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D'Angelo Russell


D’Angelo Russell: The evolution of the Warriors star’s career

D’Angelo Russell is a wine guy.

In August, he revealed to GQ that he’d been to Napa to learn more about good wines. Wine, Russell noted, was something that kept coming up for him in various dinners and activities, so naturally he wanted to learn more about it. And if fine wine gets better with age, then being a wine connoisseur is fitting for a player who has, himself, matured and proven himself with time.

Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Russell grew up close to his two older brothers, Antonio Jr. and Gilliam–a tight bond that they still share today. But the area Russell lived in was not one of affluence. “The neighborhoods that we lived in,” Russell’s father Antonio Sr. noted, “a lot of people don’t make it out of. [Basketball] was something to keep him occupied and busy and give him an opportunity to get to college.”

After his freshman year at Central High School in Louisville, Russell transferred to Montverde Academy in Florida. He was plunged into an entirely different community and an entirely different basketball scene. At Central High, Russell was a star player–a big fish in a little pond. But at Montverde, Russell wasn’t even starting when he arrived. He was relegated to the bench.

With time, though, Russell showed his resolve and his basketball acumen, eventually earning the starting point guard role. In his last two seasons at Montverde, Russell led the school to back-to-back national championships, even teaming up with future NBA All-Star Ben Simmons for one of those titles.

After being highly recruited, Russell turned in a stellar freshman year at Ohio State University. He was high on NBA teams’ draft boards entering the 2015 NBA Draft, so he made the choice to declare for the draft after one collegiate season. The Los Angeles Lakers selected him with the second overall pick, and Russell immediately became the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant, who would be playing his final season that year.

But as the season started, it was anything but the perfect match. On the Lakers, a plethora of young players were all vying to prove themselves in front of Kobe. Mixed with the immaturity of a young team, it only led to Russell not discovering his true potential. In his rookie year, Russell averaged 13.2 points and 3.3 assists a game, which was promising, but didn’t scream superstar. In his second season, he upped those numbers to 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per game. While he showed flashes of being a great player, he was far from the expectations that the team had for him–especially off the court.

It was an incident with Nick Young that marred his time in LA. Young and Russell were friends and had a back-and-forth prank war going on in Russell’s second season. Somehow, a private video that Russell filmed, as a prank, was leaked to the general public. In the video, Young apparently admitted to cheating on his fiancée at the time, singer Iggy Azalea.

The fallout of the fiasco was brutal. Young and Azalea broke off their engagement, and Russell’s teammates shunned him as a result. Lou Williams reportedly got up and walked away when Russell sat next to him in the locker room. Because of the distrust and tension amongst the players, the Lakers couldn’t envision a future with Russell as their leader. In the summer of 2017, they traded Timofey Mozgov and Russell to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez and the rights to Kyle Kuzma, the 27th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Russell was merely 20 years old when the Nick Young incident occurred, and he would mature more both on and off the court with time. On the Brooklyn Nets, Russell had a clean slate and a pristine chance to rebuild his image. In an interview, Russell told Marc Spears of The Undefeated that his image was the one thing that was the most misinterpreted during his time as a Laker. After the Nick Young video got out, Russell had to spend the rest of his tenure in LA trying to rebuild his image and restore his reputation.

But knee surgery a couple of months into the 2017-18 NBA season had Russell rehabbing for two months. He eventually returned to the Nets, and showed signs that he could be the point guard of the future for them–averaging 15.5 points and 5.2 assists a game on the season.

Russell flashed potential in his third year in the NBA, but hadn’t fully come into his own yet. In the summer of 2017, right after the Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball to be their point guard, Lakers’ team president Magic Johnson had some words for D’Angelo. “We want to thank him for what he did for us,” Johnson stated. “But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with.”

That Russell wasn’t a leader was a viable criticism at the time, considering the Nick Young situation and the poor play of the Lakers with supposedly a lot of young talent. In Russell’s fourth year in the NBA, though, he finally hit his stride and silenced all critics.

The 2018-19 season was Russell’s breakout year. He scored 21.1 points and averaged 7.1 assists per game en route to his first All-Star berth. Not originally on the All-Star roster, Russell was chosen as an injury replacement to Indiana Pacers’ star Victor Oladipo.

The ’18-19 season was full of awe-inspiring moments for Russell, and maybe none as jaw-dropping as his fourth quarter takeover against the Sacramento Kings in March. The Kings had a cushy 28-point lead over the Nets, until Russell imposed his will in the fourth quarter. He put the team on his back and caught fire–scoring  27 points in the final quarter alone as the Nets roared back to beat the Kings. Russell totaled 44 points on the night for the young, upstart Nets. And as the playoffs grew closer, it was clear the Nets were building something special.

With Russell as the clear leader of the team, the Nets earned the six-seed in the Eastern Conference with a record of 42-40. Magic Johnson may have been right about Russell’s leadership early in his career, but those comments started to look irrelevant as Russell led a Nets team that had good chemistry, joyful spirits, and the best bench celebrations of any team.

The Nets faced off against the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. While the Sixers had considerably more talent on their side, Brooklyn shocked them and won Game 1 in Philadelphia–led by Russell’s team-high 26 points. Though the Nets lost the series, something special was brewing in Brooklyn. Russell, along with Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie and others, were creating a core that could continue to grow and bring Brooklyn into the upper tiers of the NBA.

But the funny thing about bursting onto the NBA scene is that it attracts attention. In this case, from star free agents. This past summer boasted a large number of star free agents, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant both decided to take their talents to Brooklyn–now a new breeding ground for talent and a prime free agent destination.

But the arrival of two superstars meant that the Nets had to move on from the one star who helped build the very culture that attracted them. Ironic, but it was business.

In a sign-and-trade to get Kevin Durant, the Nets traded D’Angelo Russell to the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors signed D-Lo to a four-year, $117 million contract–the money signifying that Russell truly had arrived. After a rocky start to his career with the Lakers, questions about his leadership, a media catastrophe with Nick Young, and a trade away from a special team in Brooklyn, Russell had proven himself.

Now, he has a chance to play alongside star teammates Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson (next season when Thompson returns from injury), and Draymond Green. Many believe Curry and Russell can’t co-exist together, since both are offense-first point guards. Many believe that the Warriors only have Russell as trade bait in the long-term.

Regardless, Russell can only control what he, himself, does. He doesn’t control the narratives that the media concocts or criticizing comments that team presidents throw out. He can only control his attitude, his work ethic, and his game.

Now in the fifth year of an already-eventful NBA career, Russell has a chance to learn from a championship organization, even if their product on the court isn’t the juggernaut it once was. He has a chance to step up and lead an injury-riddled young Warriors squad, especially with Steph Curry’s recent injury, and start a new chapter in his career and growth.

At still only 23 years old, he’s hoping to keep growing, keep proving himself, and, like the very fine wine he enjoys, keep getting better with age.