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D’Angelo Russell takes a shot at Kenny Atkinson. Is it deserved?

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New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The relationship between Kenny Atkinson and D’Angelo Russell was never perfect. But it sure as hell was productive. With DLo leading the way, the Nets surprised everyone (and that included ownership) and took the Nets to their first playoffs in four years. He became an All-Star.

Then, of course, came “The Clean Sweep.” The Nets signed Kyrie Irving and traded Russell in a double sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant which was more of a construct to get KD to Brooklyn ... and DLo a max deal. Off to San Francisco went the fan favorite. Then in February he was traded again, this time to the Timberwolves.

Now happy to be teamed with his buddy, Karl-Anthony Towns, DLo was interviewed by Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic recently and took a shot at his (and the Nets) former head coach. Krawczynski writes.

“Brooklyn was a place that he needed as well as Brooklyn needed him,” Antonio Russell Jr., D’Angelo’s older brother, said. “They were able to mold each other and build each other up.”

Looking back on it, D’Angelo isn’t ready to give Atkinson all the credit. In his eyes, Atkinson only went to him as a last resort, when Caris Levert and Spencer Dinwiddie were injured.

“I’m not going to give it to Kenny,” he said. “I still don’t think he knew what he had, honestly. I don’t think he knew what I was capable of in the fourth quarter.”

Yes, Atkinson did on occasion take Russell out of games in the fourth quarter, particularly in his first, injury-plagued year, but it’s an exaggeration to say it was a common occurrence. And by the time the Nets took the court in 2018-19, DLo had become central to the Nets revival. He started all 81 games he played —he rested one game— and averaged 30 minutes a game. In fact, no Net played more minutes on an Atkinson coached team than Russell in 2018-19. Second was Joe Harris, who played 150 fewer minutes that year.

And of course, as we all remember, DLo went from being a Magic Johnson castoff to an All-Star in two years. Atkinson may never have felt completely comfortable with Russell as his point guard, but he did rescue the then 21-year-old’s reputation and career.

As Krawczynski writes, Atkinson’s accountability-laced approach was similar to his experience in high school and DLo himself praised Atkinson during his time in Brooklyn. Moreover, Greg Logan, who covered all his games for Newsday, noted Thursday night that the bottom line is that Atkinson developed Russell and he wound up with a “huge contract after working with Atkinson, who made him wealthy beyond belief.”

There’s no doubt that Russell felt dissed when the Nets decided against keeping him and going with Irving. Towns explained DLo’s feelings this way to Krawczynski.

“Everything was going right, finally has an All-Star year, he’s breaking out of the shell, showing his true potential, and it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough to be here, you’re not wanted here, we’re going to get rid of you. That’s rough on anybody. It doesn’t matter how good, how popular you are.”

Popular he was, becoming a fan favorite as the first (and only) All-Star in the Markinson Era. What is odd that in the way he took a shot at Atkinson, he was also subtly dissing Dinwiddie and LeVert.

Russell is an electrifying talent and an All-Star, still only 24 years old. Not a great defender though. With Towns and a comfort level in Minnesota —”This is where I’m supposed to be,” he’s said— he seems happy but at the end of the day, he still has a lot to prove. He’s played for three teams in the last year, Brooklyn, Golden State and Minnesota. As for Atkinson, he’ll be fine. His development of Russell is likely to be at the top of his resume’.