On day three of training camp Thursday, Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson pulled back a little and let his team ease up after opening with two full-throttle days. Point guard D'Angelo Russell didn't hesitate to describe the first sessions of the 2018-19 season as "brutal," but he did it with a smile.
If the Nets are getting after it from the start, beginning with a heavy dose of scrimmaging on Tuesday, Russell doesn't seem to mind. It's a fit for where this team is at mentally right now.
"I think just in general we all have that chip on our shoulder, and are better prepared this year going in, we have a better feel for each other," said Russell. "And then just competing. I think everybody has that competitive edge now, you know? I think we were a little bit too nice to each other last year. But this year you could just see guys are really going at each other, competing every chance they get: Shooting drills, if its sprints, if it's whatever, layup drill, whatever. Everybody is competing. That’s going to play a great part.”
As for Russell, he's been attacking his prep for the 2018-19 season since long before training camp opened, with the 22-year-old focusing on strength and continuing to develop his body after a knee injury limited him to just 48 games last season. He even brought some of his rehab workouts into his regular routine.
"I think it takes you to bump your head and, knock on wood, get injured to know what muscles and stuff you have to pay attention to," said Russell. "I think that’s what I did last year. I didn’t really know what I needed to strengthen or whatnot going into that season. But this year I’ve strengthened all of that, putting numerous amount of hours in the gym trying to prepare myself as best as I can.”
"I saw an elite work ethic," said Atkinson. "Because I was here every day and I saw it. He made a commitment to be here of his own volition. Every time I walked in the weight room, he was in there. It gives me confidence as a coach and I think as a player, he knows he put in the work this offseason."
While Russell is eying his strength as a key to health, Atkinson is looking at performance. A stronger player finishes better on drives to the rim, muscles his way to some extra rebounds, is able to fight his way through screens.
In year one with the Nets, Russell offered up plenty of dazzling moments. There was the 30-point debut on opening night in Indiana. The seven straight 3-pointers in a 32-point game against Toronto. The season-high 13 assists in a triple-double outing against the Raptors again 10 days later. The 16-12 double-double at Orlando.
Atkinson has raved about Russell's court vision and passing from the beginning. His ability to score is undeniable. Navigating when to do which is at the heart of Russell finding the next level. Sometimes, the coach said, it simply comes down to reacting to a defense and taking advantage of what an opponent gives you. Russell has the ability to punish a defense in different ways.
"I think if you can score the ball at this level and you can pass the ball at this level, that’s the hardest thing, figuring out when you want to pass and when you want to score," said Russell. "Just getting that experience, I feel like I’m there. I feel like I’ve taken the jump and just knowing that’s what I had to figure out to get me there.”
Atkinson acknowledged that improving his defense and cutting back on turnovers are among top priorities for Russell this season. To that end, the third-year coach zeroed in on a Russell turnover during Tuesday's lengthy scrimmage, stopping play to point it out. Only later did Atkinson realize that was Russell's only turnover of the session.
Feeling a little guilty about it on Wednesday morning, Atkinson made sure to let Russell know "you did a hell of a job handling the ball. And I pointed out the only turnover you made."
"Keep coaching me."
“I told him I want that," said Russell. "If you want to sub me out because of a turnover, however you decide to do it, I trust it. But trust me, there’s no way you’re mad, more than I am, about the turnover. But like I said, I think I’ve taken that step.”