By now the Brooklyn Nets have gone from just a nice surprise to a legitimately good team. Leading the charge is the former second-overall pick, D’Angelo Russell. For the longest, the Nets have been looking for that superstar player to build around. With how Russell has been playing this year, it seems like Brooklyn has found their guy.
When he was traded from Los Angeles Russell wasn’t initially brought in to be “The Guy” in Brooklyn. The team was still trying to figure out who they were as a franchise. He was seen as a player that the Nets could hopefully develop. Head Coach Kenny Atkinson is known for being a good developer of point guards, most notably Dennis Schroder during his time in Atlanta.
The Nets had a ton of young guys last season and were especially deep at the guard position. Guys like Jeremy Lin, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Isaiah Whitehead all had something to prove. For a stretch of time, Russell looked to be the second overall pick that he was.
However, Russell ended up missing an extended amount of time during the middle of the season due to a surgery to clean some stuff up in his leg. D’Angelo only ended up playing 48 games last season but made the most of those games. There were glimpses of the superstar potential that was in him. He averaged 15.5 points, 5.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game.
This season was not only the coming out party for Russell but also some of his teammates. For the early part of the season, the Nets leaned on third-year guard Caris LeVert as their leader. In November, LeVert unfortunately succumbed to a gruesome ankle injury. After the Nets suffered through an 8 game losing streak which put them 10 games under .500, a “players only” meeting seemed to not only cure the team but flip a switch in the 23-year-old Russell.
Over a 24 game stretch, the Nets went 19-5 with D’Angelo as the catalyst. Whether it was closing out games late or having insane scoring spurts during quarters, Russell seemed to be evolving before everyone’s eyes. His signature moment came when the Nets defeated the Lakers with Russell hitting a late 3-pointer to seal the win. He not only outplayed his replacement in Lonzo but also showed the Lakers what they gave up.
Russell is not only a volume scorer but also efficient at that. His game is not flashy but slow and methodical. He can get to his spot and knows how to use his dribble to keep defenders honest. On the year he is averaging 20.6 points, 6.6 assists and shooting over 43% from the field. Earlier this season he became the youngest player to reach 500 career 3-pointers.
Although Joe Harris is the more well-known 3-point threat on the team, Russell actually leads the team in total 3s made. There’ve been multiple games in which he has dropped over 30 points and has had two 40-point games in which he single-handedly won the game for the team. In the Nets’ final game before All-Star break, they defeated the Cavaliers in 3OT. Russell finished with 36 points, scoring 14 of them in the third overtime. On February 23rd Russell scored 12 straight points in the final minutes of the fourth quarter including the go-ahead 3-pointer with a few seconds left to give the Nets a two-point win against Charlotte.
In basketball, there can be two types of leaders. Guys that lead on the court and guys that lead on the bench/in the locker room. Throughout the course of the season, D’Angelo has shown to be both. His leadership on the court has improved from the beginning of the season as you see him direct the offense, shout out calls on defense and helping his teammates off the floor.
Russell is always engaged on the bench as well. He can always be seen cheering on his guys from the bench and is usually one of the first guys off the bench to high five teammates. Even earlier in the season when Dinwiddie would be in down the stretch of games Russell never sulked or pouted. He engaged right along with the other guys on the bench supporting their fellow teammates. That’s the type of character you want in someone who is going to lead your franchise for years to come. A guy who has humility and puts the team success over his own ego.
Russell’s stellar play was enough to catch the eyes of people around the league. Many figures around the league including fellow players recognized he deserved an All-Star nod. Russell replaced Victor Oladipo on team Giannis. Russell only scored 6 points in the All-Star game but that paled in comparison to what it actually meant. It validated the level of play Russell had exhibited for the majority of the season. It showed that the Nets, who had a total of 4 players involved in All-Star weekend, had a nice young core that was spearheaded by Russell.
It’s well known that this is one of the most loaded free agent classes in recent history. The Nets are one of the few teams that have enough cap space to sign one of the potential superstar free agents to a max contract. However, with Russell already playing at an All-Star level with superstar potential, the front office may have to rethink how they allocate funds this season. Russell will be a restricted free agent having a $21.1M cap hold that effects the team’s signing ability this season. If Russell continues his dominant play and leads the Nets to a playoff berth it would be hard pressed to find a reason not to sign him to a max deal and build the team around him.