The Brooklyn Nets won a big game over the fifth-seed Boston Celtics. D’Angelo Russell is asked if he deserves to be in the All-Star Game.
With no hesitation, Russell replies, “For sure.”
“I’m a confident guy, so of course I’m going to say that, but I believe that too.”
DLo had just led the seven-seed Nets over the Boston Celtics, scoring 34 points to go with seven assists and five rebounds. It’s his seventh game in the last 10 with 20+ points – six of the 10 being wins. He’s playing at an All-Star caliber level of late, averaging 22.8 points and six assists on 51 percent shooting and 43.6 percent from three. With players going down like it was 14th century Europe, he has risen to the occasion ... big time.
He’s become one of the best comeback stories in the NBA: The second overall pick gets drafted by Los Angeles and gets himself in a “situation” when he’s only 19-years-old. The media (Hollywood media nonetheless) and the people on social media put him on the wrong side of it all, thus eventually leading to the “revamped” Los Angeles Lakers packing him up and sending him to Brooklyn.
On the way out, L.A.’s splash-hired General Manager, Magic Johnson, disses him, suggests he’s no leader. The “situation” in L.A. put a bad label on the package Brooklyn received.
On Brooklyn’s end, they gladly” took the “bad labeled” package in. Executives pulled the move for obvious reasons and coaches have nothing but good things to say about him since he arrived.
The beauty: He had a chip on his shoulder, as every athlete should. But the Nets... they’re a team filled with guys playing with a chip on their shoulder. They’re a blue-collar team with the NBA equivalent of lunch pails hanging off their belts.
And so, he started buying in. He started buying into what Kenny Atkinson and the Nets were all about, because he wants to be here long-term. He likes what he has here because he knows they’re always going to do what’s best for him.
So, that’s what the Brooklyn Nets are. That’s what Sean Marks and Atkinson have built here: Trust among the players. Transparency. Cohesiveness. Egos checked at the door.
Now the winning is happening. The Nets knocked off the Celtics in a big game at home. Had they lost, they’d only be a game away from dropping out of the standings. Instead, they’re one game out of the sixth seed and only four games behind Boston for the fifth seed.
“There’s no fear. He believes in himself,” Kenny Atkinson said of Russell after the game. “He’s got tremendous, tremendous confidence. He’s playing really well right now. I think with guys out, we’ve given him a little more of a green light. We need him to be aggressive.”
Russell and Atkinson know each other more than they may realize.
“Confidence,” he answered when asked about his 18 points in the third quarter. “I mean, I trust my craft...I trust my craft and I know what I’m capable of.”
Russell’s outburst this season has been nothing short of fantastic for the 22-year-old. Yes, 22-year-old. He’s averaging 18.3 points and 6.3 assists on the season – both career-high’s. Since Caris LeVert went down, he’s been even better, averaging 19 points and seven assists with a 16-14 record.
Earlier in the season, he may have gotten a little closure with the Lakers, hitting the dagger three at Barclays Center, pointing his finger towards the ice in his veins. He had no bad words to say about Magic or his former team. He stayed humble.
“What about it [the dagger]? It gave us a better opportunity to win,” he said, no smiles, no smirks.
These are the important things people often overlook. Nobody in the Nets organization is asking the players to be Confucius when speaking to the media, but there are certain tests of discipline you must pass when you’re a professional athlete. The way you publicly conduct yourself exemplifies the type of character you possess.
His rhetoric shows maturity, his words scream confidence.
“You gotta respect us. I can’t speak for them, but I feel like teams aren’t really respecting the Brooklyn Nets. We’re coming in with our hard hats on every night – home or away – and we’re making teams feel us,” Russell said over the most recent victory over the Celtics.
“We’re building off each win,” he says. “We’re scratching and clawing for each win, we know it’s coming down to a last shot or defensive stop – we know that.”
It’s all part of the plan for Russell. The Nets had several instances where they’ve benched him late in games. Is he happy about it? Probably not. But did he lash out and make a thing of it to the media? No. It’s all part of the growth, the process and really, the check-your-ego- at-the-door identity Marks and Atkinson created.
D’Angelo Russell is a different case. He’s showing us why he’s the no. 2 overall pick the Nets never had.
His comeback story has also shown us that the facile, two-dimensional depiction of a young man as a professional athlete is often not what we should believe. Context is so important.
Russell isn’t succeeding to spite the Lakers or Magic Johnson. He’s doing it because he wants to be great and he wants to be in Brooklyn, a part of something that very well could be a special thing.
“Hopefully I’m here for many years to come and we can [all] develop together,” he told me last April.
He’s a restricted free agent after the season. The ball is in Brooklyn’s court. But in the meantime, enjoy the ride he’s leading the Nets on.