The 2018-19 Brooklyn Nets season is in large part always going to be defined by what D’Angelo Russell did. Turning 23 halfway through the season, the young point guard made the leap so many of us had been expecting and hoping and wishing for over the course of his career. DLo has always been one of my guys though (we graduated high school the same year, you gotta ride for those guys) and through the frustratingly errant passes and ill-advised midrangers, we all watched an All Star come into form. The passes started finding their targets, the floaters just kind of started going in. The ice remained in his veins.
Not only has he put up arguably the best season we’ve seen in the Brooklyn Nets era but his performance has been so good and so surprising that he’s a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player, in addition to earning an All Star berth at 23 and becoming the face of the franchise. Not bad for a kid who spent half of last season injured.
Here’s some random numbers, provided by the Nets...
—Russell is ninth in the NBA in 3-point field goals made (218) and is 11th in assists per game (7.0) — including 8.4 assists per game in March. He is also third in the league in assist percentage (39.3) behind only Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
—Russell has three games with at least 30 points, seven assists and zero turnovers, the most in a single season in NBA history.
—Russell has broken the Nets franchise record for 3-pointers in season, previously set by Allen Crabbe (201). He has made at least one 3-pointer in a franchise-record 57 straight games, currently the longest active streak in the NBA and the longest by any player this season.
—Russell is fifth in the league in usage rate (31.0), behind just James Harden, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s the highest usage rate by a Net since Vince Carter in 2005-06 (31.5).
But let’s go beyond that. How does he compare with where NBA superstars were at the same point in their careers? We’ve pulled the numbers, made the comparisons. First up, the man himself. Let’s get into it.
D’Angelo Russell 2018-19
Stats: 21.1 ppg, 6.9 apg, 52% True Shooting, 32.1% Usage Rate, 2.9 threes per game, 43/36/77 shooting, 2.5 FTA, 41.3% Assist Rate, 13.6% Turnover Rate.
Context: As we’re all aware by now, D’Angelo broke out after spending most of his career either injured, playing next to Kobe, or just generally trying to find his way as a point guard in the NBA. Nothing clicked until now. He’s led the Nets to a record far better than almost anyone expected, and proved that not only can he strap a team onto his back and carry them up a hill taking step back threes and hitting floaters off the ceiling, but he’s a great teammate and preternaturally gifted distributor as well. The Nets are 10-3 this season when DLo has over 10 assists. He’s an All Star, not just nominally, but in gravitas and swagger and talent. The Nets found themselves a star, and they’re being rewarded for it handsomely.
What We Can Learn: D’Angelo is good! Maybe he isn’t quite ready to be an focal point on a championship-caliber team, but he’s getting there! At the very least, DLo has proved that he not only is good right now at this very moment in time, but he has the drive and determination to get even better. He’s always been loaded up with potential, but now he’s putting it all together. At 23, he has a couple more seasons before he reaches his true prime, so we’ll see how he carves out his game going into what will hopefully be a high-level stretch of seasons.
Victor Oladipo 2017-18
Stats: 23.1 ppg, 4.3 apg, 5.2 rpg, 2.4 steals, 57.7% True Shooting, 30.1% Usage Rate, 2.1 threes per game, 4.9 FTA.
Context: Last seasons Most Improved Player, Oladipo similarly overcame his up-and-down career and less than stellar reputation and broke out while simultaneously leading Indiana to the playoffs. He was so good that people were questioning whether or not the Thunder should have traded him for Paul George. Oladipo became the heart and soul of a Pacers team that relied heavily on him, especially as a wing, for both offense and defense. His 30.1% usage rate is pretty high for a guy who doesn’t initiate a ton of offense, but he is a gifted iso scorer who can shoot and finish at the rim.
What We Can Learn: Do you see the first part of the Oladipo stat line? The one where it says 23.1 points per game? Did you notice how it’s higher than D’Angelo Russell’s points per game number, but just by a couple of points? There are a few reasons for this, mainly because it’s a bigger part of Russells job to get shots for his teammates, but another one of the most significant reasons is the disparity in free throw attempts. Oladipo is better at drawing fouls. His compact frame and downhill speed make him difficult to defend when he gets going towards the hoop, and he gets charity stripe shots because of it. The next evolution of D’Angelo Russell is going to have to involve more free throws, which could be made possible by more lower body strength and some extra confidence when attacking the rim.
Kyrie Irving 2017-18
Stats: 24.4 ppg, 5.1 apg, 49/40/88 shooting, 2.8 threes per game, 61% True Shooting, 31% Usage, 30.7% Assist Rate, 4.4 FTA.
Context: I chose this Kyrie season because it was the first of his prime he spent away from LeBron and, if you hadn’t noticed, the Nets do not have LeBron. Or anyone else like him, really. Kyrie was playing on a Celtics roster that mixed young and veteran talent pretty well to form a full, cohesive unit. Remember, this was before they started having chemistry issues and seemingly stopped being able to string wins in a row. Kyrie only played 60 games, but at 25-years-old he began his prime with a stellar line of statistics and solidified himself as a top-tier point guard away from LeBron, which I think is what always mattered most for him anyway.
