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D’Angelo Russell Is the Start of an Exciting New Era for the Nets

Brooklyn has done the impossible: Amid a hopeless, pickless future, the team has cobbled together a young, modern roster largely built from players other teams had discarded. And now the Nets have their centerpiece. Things are about to get really interesting.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Nets have an identity now. When they traded Brook Lopez and the no. 27 pick in the 2017 draft to the Lakers for Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell on Tuesday, they removed the last remaining link to the failed superteam experiment that left the franchise in tatters. There is now only one player on their roster (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) who predates the hiring of GM Sean Marks in February 2016. Brooklyn will still be one of the worst teams in the NBA next season, but the team should be much more fun to watch, and there’s finally some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of becoming a viable playoff contender. If the Nets are lucky, they may have just found the guy who will help them get there.

Even in a best-case scenario, Russell’s transition to the NBA wasn’t going to be easy. He was a 19-year-old who had never been given the chance to run a team in high school or AAU ball and who had spent only one season sharing ballhandling duties at Ohio State before turning pro. Point guard is the deepest position in the NBA, and Russell was being forced to learn on the job while going up against some of the best players in the world on a nightly basis. He’s not an elite athlete, so his clearest path to stardom is to use the threat of his jumper to create driving lanes to the basket and manipulate defenses with savvy, poise, and superior passing ability. Russell doesn’t have a great fastball: He’s more Greg Maddux than Randy Johnson. While he flashed the potential to be that type of player in college, he was bound to have serious growing pains at the next level. Expecting otherwise was unrealistic.

The Lakers never put Russell in a position to succeed. He was in an impossible situation as a rookie, walking the ball up the floor and handing it off to Kobe Bryant while L.A. essentially turned its season into a six-month-long fantasy camp where Kobe got to pretend he was still one of the best players in the league. Kobe and Byron Scott were gone by Russell’s second season, but the Lakers still didn’t have the personnel necessary to maximize his game. Roy Hibbert, Julius Randle, and Timofey Mozgov, the three big men who started next to him in his two seasons in L.A., have combined to make 40 3s in their entire careers. Russell never played with a frontcourt player defenses had to respect from the perimeter, and he didn’t have the speed to get to the rim against teams who could pack the paint against him. That should change in Brooklyn, where Kenny Atkinson has experience turning traditional big men into stretch 5s: Lopez took 387 3s last season after attempting only 31 in the first eight seasons of his career.

Rolling the dice on a 21-year-old who was taken at no. 2 overall is exactly what a franchise in Brooklyn’s position should be doing. The Lakers were reportedly fed up with Russell’s attitude, and leaving the L.A. media fishbowl that tends to inflate the egos of young celebrities may be the best thing that ends up happening to him. Of course, he’ll be still be in New York City, but playing for the Nets is a lot different than playing for the Lakers, one of the most high-profile franchises in sports. His new Nets teammates probably won’t start dating members of the Kardashian clan, and the Knicks’ never-ending series of doomed decisions will dominate the NYC tabloids. Being dealt so early in his career could be a wake-up call when it comes to being a professional, and he should have no shortage of motivation going forward to prove people wrong. It’s impossible to know from the outside how big a deal Russell’s off-court issues were, but even if he had been a model citizen, he would still have needed to play in a spread pick-and-roll system like the one that made him a star at Ohio State to live up to his draft position.

Russell joins an interesting core of perimeter players in Brooklyn that includes first-round picks acquired in trades in 2016 (Caris LeVert) and 2015 (Hollis-Jefferson). LeVert was one of the lone bright spots from a disappointing 2016 rookie class, a multidimensional 6-foot-7 swingman who slipped to the no. 20 pick because of recurring foot injuries he suffered in college. Hollis-Jefferson may never develop a 3-point shot, but he’s one of the most athletic forwards in the NBA, and he has a frame (6-foot-7 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) that allows him to play much bigger than he is. Spencer Dinwiddie and Sean Kilpatrick, two more wings they picked up off the scrap heap last season, look like NBA players as well, while hope springs eternal for longtime internet favorite K.J. McDaniels, who came over from the Rockets at the deadline. Russell, Hollis-Jefferson, LeVert, Dinwiddie, and McDaniels are all under 25. Jeremy Lin will still have a big role in the offense, but he’s a 28-year-old with a player option in his contract at the end of next season who’s probably not part of their long-term plans. There is an actual youth movement underway in Brooklyn.

