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The Proving Grounds: Can D’Angelo Russell Be A Headliner With The Nets?

When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted D’Angelo Russell with the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the franchise was in the midst of a great transition period. With the sun setting on Kobe Bryant’s career in Hollywood, Russell appeared to be next in line to be the Lakers’ crowned prince.

A 6-foot-5 combo guard with a smooth shooting stroke, lively handle, and the court vision of a player beyond his years, Russell appeared to have the flash and substance tailor-made for the modern NBA.

But Russell’s rookie season was consumed by the spectacle of Bryant’s final season. Russell fell out of favor with then head coach Byron Scott, whose decisions appeared tailored to Bryant’s sendoff. The Lakers derided Russell’s lack of maturity and, according to Russell, provided little in the way of guidance or communication to correct course under Scott.

By April of his rookie year the tides turned and the Ohio State product went from rising star to locker room virus. A prank gone wrong on teammate Nick Young made the rookie a pariah as video of Young confirming he was cheating on his then fiancee (rapper, Iggy Azalea) leaked.

Russell spent another season in Los Angeles and was able to take the situation in stride (with the help of a Foot Locker commercial). Yet, when Jeanie Buss cleared house and Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka were given control of the Lakers roster it wasn’t long before Russell was shown the door; trading him to the Brooklyn Nets for a first-round pick (used on Kyle Kuzma) and salary dump.

The Los Angeles Exile

Sean Marks, D'Angelo Russell


The Lakers wanted to clear space to make a run at LeBron James and other elite free agents and used their third consecutive second-overall pick on Lonzo Ball, another lead guard. D’Angelo Russell was no longer part of their plans.

Waiting for him in Brooklyn was one of the league’s best developmental coaches, Kenny Atkinson, and more importantly: a fresh start.

After two seasons of trying to prove himself worthy of carrying the Lakers franchise, the move to Brooklyn gave him an opportunity to finally step out from Kobe Bryant’s shadow. Russell exploded early with the Nets. Atkinson’s motion offense and free-flowing system opened parts of Russell’s game once dormant with the Lakers.

Russell would go on to post a career-high usage rate (32.9 percent), which ranked him in the 94th percentile of the entire NBA according to cleaningtheglass.com. His assist rate skyrocketed to 34.9 percent (89th percentile of the NBA via cleaningtheglass.com) from 26.8 percent as a sophomore.

D'Angelo Russell

In fact, in his first year with Brooklyn he posted career highs in field goals made, field goals attempted, field goal percentage, two-point percentage, defensive rebounds per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game. On paper, Russell’s third-year in the NBA finally bore out the promise everyone saw in him after he finished playing for the Buckeyes.

Yet, not everything was great in D’Angelo’s first year with the Nets. In mid-November, Russell was sidelined for two months after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. At the time of the injury, Russell was averaging 20.9 points and 5.7 assists per game while Brooklyn was only three games below .500.

Russell wouldn’t regain his starting spot with the Nets until a month after his return to action and he admitted he never really regained the status he brought to Brooklyn for the opening month of the 2017-18 season.

New Beginnings

d'angelo russell

Corey Sipkin/New York Post

As next season approaches, Russell finds himself in a similar position. The crop of free agents available in the summer of 2019 has the chance to be an all-time collection of all-star talent. The Nets are positioning themselves to have enough cap space to potentially sign two max contracts in the offseason. The Lakers opted to take the same approach and Russell was abandoned in the process.

Russell is scheduled to become a restricted free agent at season’s end. A contract extension before the October deadline is unlikely unless Russell is willing to take a discount and with guards like Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Terry Rozier on the market, there’s a chance Brooklyn doesn’t bring Russell back if his price is too rich.

D’Angelo has steadily improved over the course of his first three seasons and at just 22 years old, the potential for him to become an all-star talent is still there.

Russell’s ability to draw a high-rate of fouls (86th percentile in non-shooting foul percentage and 77th percentile in and-one percentage via cleaningtheglass.com) is an important skill for guards in the NBA today.

D'Angelo Russell

Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke/kathleenmalonevandyke.com

Russell’s size as a lead guard is beneficial here too. A lefty like James Harden, Russell has a comparable herky-jerky style to his game and his ability to change pace makes him a tough cover one-on-one. Basic similarities aside, Russell has a lot of improving to do before he reaches Harden’s status. (He’s still a ways away from even being worthy of mention alongside another great lefty, Manu Ginobili).

After sputtering out of the gate to begin his NBA career, D’Angelo Russell started to right the ship in Brooklyn before an untimely injury delayed him once more. A breakthrough seems like a foregone conclusion in year four. However, the Nets have managed to assemble a treasure trove of young guards (Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Shabazz Napier, and 2018 first round pick, Dzanan Musa) and all will be chomping at the bit to prove themselves worthy of minutes. Dinwiddie made quite the impression in Russell’s absence a season ago.

If Russell is ever going to meet those lofty face of the franchise goals placed on him early on with the Lakers, the time is now. Russell has been saying the right things this summer and, after seeing his good friend Devin Booker get a real commitment from the Phoenix Suns this offseason, there might be extra motivation for Russell to finally put it all together.

D’Angelo Russell proved unready for the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood leading role. Will a few years of seasoning in Brooklyn prepare him to make it big on Broadway?