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D'Angelo Russell Wraps up His Breakthrough Season

Nets guard led Brooklyn in scoring and assists on way to playoffs

The season he’d been chasing was in D’Angelo Russell’s vision, but just out of reach — for a time.

He arrived in Brooklyn in the summer of 2017 two years removed from being the NBA’s No. 2 draft pick. A fresh start, new team, new city was the narrative. And Russell got off to a quick beginning before a knee injury sidelined him for two months and threw his season off track.

But in year two in Brooklyn, Russell stepped into the NBA’s national spotlight as an All-Star for the first time, the leading scorer and leader of one of the league’s best stories as the Nets leaped to 42 wins and an NBA Playoffs return.

“Last year I thought I was going to have the season I had this year, I thought I was going to have the same season,” said Russell on Wednesday afternoon as Nets players did their final media sessions of the season. “I thought I was beyond prepared for it. And then I look back on it -- I wasn’t. I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. I wasn’t physically prepared to have this type of season. So having one summer under my belt with this staff and performance team and just understanding how to be a pro just gives me a blueprint on what it takes and I know sky is the limit for me and I want to build off that.”

What’s he building off of now? Career highs of 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, as well as 36.9 percent shooting from 3-point range. Russell set a franchise single-season record with 234 3-pointers made, ninth in the NBA. He had 14 30-point games — including a career-high 44 points at Sacramento on March 19 — and 14 double-doubles.

“I think he seized the opportunity,” said Nets forward Jared Dudley. “That’s one thing about this league that players don’t—once you get the opportunity, what do you do with it? And D’Lo took full advantage of it and now he reaped all the rewards. And now are you going to just be full or are you going to go back for more? And so that’s something that he has to ask himself, and I think he’s ready for that.”

Dudley was one of two veterans who joined the Nets last summer, along with Ed Davis. They and DeMarre Carroll brought decades worth of experience culled from stops throughout the league. Their guidance offered a roadmap for Russell and other Nets, and they left an impression.

“The thing about it is this is bigger than basketball when you meet some of these guys,” said Russell. “When you have success as a team you have genuine relationships that help build that success. So even if we’re not on the same team it doesn’t just go away. I won’t just forget about them or I won’t just not text them or talk to them, it doesn’t happen like that.”

“Before I got here, I just read about the stuff, everything he went through, the situation with the Lakers,” said Davis. “We had the same agent, so right when I signed my agent told me, ‘Just spend some time with him, help him out. Get to know him.’ And I did get to know him and he’s a cool dude and I was like, there’s no way I’m gonna let something from the past change how I look at him. Him as a leader from the day I got here, he came in every day, went to work, never anything selfish, it was always about the team. Obviously, he’s a little young and he’s just coming into his own, but he’s definitely gonna be a leader because he’s a basketball mind and he respects the game.”

Having turned pro after one season at Ohio State, Russell occupies that in-between space of youngster and veteran. He just turned 23 years old, but he’ll be starting his fifth NBA season in the fall. For a Nets team that went young in the draft the last two years, players like Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa look up to Russell as much as they would a veteran like Dudley.

When the 19-year-old Musa was selected last June and came to the United States after growing up in Bosnia and Herzegovina and playing in Croatia, Russell invited him to his home to get acquainted.

“He’s always been talented, always been able to prove he’s one of the best players on the court,” said Allen, who turned 21 just last week. “I think his biggest change has come not in terms of basketball, but just being a leader, just showing us how the ropes go. I’m younger than him. He helped me, Musa, Rodi, just with small stuff when we didn’t know anything. We just go to him to ask because he was the point guard, the leader. So he expanded a lot from that aspect.”

Russell has also built a bond with Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, himself a former point guard who played pro ball overseas for more than a decade. Atkinson’s reputation for player development is well-known, and Russell has flourished in his two years with the Nets while maintaining the unique parts of his game that worked for him.

“The growth in relationships, genuine relationships, it’s a beautiful thing, to be honest,” said Russell. “I take pride in creating genuine relationships with people that genuinely care about you. And coach is one of the most genuine, emotional, man he’s a great dude. And I thank him as much as I can just for giving the opportunity to come over here and be me and learn how to be a better me at the same time. And he gave me the guidance.”

It’s been a season of breakthroughs for Russell, from the All-Star Game to the playoffs. As the season went on and the Nets moved into playoff position and stayed there, he didn’t mind noting that his was the first time he was experiencing success with his team in the NBA.

Now that he’s had it, he doesn’t want to let go.

“Once you get a taste of the playoffs – I couldn’t imagine not making it back to the playoffs,” said Russell. “Give credit to LeBron and those guys who do it so many consecutive years. That playoff experience is beautiful. So just being the best I can be this summer and making sure the people we’re going to be around are making the same improvement and growth going into the summer and finishing the summer strong going to the season and I think we can do something special. That’s my ultimate goal, just being a part of something special.”

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