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For Nets, D’Angelo Russell remains key to the season ... and he knows it.

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Brooklyn Nets Media Day Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

This is a huge season for D’Angelo Russell.

He’ll be watched more closely than his teammates and others in the same age group this season because of what’s at stake.

The 22-year-old guard — and restricted free agent — is playing for a new, long-term deal. He doesn’t only want to control his destiny, but he wants to be led there ... wants to be coached. Just ask Kenny Atkinson, his head coach, who stopped a training camp scrimmage because of one turnover – Russell’s only one during the encounter.

”I stopped the practice and told him about it,” Atkinson recalled of the incident, which occurred Tuesday. “And then the next day I came back and I said, ‘you know what? You did a hell of a job handling the ball. And I pointed out the only turnover you made.’ His response was, ‘keep coaching me.’ That’s the kind of rapport we have.”

Atkinson even admitted to feeling a level of guilt, but Russell handled it in stride. It’s what he wants.

“I told him ‘I want that. If you want to sub me out because of a turnover, however you decide to do it, I trust it.’ But trust me, there’s no way you’re mad, more than I am, about the turnover.’”

Turnovers have been a big focus for Russell heading into this seemingly make-or-break season. He averaged 20.9 points and 5.7 assists in 12 starts before injury last November, but with 4.0 turnovers per game as well.

Injuries may have set him back last season, but being around the team, even during those tough times, should help the DLo moving forward, as the team continues to build chemistry and he leadership skills. He likes what he sees from his team thus far.

“I think just in general we all have that chip on our shoulder, and are better prepared this year going in, we have a better feel for each other,” said Russell. “And then just competing. I think everybody has that competitive edge now, you know? I think we were a little bit too nice to each other last year. But this year you could just see guys are really going at each other, competing every chance they get: Shooting drills, if its sprints, if it’s whatever, layup drill, whatever. Everybody is competing. That’s going to play a great part.”

Russell says that he’s not only trying to improve as a floor general, but a leader.

“It’s natural. I think you can be vocal, you can do all that, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to perform,” he said. “You’ve got to lead by example. Everybody can talk but, like I said, injuries are something you can’t control. I was doing that last year at the same time, going into training camp or whatever, in the games and at the end of the games, just being that vocal leader. But things happen.”

Atkinson agrees.

“Yeah, I think he’s a smart player, so he understands that. Like I’ve always said since day one, he’s got great vision of the floor. I think that’s really understanding what the defense is giving you. Sometimes, you have to go out and get 25 as a point guard. It’s the Steve Nash-Chris Paul model,” he said.

“It depends how the defense is playing you,” the coach explained. “There’s other nights you might get four points and 12 assists. I think understanding that and having veteran’s guys like that around who can send that message and having a coaching staff that’s onboard with that message, I think we’ve seen positive signs the first couple of days as far as moving that ball around.”

Atkinson is obviously also very aware of Russell’s contract situation. He avoids the discussion all-together.

”It’s not something I discuss with players,” Atkinson admitted. “I do emphasize team success and our improvement as a team is going to help everybody. That’s me included. Help our professional future. That’s as far as those conversations go.

“I didn’t see any change in demeanor, any change in the person. And I saw an elite work ethic. Because I was here every day and I saw it. He made a commitment to be here of his own volition. Every time I walked in the weight room, he was in there. It gives me confidence as a coach and I think as a player, he knows he put in the work this off-season.”