Priya Roy has known D’Angelo Russell for a long time, going back to his sophomore year at Montverde Academy in Florida. He’s seen the highs, the lows and the in-betweens and despite reports that a second NBA team may be ready to give up on him. Roy believes that his friend DLo is a very different player and person than when he was a a kid, as a Laker.
While others may focus on what they see as DLo’s immaturity, Roy says look below the surface and you’ll see someone who keeps making progress.
Roy, who knew DLo at Montverde Academy and still offers him advice, thinks his guy grows in leaps and bounds, often driven by a coach who pushes him whether it’s Kevin Boyle in high school, Thad Motta in college or Kenny Atkinson in the NBA. He wants to succeed, Roy points out, and his experience with the Nets shows, again, just he can move on after a tough time.
“I think that move [the trade] made him more mature, realize it’s more of a business, and he has been more professional,” said Roy. “All the stuff that came out in LA and as a result, I think he has become more careful with the media and you do not see his positive side.
“I think Brooklyn gave him an opportunity to grow in that respect and he has shown development on and off the court. One of the most improved basketball players in the NBA but one of the most active community guys in the league.
While the headlines may be about his marijuana bust or a Nick Young Snapchat, Roy sees another side. One area Roy believes Russell does not get enough credit is his off-the-court involvement with the community, especially the Brooklyn community.
”I think the one thing that is not talked about more about D’Angelo is his impact with the community and how much of a part he has become of the Brooklyn community,” Roy said. “Whether that is playing at Rucker Park or doing his camps, he is way more than a basketball player, I think a lot of time when athletes are in the spotlight 24/7, only missteps are focused on and not what they are doing on the lines of shaping the community. He does way more helping others and making an impact on and off the court than the media writes.”
Russell, of course, had his reputation hurt by his recent marijuana bust at LaGuardia Airport. He was carrying so little that he’s only going to face a $100 fine, but inside the organization, it was seen as a another indication of immaturity. It didn’t help.
Still, Russell is one of the most coveted restricted free agents this summer, gaining interest from multiple teams in the N.B.A. Roy says he has seen Russell develop from a frustrated 10th grader who was homesick to a rising star in the league. He doesn’t think of Russell as immature. He thinks of him as a 23-year-old who may need a push now and then but is ultimately a good man.
“The personal connection with D’Angelo Russell started when the summer after 10th grade at Montverde [Academy],” Roy said. “I went down there we set up a 5k run with Montverde Academy and the Special Olympics of Lake County near campus.
“D’Angelo was going to be a junior that year, his sophomore year, he did not play as much and was home sick because he is from Louisville, Kentucky and being far away from home and at this prep school not playing as much as he would like, it was getting very difficult and challenging for him.”
Russell, he said, would find solace from that frustration in two things, working with kids and pushing himself.
“They bring the Special Olympic kids to practice at the gym with the high school team,” Roy said of Montverde. “Some are physically challenged. Some are mentally challenged. The person that goes out and embraces them and leads them was D’Angelo Russell. He was the one that spent the most time with them. Coaching the kids, spending time with them, giving them high-fives, and taking pictures. You could tell D’Angelo truly cared about these kids and was inspired by them.”
At the same time, he said Russell pulled things together on the court. Roy had a front row seat. He was director of the Metro Classic, a tournament that pitted high schools in New York and New Jersey against schools around the country, like Montverde Academy. Kevin Boyle, the New Jerseyan who was Montverde’s coach, wanted to pit his team, with DLo, Ben Simmons and Dakari Johnson, against the best in the classic. DLo, frustrated by his lack of opportunities as a sophomore, changed his game.
“That summer, he had a great year during the AAU season and that year [he] transformed his game,” Roy said. “He goes from just being a shooter to taking charges, playing great defense, and the championship game that year, he was the one that ignited the fire. Mind you this was a team with Ben Simmons and Dakari Johnson. He is taking on the defensive challenge and diving for loose balls, they beat St. Benedicts for the National Championship a few months later.”
Roy also thinks he saw that Russell’s time with the special needs kids gave him a different perspective as a person.
“I think it was his maturity and I think that Special Olympics moment really showed him he was very lucky to be where he was and if you are blessed with talent you have the opportunity to give your best and I think those kids inspired him to do that. From then on, he was a completely different kid.”
He also now rose to the occasion, another level in his maturity. When Russell was a junior, Thad Motta, the coach of Ohio State, came to watch his future guard from the stands at Montverde.
“It was difficult as a sophomore for him when he was not playing as much then he leads the team as a junior to their first national championship,” Roy said. “Montverde had never won a national championship, and then as a senior to repeat.
“I remember, his junior year at The Metro Classic, Thad Motta was watching him from the stands. D’Angelo was a little nervous, playing against Karl [Anthony] Towns, who [would be] the first pick in the draft, you can tell from that moment, the big moment, even though he was in high school that he was not going to let the moment overpower him.”
At Ohio State, it seemed easy for him, becoming All-Big 10, then the second overall pick in the 2015 Draft.
Roy credits Boyle, D’Angelo’s high school coach, for developing him into an all-around point guard. Despite going from a player who did not see court action much his sophomore season to leading a team to the school’s first national championship, Roy strongly believes that D’Angelo was the leader of the team which included future pros Simmons and Johnson.
“To be clear, Russell was one of the leaders of that team and he helped develop Ben as well.,” Roy said of Simmons. “Kevin [Boyle] was a really tough coach. He will let you do what you want offensively but you have to play defense. I think that really helped D’Angelo and that’s why his growth was so quick and he only needed to play at Ohio State one year because he was already playing at a high level college environment in high school with players like Ben [Simmons] and the pressure did not get to him.”
Russell’s success in Brooklyn, in fact, reminds Roy of his junior year at Montverde. “It ties into his junior year, where he had to make changes in his game on and off the floor and he did,” Roy said.
And Russell this weekend was once again with kids when he ran his first camp in Metuchen, NJ. The kids were different from those who he dealt with as a sophomore in high school, but Roy thinks he once again drew energy from working with them.
For Russell, the biggest takeaway from the camp was putting smiles on the kids faces, he said, and knowing the hard work he has put in over the years is paying off.
“Honestly just putting a smile on these kids faces,” Russell told NetsDaily on Sunday. “This is my camp and seeing how many kids look up to me and appreciate the work I put in throughout the years.”
Russell is only less than a week away before he enters the biggest summer of his N.B.A career. The Nets restricted free agent has received interest from multiple teams including the team that drafted him and dumped him to Brooklyn, the Lakers. The Nets want him to wait until they deal with their Dream Ticket of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. He’s said he will. It will be another test.
For Roy, the best advice he would give Russell is to keep maturing and learn from previous challenges.
“D’Angelo, keep maturing, keep learning from the previous challenges you have faced, and keep reaching for higher ground,” Roy said. “I think that is something he has done in the past and as long as he keeps that philosophy, he will continue to succeed.”
What will happen with Russell? At this point, it’s hard to tell, but if Irving and Durant join the Nets, there’s no room for a player who saved their season. If one or other don’t join Brooklyn, there will be discussions about whether to bring him back ... and hope he will take another leap as a person and player.