What We Can Learn: Kyrie doesn’t miss shots. It’s kind of insane. As a high-usage point guard on a team where he often was looked to as The Guy at the end of games, he came damn close to shooting 50/40/90 while maintaining that 30.1% usage rate. D’Angelo doesn’t hit shots as often as Kyrie does, obviously, but when Kyrie was 21 he had almost identical shooting splits to what DLo is doing now. 22 is when he made his leap. Russell has yet to reach his prime, which is a tantalizing thought. If he can continue to scale up his shot attempts incrementally while also either maintaining or improving his percentages he could become the kind of player everyone just accepts as one of the best in the league without too much questioning. I don’t, however, know what D’Angelo’s stance is on the circumference of the earth. Cross your fingers.
James Harden 2012-13
Stats: 25.9 ppg, 5.8 apg, 2.3 threes per game, 43/36/85 shooting, 60% True Shooting, 29% Usage, 25.7% Assist Rate, 14.9% Turnover Rate.
Context: This was Hardens age-23 season, and his first in Houston after spending the first three years of his career as the sixth man in OKC. Still cannot get over that trade. Just, wow. Anyway, Hardens attempts shot up and his percentages dropped due to his now being the focal point of an NBA offense night in and night out, and his percentages actually match up pretty well with DLo’s this season. This was pre-stepback, pre-30 points per game Harden. He also didn’t facilitate quite as much, but was still taking an unruly 10.2 free throws per game, which bumps up his scoring average quite a bit. His team back then wasn’t really the kind that makes point guards drool anyway, his two other leading scorers were Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin. The assists would come later.
What We Can Learn: The takeaway here isn’t that Harden was able to scale up his scoring numbers and perimeter game and ability to get to the rim to the point where he became the most prolific scorer in the NBA. I just don’t see that happening for Russell for a number of reasons, one being Kenny Atkinson and another being that it’s really, really hard. What I see here is assist potential for D’Angelo. On this Nets team where his two other leading scorers are Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, a guard and a wing respectively, we’ve yet to see DLo fully unleash his pick and roll potential. And there is plenty of potential.
Imagine slotting someone even mid-tier like Julius Randle into that four spot to run screens for D’Angelo, giving him both the space to work and a threat to pass to! It’s a tantalizing thought, and one I spend maybe a bit too much mental energy imagining. Whatever. Hardens high mark in assists came in 2016-17 at 11.2 which coincided unsurprisingly with Clint Capela’s breakout and Ryan Anderson’s arrival in Houston. Harden was able to take advantage of his new weapons, something the Nets will hopefully gift D’Angelo with this summer.
Steph Curry 2012-13
Stats: 22.9 ppg, 6.9 apg, 45/45/90 shooting, 3.5 threes per game, 58% True Shooting, 26.4% Usage Rate, 31.1% Assist Rate.
Context: Steph spent the year prior, his age-23 season, mostly hurt. The next year is when we all realized that he was a special talent and not just some scrawny kid who hit a bunch of threes in college and had ankles made of Listerine Strips. Flanked by Klay Thompson instead of Monta Ellis and reinforced by David Lee who was still pretty good at that point, Steph proved that he could run an offense and remain an insanely efficient three point shooter, even when taking what was at that point a career-high 7.7 attempts per game. The Warriors also took a huge leap in wins, going from 23 to 47 and solidifying themselves as a good and talented team going forward. Hmm, sounds familiar.
What We Can Learn: 2012-13 for Steph was like Sweetener for Ariana Grande. The general public finally started to appreciate the talent, but the best had yet to come. Steph hadn’t dropped an MVP season yet just like how Ariana blessed us all with thank u, next and elevated her status to an even higher level. An MVP-level performance, if you will. Is this season D’Angelo’s first big album? The one that puts him on the map, with his best work coming later? Maybe! Him and Steph’s per-36 numbers are actually a clear indicator that D’Angelo might be a little farther along than Steph was at that point. Steph played over 38 minutes per game that season, so when equalized D’Angelo actually leads in categories like points, assists, rebounds, and even threes. It’s the fact that Steph doesn’t miss shots that sets them apart. Regardless, DLo is proving that he too can lead a surprise team to unexpected success at a precocious age.
Now, before I go any further, I want to acknowledge how lofty some of these comparisons are. Kyrie? James? Steph? If you gave me truth serum and asked me if I think D’Angelo would end up being as good as any of these guys, I would reluctantly admit that it’s doubtful. These are some of the best players in the league, including the best shooter and quite possibly the second best shooting guard of all time (don’t even get me started, that’s a conversation for another time).
What I am pointing out is that D’Angelo Russell is young, talented, and his group of peers is playing at a higher caliber than any of us might have expected when the season began. The guy made the damn All Star team after averaging 15.7 points over his first 13 games. I have no idea how good he’ll end up being. No one does, but he’s among some impressive company.
This season has been fun and stressful and exhilarating and disappointing and frustrating and amazing. The ups have been way up and the downs have been in the sewer. Throughout it all, D’Angelo has been there, hitting shots (and missing defensive queues) and making impossible floaters (and sailing alley-oop passes into the seats), much like those guys at that age. What’s next? I don’t know. The playoffs, hopefully. Maybe a max contract. Maybe another All Star selection. (Probably some more floaters.) What do I know for sure? He is fun, even hilarious to watch. He is talented, and he is the face of the Brooklyn Nets. Hopefully for a while.