It put me in a better perspective for when I got back on the floor. How to control things, how to voice my opinion as well,” he said at Thursday’s exit interview.
The season might not have been what was expected in terms of DLo’s “breakout season.” He has a lot to prove but also a lot of people who believe in him, understanding all those high expectations. Both Atkinson and a veteran leader like DeMarre Carroll can help him get to become more consistent and take that next step.
“D’Angelo is probably the closest thing we have to an all-star on our team, if he did it consistently. Me, being his big brother, being a leader, I just challenge him to come in and hit it hard every day,” said Carroll at the exit interview.
“D’Angelo’s 22… that’s when a guy like me says, ‘Come on, let’s do this together.’”
Russell’s 15.6 points and five assists in less than 26 minutes per game doesn’t sound too shabby. But it goes back to what DeMarre said: In order for Russell to take the next step, he needs to become more consistent. That doesn’t mean putting up 30 points every night. He must lead the team and prove he’s a winning ball-player. Consistency is the only way that happens.
After all, he is one of the first mentioned when this young “team” is mentioned.
“It is [special]. This group – we’re young, but we’re going to get better. I’m excited to be a part of it.”