D'Angelo Russell Adds to Brooklyn Nets' Player Development Success Story
All-Star guard wanted strong coaching, and Atkinson and staff have delivered
ORLANDO — With the selection of D'Angelo Russell to play in the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, the Brooklyn Nets notched another success story for the franchise's growing reputation for player development.
Over the two-plus seasons of the Sean Marks/Kenny Atkinson regime, the Nets front office has consistently identified undervalued talents, and the coaching and performance staffs have consistently helped those players blossom.
The successes have arrived from different trajectories. Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris were second-round draft picks without NBA jobs when they were signed by the Nets. Dinwiddie ended up a finalist for the NBA's Most Improved Player award in his second year with the Nets, and has been the team's second-leading scorer in his third. Harris has become one of the league's best 3-point shooters while expanding his game to break out of that "shooting specialist" box.
There are the rookie success stories of Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs, two players who crushed the expectations that came along with their draft status and ended up starting during their first seasons.
It's the kind of thing that draws attention.
"I think it's huge," said Atkinson. "It's really players talking with other players. They know we have a great player care staff with our performance team. Our coaches are excellent developing young players. Hopefully, that reverberates throughout the league. I don't think it's one person, I don't think it's Kenny Atkinson or Jacque Vaughn. It's a whole organization and me being on the same page with Sean and how huge that is and how connected we are in terms of development. The total approach to getting a player better is vital. There's a lot of cogs in the wheel to help a player improve."
Russell arrived in Brooklyn with a different history. A college All-American at Ohio State, he was drafted second overall in 2015. Marks seized the opportunity to acquire him in the days ahead of the 2017 NBA Draft.
Atkinson, who built a reputation for player development while rising the assistant coaching ranks, reached out to Russell's coach at Ohio State, Thad Matta, who told Atkinson, "he wants to be coached." Russell arrived in Brooklyn and delivered the same message.
"I don't think as a staff we've coached a guy harder than we've coached D'Angelo," said Atkinson. "We're on him. Film, he has really taken it like a man, and accepted the bad with the good. That's a real credit to his maturity. He made it a statement when he first arrived here, and I told him, 'now, let's keep going, because we're going to keep coaching you hard and I'll keep holding you responsible.' With talent comes responsibility, they say."
As a head coach, Atkinson has said he puts on his "player development hat" and gets involved in individual workouts less than he would like to. You're still likely to see the former 15-year pro working up a sweat more often than other head coaches, but for the most part he's relying on Brookyn's assistant coaches for that.
In Russell's case, that often means Jacque Vaughn, a former head coach and a 12-year NBA point guard. Atkinson credits Vaughn's work with Russell, particularly on the defensive end.
"Jacque was a heck of a defensive player, really good defensive mind," said Atkinson. "So the defense, but just overall. When you can talk every day with a guy that's played the position in the league and your conversations. Jacque works with a lot of guys; works with Caris (LeVert) very closely. We have Pablo Prigioni. We have guys that played in this league that are working with these guys every day. As I stepped into a head coach role I'm not in that role nearly as much on a day-to-day basis on the court, so it's important to have a good staff."
Offensively, of course, Russell is emerging as the elite and complete talent that many envisioned. He's elevated his game with each passing month of the season, and as he received the news of his All-Star selection, he was averaging career highs in points, assists, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage in the middle of his fourth NBA season.
"If you buy in to what we're doing and take advantage of an opportunity, there's rewards," said Atkinson. "It's great to see that he's bought into to our total program, from the basketball side to the performance side. It's great for the organization."