The eve before his introductory press conference for the Brooklyn Nets, D’Angelo Russell was dribbling a basketball. Briskly and well, with an intonation hinting that, at any moment, he could drive past his imaginary defender. It was midnight, marking the second time ever that Russell was in HSS Training Center, the Nets’ practice facility, and the second time that day. The workout was posted to Instagram with a simple side-eye emoji and the words "Late nights," alongside the handle of Chris Brickley, Carmelo Anthony’s personal trainer.
The post was for appearances (though to be fair, everything on Instagram debatably is), reflecting the tone of his Monday-morning press conference. It was the Nets’ first press appearance since the Lakers sent his and Timofey Mozgov’s rights to the Nets for Brook Lopez and a late first-rounder. Both at the press conference and in his workout video, Russell was already trying to save face. In fact, it seemed the entire organization was, including coach Kenny Atkinson. He explained in that press conference, seated only inches away from Russell, that if sitting down and straightening out his new point guard was necessary, it would be done.
Atkinson had to go there because of the unideal reputation Russell earned over his two years in Los Angeles. He became known more as a developing problem than a talent, from Snapchatting Nick Young’s scandalous confessions to former coach Byron Scott calling him out multiple times. Russell is the most talented young prospect the Nets have seen in ages, yet concerns about his leadership have checked some of the excitement from fans. Upon visiting Barclays for the first time since the trade Sunday during the Big3 tournament, Russell was met with as many boos as he was cheers. It wasn’t a Nets event, but it was hosted in their arena. The concerns are real.
Magic Johnson effectively sent D’Angelo off to Brooklyn with this comment:
"D’Angelo is an excellent player," Magic said, "but what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better, and also that players want to play with." The quote was dismissive for a former second overall pick with just two years of experience in the NBA. The 21-year-old has much more time to develop, both on the court and in the locker room.
"I’m just excited to be here," Russell said in the presser when Johnson’s comments were repeated back to him. "It’s the past, so it’s irrelevant, honestly."
It was the more mature of the two comments. Even with Russell’s history, Magic’s chastisement was unnecessary considering the position Los Angeles is in after the trade. Lonzo Ball already looks to be the better second overall pick, at least for the Lakers, and not only that, but packaging away Russell provided the Lakers much-needed cap space for free agency. If Russell hadn’t become a solid enough prospect to entice the Nets to swallow the $64 million mistake that was Mozgov’s contract, the tab would still be on Los Angeles. No one wanted that contract, but Russell made it a worthwhile stipulation.
Now Russell is in a unique situation. He’s playing in New York, but joining these Nets will be like working in the dark compared with having the Lakers’ lights on him. He’s still playing for a bad team — the worst, actually — but now he’s the star. But Russell said that if he "[came] in barking right away" to his teammates, it would be ill-received.
"I’m going to try to lead by example first, get guys’ respect and just go from there," Russell said at the press conference. Earning respect rather than assuming it is a courtesy from Brooklyn’s new, most-talented player, and shows at least a bit of self-awareness, if not outright maturity. If there’s one team that won’t write off a 21-year-old talent due to a two-year stint, it’s the franchise that traded away a treasure chest of first-round picks for aging stars. At least now, both Russell and the Nets are looking to the future.