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How D’Angelo Russell became King of New York ... Not Brooklyn … New York

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It was all on display Wednesday night in Cleveland. The clutch performance, the star power, the potential. D’Angelo Russell scored 36 points, 14 in the third overtime, to lead Brooklyn’s Nets to their 30th win of the season. The last time they cracked 30 was March 25, 2015.

D’Angelo Russell is the point guard fantasy that Net fans had for Deron Williams come to life. After having it be the signature position for the Nets in the 2000’s then slowly falling down under the weight of disappointment and injury, point guard is once again where the Nets game begins.

The 2019 manifestation of Brooklyn’s franchise point guard fantasy began in June of 2017, where D’Lo received a mixed reaction in Barclays Center when shown on the big screen at the debut of the Big 3, where he was a spectator, just days after a ballsy trade by general manager Sean Marks brought him here.

Before earning respect at Barclays, Russell had to prove he had to first show his skills at Dyckman, the proving ground for street basketball in New York City. He – along with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and then-Net Isaiah Whitehead of Coney Island fame – stole the show.

It took some time for New York fans, on a larger scale, to embrace him the way the Dyckman crowd did that night. The early season knee surgery and two months of missed games, the debate over whether he or Spencer Dinwiddie should be starting, etc.

But while others confidence may have wavered, his never did ... at least publicly.

“Do you think you should be an All-Star?” I asked the 22-year-old Russell after he dropped 34 points, including seven made three’s, in a win over the Boston Celtics on January 14.

The fates of the Nets and Celtics, of course, were infamously connected by “The Trade,” which was supposed to hamper the Nets’ future well into next decade – and Russell’s outburst helped push a six-game winning streak.

Over the course of their run, now at 22-11, the Nets reached .500 this late in a season for the first time since 2013, their inaugural Brooklyn campaign. No Caris LeVert. No problem. Russell carried the team and its hopes.

Throughout it all, the relationship between DLo and his coach was front and center.

“I’m learning to coach him better,” offered head coach Kenny Atkinson after Russell dropped 27 points and 11 assists in a home win on February 6 over the Denver Nuggets, who had the second best record in the Western Conference.

“I think he has a certain talent and I think you kind of have to give him a longer leash because he can get hot like that. I did take him out at one point – sometimes he gets a little carried away with his shot selection,” he added with a laugh. “But I think he’s earning that trust from his teammates, from the coaching staff because he understands how to get other guys involved too.”

There were times when the relationship appeared frayed, that Russell and Atkinson hadn’t always seen eye-to-eye as things needed time to develop ... as they often do between a young point guard and his coach.

Last year was a wash. Off to a solid 12-game start in 2017-18, the Nets saw Russell’s potential. He averaged more than 20 points and six assists before needing arthroscopic knee surgery, That sidelined him for two months. Russell was then brought back gradually, returning to the starting line-up after the All-Star break. He never caught up with the rhythm he established in the first month of the season. Uncertainty creeped into some fans’ hopes for a franchise point guard.

Then this season, there were various fourth quarter benching’s in favor of Spencer Dinwiddie, who has also become a team cornerstone in his sixth man role. This garnered attention because of Russell’s pending (restricted) free agency, as well as Dinwiddie’s, which has since been resolved.

There were grumblings.

Warranted or not, the benchings became more frequent before January.

“Look back and second guess me and second guess the staff,” Atkinson offered on November 4, before the Nets blew out the Philadelphia 76ers, when Russell had 21 points.

He had a prior three-game stretch where he averaged 10.8 points on 30.8% shooting from the field, 22% shooting from deep, while only dishing out 3.7 assists.

He did not play in crunch time in any of those three games, including the October 31 encounter against the Detroit Pistons, when he didn’t play in the final five fourth quarter minutes, or any of the five in overtime.

“Every player could have a case, ‘Like I should be in there at the end,’” Atkinson explained at the November 4 pre-game presser. “We’re doing it by committee. He’s played most at the end of games since we’ve been here. I think (Russell’s) got the second most minutes on the team. I thought about Jarrett Allen, too. I’m sure there are going to be other games where Caris (LeVert) or Joe (Harris) are going to be like, ‘Why aren’t I in at the end of games?’ It’s great that he understands that, but your whole team has to understand that.”

The theme continued on again, off again, including on December 26, when the Nets defeated the Charlotte Hornets behind 37 from Dinwiddie, who played over 41 minutes, including both overtimes. Russell had 16 and didn’t see time in the final seven minutes of regulation, nor the two overtimes.

Atkinson’s response? Essentially, he said, DLo was going through a learning process, a series of teaching moments.

And then, Russell dropped 33 against those same Hornets two nights later. Since that performance, he’s averaging 24 points and seven assists while draining close to 47% from the field and about 40% from deep. This includes a period of time where he played the best basketball of his life: January.

And, man, what a January.

“I think it’s just a natural evolution of a new player, a young player, and it just takes time to trust and that’s with every player,” Atkinson told NetsDaily, when asked of how his relationship with Russell has grown this season.

“I remember Jeff Teague in Atlanta,” he recalled, citing his years – 2012-to-2016 – as a top assistant with the Hawks. “The first five months I didn’t know if I was going to connect with him. It was just very hard. He was used to a certain style of coaching and then you eventually break through. I think it was a little bit quicker because he was a little more open. Jeff kind of had his thoughts already established. So with a younger player, I think it’s easier.”

Atkinson added that winning certainly helped Russell trust him. Natural when dealing with talented youth, especially in this results-driven league ... on a team that wants to move from development to winning.

“I think we started to have some success, and he started to have some success, and then that trust gets better, the relationship gets better,” he said. “Now, what’s great about when you have that trust and that relationship … it’s like, with your kid, you can give him a little more freedom. I think that’s where we are.

“I’m not on him about every mistake. I’ve definitely given him a longer leash because we have that trust. He’ll raise his hand often like, ‘hey, I screwed that one up, I should’ve rebounded, that ball should’ve been passed.’ He kind of knows it. We have good chemistry right now.”

There have been bumps along the way ... and will be. Without Dinwiddie, down with torn thumb ligaments, DLo has stepped up yet again, averaging 25.8 points in February along with 8.3 assists. In the last month, he’s had career highs in points (40) and assists (14). He became the first player ever to have three games of 30 points and seven assists without a single turnover. And then, Wednesday night, hours after he was quoted as saying the trade to Brooklyn was the best thing that ever happened to him, he did what he did.

And how he enjoys it...

In New York, he is the star. The franchise player. Kristaps Porzingis is in Dallas and Dennis Smith Jr. just got to the Knicks. Let’s relax.

Because Russell is not only an All-Star, he’s the face of Brooklyn’s rebuild ... and New York basketball.