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Sean Marks on D’Angelo Russell: ‘He’s rounding out into a pro’

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The signature move of Sean Marks’ three-year tenure as Nets GM was his June 2017 trade for D’Angelo Russell. He gave up the franchise’s leading scorer and most popular player in Brook Lopez, took on Timofey Mozgov’s albatross of a contract and after some back-and-forth agreed to give up the 27th pick in that year’s draft, which turned in Kyle Kuzma.

Internally, at the time, the Nets saw the move as “transformative.” Marks had a ton of faith in DLo’s potential and now that the deal is paying off, with DLo an All-Star—and the second youngest to boot, Mark is proudly talking up his point guard’s development. Although everyone talks about Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie as the Nets’ biggest “projects,” the emergence of Russell is as big if not bigger. His rep on arrival was damaged. He needed a new start.

“You’ve got to give him the credit. He’s listened to the coaches,” Marks told Brian Lewis recently. “Jacque [Vaughn] has done a great job with him as sort of his personal coach. He’s bought into the performance team. It’s clear his habits have changed. He’s rounding out into a pro. It’s great to see.”

While Marks gave his own team credit in turning DLo into a consistent 20+ point, 7+ assist performer, he noted it’s mostly the player’s doing.

“There’s some areas where I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Marks said. “Listen, there’s a ton of credit due to D’Angelo. We knew he has elite skills, no question there. And the fact that he’s harnessing them in a way that we haven’t seen before, that’s exciting. It’s exciting to watch a young man like that continue to develop, continue to evolve and maximize the opportunities that he’s been given.

“He came in from Day 1 and said ‘I want you to coach me hard,’ and that’s what Kenny [Atkinson has] done. They’ve formed a nice bond and a good relationship. We’re seeing his leadership start to grow. We’ve never questioned his vision and ball-handling and ability to make other people better. It’s playing in a system and taking the right shots at the right time. I give him a lot of credit: He’s deserving because he’s put the work in.”

As Lewis notes, DLo may not have known how to be a pro when he arrived in Brooklyn, all of 21 years old. But the combination of the Nets enduring faith in him and his own willingness to work at it provided the spark needed.

Although Lewis didn’t speak with Vaughn —Nets don’t normally provide assistant coaches to the media, he did talk to Kenny Atkinson about his point guard’s growth. Atkinson reiterated what he’s said about Russell since Day 1, that despite what might have been said in L.A., Russell is eminently coachable. He pointed to the Cavaliers game where he started out miserably, then exploded in overtime.

“I took him out a couple times, saying ‘Come on, man, with the turnovers. We can do better. You’ve got to focus in better.’ And he said ‘OK, coach.’ We had our little conversation. It works both ways, a give-and-take,” Atkinson said. “He’s a genuinely good-hearted person and he’s coachable. That makes it easier for me.”

Similarly in a interview with Michael Scotto of The Athletic, Atkinson notes that Marks saw something in DLo that others hadn’t.

“I think the big thing I heard — you know, character things I kind of ignore that — but just from a basketball standpoint I think the big thing I heard was he was not a point guard,” Atkinson said. “’He’s a combo guard, he’s a shooting guard, you can’t play him at the point. He has too much of a scorer’s mentality.’

“I think Sean scouted him in college and felt that wasn’t the case. He said, ‘He’s got elite passing skills.’ Then, when I watched him, I thought he had those (skills). Why can’t he be a point guard? That was kind of from Day 1 here. We didn’t mess with that. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, he’ll play some two, and he’ll play some one.’ No. You’re a point guard. This is what you are. I think that really helped making it clear for him in his development.”

And now, his numbers are getting better as the season wears on. —17.9 points and 6.8 assists in December to 23.8 and 7.3 in January to 25.8 and 8.3 so far in February. It all points to a big contract come July, almost certainly a max deal. And that’s seemingly fine with the Nets: a signature move turned into a franchise player.