New settings are nothing new for D’Angelo Russell.
The Brooklyn Nets point guard has been on the move since he was 15 years old, notably finding his fifth head coach in five years with Kenny Atkinson when he arrived in Brooklyn this season.
It’s all come with a purpose, to push himself and pursue his basketball ambitions at the highest level. The journey began after his freshman year at Central HS in Louisville, Kentucky, when Russell opted for Montverde Academy in Florida. One of the premier high school basketball programs in the country, Montverde plays a national schedule and its NBA alumni include not just Russell, but Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, Houston’s Luc Mbah a Moute, and more.
At Montverde, Russell grew into a premier recruit with national high school championships and appearances in the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic at Barclays Center.
“It was different, but it prepared me for college,” said Russell. “I feel like when I went to public school in Kentucky, it was just a normal lifestyle, normal teenager just playing on a basketball team. Then I went there, it was like I was in college at a young age already. When I got to college it was two times easier, because I was already living in a dorm situation, learning how to eat the right way, protecting myself, washing my own clothes. The structure was already like a college structure.”
Did it all factor into Russell’s quick acclimation at Ohio State? It’s tough to argue with the results. Russell’s single season in Columbus ended with First Team All-American honors, as well as First Team All-Big Ten and Big Ten freshman of the year selections after he averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.
It was more than he expected at the time. But the overwhelming performance sent Russell’s draft stock soaring, and he was on the move again, faster than he had planned. The Los Angeles Lakers grabbed him with the second pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
“I used to always tell my dad, two three years, get my body right, mature a little bit,” said Russell. “And then, as the season went on, I just kept getting better. It’s something that just happened. I feel like any freshman going in, you work on your craft and your tools, but it’s all about your situation, going into a school that’s just going to allow you to be you right away.”
After two years and two coaches in LA, Russell landed in Brooklyn last summer. The price paid – franchise all-time leading scorer Brook Lopez plus a first-round pick – defined him as a centerpiece of general manager Sean Marks’ rebuilding project.
“It's cool,” said Russell of Brooklyn. “It’s different. The whole culture is different. I feel like there’s a lot of different crowds out here. You can fit in wherever you want to fit in. It’s great.”
The soft-spoken Russell has exuded a steady, take-it-as-it-comes calm with the move to Brooklyn. In some ways, the setting is irrelevant, a distraction to be set aside in favor of a singular focus on the court. He lives close to work, nearby Barclays Center. His off-the-court team – brothers Antonio and LaShon and best friend Craig – take care of the details. They found the apartment for the group. Russell keeps two dogs – Bernedoodles – and they help take care of them when he’s on the road with the team.
“I told them throughout the draft process, wherever I go, you guys have got to come with me,” said Russell. “They were all in, and they’ve made my life easier since that day.”
He’s found a comfort level with the Nets as well, with an appreciation for the team’s commitment to player care and coach Atkinson’s dogged, hands-on approach to player development.
“Kenny’s whole style is different,” said Russell. “He’s a workhorse, no shortcut-type guy, and he coaches like that. He gets the best out of you.”
Russell’s setback since coming to Brooklyn was out of everybody’s control, a knee injury suffered at Utah on Nov. 11 that sidelined him for 32 games. After surgery, he attacked the rehab process while staying as involved as possible with the team.
Instead of staying back in Brooklyn while the Nets were away, he would hit the road and seek out gyms in one city or the next to get his work in.
“I was going to local clinics and stuff like that,” said Russell. “Doing rehab. Being with the team as much as possible. A lot of the times it was me on the side, doing my own individual workouts, trying to get up to speed. That was pretty much what my whole day consisted of every day, non-stop, five days a week. Give a lot of credit to the training staff.”
Over his first 12 games with the Nets, Russell had jumped out to a fast start at career-best paces, averaging 20.9 points and 5.7 assists per game, plus 4.7 rebounds. He returned to action with a 14-minute stint in a win over Miami on Jan. 19 and steadily escalated his minutes and contributions.
“The first part of the season is more indicative of what type of player he is,” said Spencer Dinwiddie shortly after Russell’s return. “When you miss, 40 games, 30 games something like that, you’re going to have some of that up and down because you’re trying to find yourself, find your rhythm. The team has been run in a certain way in your absence, because it had to, and now the team has to adjust. It wasn’t like it was a two-game thing, it was half the season. All of that is, it’s a growth process. It’s something that he’s going through and we’re all going through. But you can’t get worse by adding more talent. We look forward to finding that balance and him finding his rhythm completely.”
After averaging 18.3 points and 6.3 assists over a three-game stretch in mid-February, Russell returned to the starting lineup for the first time since November with a 19-point game at Charlotte on Feb. 22 and followed up with eight assists against Chicago and 25 points, six assists and five rebounds against Cleveland.
“Trying to get that rhythm back, taking care of my body,” said Russell around the time he re-entered the starting lineup. “Just being better all-around, the boards, on the court, off the court, that’s been my main focus.”