Russell is Ready for Brooklyn
By Tom Dowd
D'Angelo Russell is the guy the Brooklyn Nets weren't supposed to be able to get.
A just-turned-21 bundle of talent from the top of the draft, Russell's acquisition is a power move for a franchise building a foundational core of young players.
After a sneak-preview-Sunday that included an appearance at Barclays Center for the BIG3 games and a late-night workout at HSS Training Center, Russell was back in Sunset Park Monday morning for his official introduction, joined by Nets GM Sean Marks, head coach Kenny Atkinson and center Timofey Mozgov, who joined Russell in the trade package from the Los Angeles Lakers.
"Once I heard the trade happened, yes I was surprised," said Russell. "I didn't look at it as a negative. I looked at it as a celebration, and I can't wait to get in the gym with these guys and just learn from them."
Selected No. 2 in the 2015 NBA Draft after one season at Ohio State, Russell arrives in Brooklyn after two seasons with the Lakers, having averaged 14.3 points, 4.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds over 143 NBA games, with 108 starts. Sixty of those starts came in the 63 games Russell played last season, with his numbers taking a jump across the board.
While turning 21 in the middle of his second season in the point guard-loaded NBA, Russell averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists. Those are among the top 15 marks in league history for a guard at that age.
"He's a high-skill player," said Atkinson. "He can make shots. He can hurt you two ways. He can hurt you coming off the ball and off pin-downs and screens. But he's also really good in the pick-and-roll, shooting the ball. He's a guy who fits the way we play, he's a versatile player, a really dangerous player at 21 years old."
"I think I am ahead of my curve," said Russell. "I am not satisfied but I know the work that I put in, I know the work that the team will put in, I am excited. I feel like I get better every year."
Russell has shown those talents while the ground has steadily shifted underneath him. Having spent the single season in college and with the Lakers firing coach Byron Scott following his rookie season, Atkinson will be Russell's fifth coach in five seasons going back to his senior year in high school at Florida powerhouse Montverde Academy.
With the Nets he joins a roster that includes five other 24-or-under returning NBA players in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead, Archie Goodwin and Spencer Dinwiddie, plus 19-year-old first round draft pick Jarrett Allen.
The 6-foot-5 guard was shifted from point guard to shooting guard during his second season with the Lakers, and the Nets have an entrenched starter at the point in veteran Jeremy Lin. Russell said he wasn't worried about where he was slotted, but with the way the Nets like to attack defenses, it may not matter much.
Brooklyn's emphasis on a fluid, aggressive offense really demands multiple creators be on the floor at once to operate at its peak.
"At the end of the day, everybody is a basketball player and the way the league is changing, nobody is really recognized for a position," said Russell. "I just try to make plays when I'm out there and be the best basketball player I can be."
"Coming out of Ohio State, maybe his No. 1 asset was his vision and how well he passed the ball," said Atkinson. "So, that excites me, being a ball movement team."
While the offensive numbers have been impressive, Russell's defensive work has garnered less-stellar reviews. He expressed a commitment to improving on that end, and it's an area Atkinson is ready to work on with him.
"We've got to get him better defensively," said Atkinson. "Physically, he's got a ways to go. He's a 21-year-old guy. Listen, we have the best performance team in the league. Getting in the weight room taking care of his body and really taking another step there is going to be important in his development."
The other critique that trailed Russell out of Los Angeles included questions about his maturity. But Atkinson is equally confident that Russell has landed in the right place to put those questions to rest as well.
"There's been some criticism and some doubts about him," said Atkinson. "But I think we're a positive culture, we're a positive coaching staff and we're going to hold him accountable and be honest with him and coach him hard. I think that combination of positive love and then holding him accountable and be honest with him, that's how young guys get better."
In the hours after the trade was agreed to last week, Marks found himself speaking with a player ready to jump right in on Brooklyn, and he liked what he heard.
"The first thing he said was, 'Can I come up there tonight?' I said no, hold on a minute, get some rest. We're not going to fly you on a red-eye tonight. But we'll get you up here in the next day or two," said Marks. "But you could sense there was a hunger, there was a drive, a purpose in wanting to be here. Let's be honest, let's hope we all play with a chip on our shoulder. And I think he has one."