The next step for the Nets is finding athletic big men who can stretch the floor, switch screens, and allow them to play the five-out style Marks has been pushing for since taking over. Brooklyn took 37.1 percent of its shots from behind the 3-point line last season, the fourth-highest ratio in the league; the Nets just weren’t good enough to make them consistently, as they shot only 33.8 percent from 3. Without Lopez, they are one of the only teams in the NBA that doesn’t have a traditional center in their long-term plans, making them ideally positioned to set up their roster to mirror the way the game is changing. While they don’t have nearly the talent of the Warriors, they can try to find players who can play Golden State’s style, and that’s a step in the right direction. With Russell, LeVert, Dinwiddie, and Hollis-Jefferson in place, the Nets are four-fifths of the way to a super-bootleg version of the Lineup of Death already. Given how the power forward position is trending, Hollis-Jefferson may end up as a small-ball 4 who can switch screens and make plays rolling to the basket, a la Draymond Green.

There should be several big men available to the Nets at no. 22 who would work as a small-ball 5. DraftExpress currently has them taking Michigan sophomore D.J. Wilson, who combines size (6-foot-10 and 240 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan), shooting ability (37.3 percent from 3 on 2.9 attempts per game), and some modicum of rim protection (1.5 blocks), although his rebounding numbers (5.3 per game) are not pretty. My favorite player from that group is Jonah Bolden, an athletic 6-foot-10 former UCLA player who shined in Europe this season, shooting 41.9 percent from 3 on 4.2 attempts per game. If they want to think really outside the box, they could look at Nevada sophomore Cameron Oliver in the second round, a 6-foot-8 forward with a rare double of shot blocking (2.6 per game) and 3-point shooting (38.4 percent from 3 on 4.9 attempts per game). Those guys would all be terrible defensively as rookies, and most NBA coaches would never play that small, but it’s not like the Nets have anything to lose by trying an experimental style of basketball. Putting that type of shooting up front would make their backcourt of the future in LeVert and Russell much better offensively.

The guy they should really be targeting is OG Anunoby, a hyperathletic forward coming off a knee injury at Indiana who could conceivably guard all five positions in the NBA. He’s a lottery talent who could end up slipping due to injury concerns, much like LeVert, but he probably won’t fall quite far enough for Brooklyn to get him. The good news is that the Nets have the salary cap space to acquire more first-round picks by absorbing bad contracts, just like they did with Mozgov. The Nets currently have only $55.5 million on the books for 2017–18 and $45 million for 2018–19 (assuming they renounce all of their nonguaranteed contracts): There’s no contract they can’t absorb. The Blazers are their most obvious trade partner. They have three first-round picks and a grotesque payroll ($143 million for next season) they need to trim significantly to afford an extension for promising young center Jusuf Nurkic.

Brooklyn struck out looking in the restricted free-agent market last season, but there’s no reason for the team not to try it again this time around. There are many potential targets out there who would fit well with Atkinson’s preferred style of play on both sides of the ball — Otto Porter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jonathon Simmons, Joe Ingles, Tim Hardaway Jr., Ben McLemore, and Tony Snell — and whose original teams might hesitate at matching a big enough contract. The Nets could also make a run at stretch big men like Kelly Olynyk and Nikola Mirotic, or a pure scorer like Shabazz Muhammad. They have money to burn and no reason not to use it, since they will spend to the salary floor either way (if they don’t, the difference between their payroll and the salary floor gets redistributed to their remaining players) and they still won’t have their own first-round pick next season.

Their 2018 pick will be the last one they owe to the Celtics, and they are in a better position than could reasonably have been expected after essentially throwing away their future for five straight seasons. Brooklyn has a recent high lottery pick and promising young players that fit well around him, as well as a front office that has shown a good eye for finding talent in its first year on the job. If the Nets select the right player in this year’s draft and sign one or two restricted free agents, they would have an interesting young core in place. Even if D’Angelo Russell isn’t a star, they should be decent in a few seasons. If he is, this could be the start of something big.