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The evolution of D’Angelo Russell, and how that impacts Nets future

In year four, D’Angelo Russell has made strides as a passer and defender, but is still in search of consistency as many early NBA 20-somethings are. Russell’s improvements have made Brooklyn’s upcoming decision increasingly interesting. Will the Nets take care of him?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

The imperfection of the NBA’s rookie wage scale greatly impacts the planning by NBA front offices.

In the Nets case, D’Angelo Russell is in the final year of his deal — signed upon being drafted No. 2 by the Lakers in 2015. So, the Nets have a sizable decision to make on the future of their starting point guard, who will be a restricted free agent this summer, not long after turning 23.

And while you can get great value if NBA youngin’s outperform their contracts, like Karl-Anthony Towns from the same draft class, most others are trickier, because you don’t quite know this early on many occasions. In today’s world of instant gratification, it’s rare that young NBA players could provide that certainty ahead of their second contract, which Russell is attempting to do now.

D’Lo has taken major steps as a passer and a defender, the latter noted by Nets’ head coach Kenny Atkinson prior to the team’s win over the Hornets on December 26.

“Definitely making strides,” Atkinson offered of Russell, who notably stripped Tony Parker with 53.7 seconds left in that game, as Brooklyn attempted to put Charlotte away. “I think he improved physically this off-season. I think he got stronger. I still think he’s a developing player and he’s going to get better physically. His understanding – I joked with him the other day – there’s a lot less rogue forays like we had last season.”

Atkinson later explained that Russell is just ‘staying home’ a lot more, and doing less reaching on defense.

“He was gambling a lot, and I think that’s come way back,” he said. “And I think his pick-and-roll defense has gotten better. He’s really doing a better job of shedding screens; we call it ‘getting well’ with the ball-handler. But overall, I think he’s taken a jump defensively and I don’t see why he can’t improve because his basketball I.Q. is pretty good.”

Russell’s often said defense has been his primary focus, but he’s also improving as a floor general, as evident by his performance Wednesday night, recording 22 points and 13 assists (to one turnover) in the Nets’ victory over the Pelicans. The 13 assists tied a career-high set on two other occasions, including this past December 18 against the Lakers, a revenge game for the former Magic Johnson trade piece.

“I feel like that’s one of my strengths, to pass, but I give credit to my teammates,” Russell said post-game. “Those guys are cutting when they’re getting denied and finishing their cuts. So my job is to get it to them. I give those guys a lot of credit for making it easy for me.”

Here are a few examples.

But he’s still not consistent, a matter he’s aware of, even volunteering this about his play after Wednesday’s game.

“Just sticking with playing all 48 minutes. I know for myself I tend to get away from that sometimes, whatever it may be, but just sticking with it. Anytime could be your number, you just gotta be ready to make a play,” he said.

His performances reflect that, too.

On December 28, the second of a home-and-home against Charlotte, Russell erupted for 33 points, but only had two assists, and the Nets lost by 13 points. The game came after a three-game stretch where Russell averaged 12.3 points and 7.0 assists — plus 4.7 turnovers — on only 31.8 percent shooting from the field and 27.8 from three.

Going back a little further, to games on December 16 and December 18, Russell looked dominant with 32 points and seven assists on 68.4 percent shooting vs. Atlanta, followed by 22 points and 13 assists on 43 percent shooting vs. the Lakers, both wins.

But in the three games prior to that, DLo averaged a mere 9.7 points on 33 percent shooting from the field, not scoring more than 12 points in any of those games. (To his credit, he did manage to dish out 9.0 assists — to 3.3 turnovers — and shoot 36.4 percent from three during that stretch.)

Statistically, it’s been that kind of a season-long roller coaster. That inconsistency, should it continue, will create a great deal of intrigue come July. The Nets could have between $40 and $74 million in cap space, even after re-signing Spencer Dinwiddie, depending on a number of variables.

Will the Nets put aside their concerns about his consistency or wait to see what the market will bear for the restricted free agency? He is tailor-made to get a big offer sheet, a poison pill type of contract like the ones that Nets have tendered over the past two years.

Then, of course, there was his tweet Thursday morning which maybe was a reference to free agency ... or not.

And if you thought that was cryptic, listen to what he told Mike Scotto of The Athletic about its meaning.

“Self explanatory. However you take it. However you take it individually, personally. However you decide to put that in your everyday life and everyday routine. Take it how you take it.”

Whatever. Rather than try to figure what the Nets — or he — will do in July, maybe we should just enjoy what he’s doing now, in January.