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D’Angelo Russell Is Still Shadowboxing His Not-So-Golden Years

The new Nets guard’s complicated past loomed large in the halls of Staples Center for his return, but his offseason divorce from the Lakers may be exactly what both sides need

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Magic Johnson and Lonzo Ball like each other. A lot. You might have picked up on that. It’s practically gotten to the point where when one raises his hand, the other reflexively turns around and prepares to have his back patted. In a recent “interview” (that was really just an advertisement for Uber), Lonzo praised Magic yet again: “The way he tries to run a team, the way I run a team … he’s nice to everybody, for sure, and I try to be nice to everybody.”

Well, not quite everybody. And definitely not for sure.

At his pre-draft workout in Los Angeles, Ball said the Lakers needed a leader. He also said they needed a point guard. He said both of those things several times—and he wasn’t even on the team yet. If you played for the Lakers at the time, you might have found those comments a bit curious. If you were the point guard for the Lakers at the time, you might have found those comments more than a bit worrisome.

As we all found out, Ball was parroting the official organization line. After D’Angelo Russell was banished to Brooklyn, Magic Johnson called Russell an “excellent player” with the talent to become an All-Star, but he also qualified the statement with something that could not be ignored: “But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with.”

That was hardly the last time Magic indicted Russell’s ability or character. Over two weeks ago, before the Lakers’ season opener, I listened to Johnson trumpet Ball for being the point guard and leader that the Lakers so sorely lacked. Magic refrained from actually saying Russell’s name or spitting on the floor, because Magic is a nice guy. Magic wouldn’t do that. But Magic didn’t have to. When you say that you want someone to make other players better, someone whom players want to play with, you’ve said all that needs to be said.

After two years with the Lakers, after lots of drama off the court but not much worth mentioning on it, after being the second overall pick (only to be traded this past offseason to make room for a new second overall pick), Russell returned to Los Angeles on Friday night to face the Lakers for the first time at Staples Center. Russell’s rocky run with the organization, coupled with all the shade thrown at him by key figures of his former team, intensified the spotlight on him. At least one person you might expect was curious how that might go.

When Russell was drafted, it seemed like he’d take over as the face of the storied franchise just as Kobe Bryant was riding off into retirement. Luke Walton said he coached Russell like he was “going to be our point guard for the next 10 years.” He wasn’t. He barely lasted two seasons.

Walton fielded questions about all that outside the Lakers’ locker room before tip off. He was asked more than once what went wrong and why it didn’t work out for Russell in Los Angeles. The best Walton could come up with was “I don’t know.”

“It could have worked out,” Walton said. “We went in another direction.”

Not long after, a door opened and Russell appeared—as though merely mentioning the man could also conjure him. As Russell walked through the tunnel leading to the visitors’ locker room, he saw his old coach chatting with the media, put two fingers to his brow and gave a quick salute. Walton nodded back. Russell kept walking; Walton kept talking.

“No matter what you’ve been through,” Russell later said outside the Nets’ locker room, “a fresh start is always good.”

What Russell went through in Los Angeles, according to Russell, was “a lot.” He repeated and emphasized that he had been through a lot. He mentioned “Kobe’s farewell” as part of going through a lot, but otherwise he was short on specifics and went with “um, everything” as a placeholder for what going through a lot actually entailed.

“Just to overcome that,” he said, “I salute myself.”

It was an excellent metaphor for Russell’s time in Los Angeles—saluting himself for a job well done when hardly anyone else would.

Magic’s remarks were sharp, and it was clear that they cut Russell pretty deep. On Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast, Russell expressed bewilderment—not so much at the sentiment as with the timing. “I’m off your hands,” Russell said. “I have nothing to do with you. I’m on a new team. I don’t understand the comments. I still don’t.”

He had a point. It wasn’t hard to process why Johnson said what he said. (The whispers about Russell as a teammate still haven’t stopped in Los Angeles.) But that Magic said it—and continues to say it—remains harder to fathom. Especially for Russell.

Before facing his old team, Russell tried to be diplomatic about the whole affair. “Moving to New York from L.A., you can’t complain about that,” he said. Even so, he admitted that Magic’s words “ruffled a few feathers.” But whereas the Lakers no longer wanted Russell around, Brooklyn happily welcomed him to the flock.

The Nets bet big on bringing Russell to Brooklyn. Eight games into the season, he’s averaging 21.1 points (on 44.4 percent shooting from the field), 5.3 assists, and 4.5 rebounds, all of which are career highs. His usage rate has also exploded to 34.1, compared to 26.6 with the Lakers a year ago.

Brooklyn Nets v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

All that heavy lifting works out some nights. Other evenings, like Friday night, it’s a bit of a strain. Russell had 17 points (on 8-for-24 shooting), seven assists, seven rebounds, and three steals against his old team. The guy who replaced him was worse—Lonzo shot the ball 15 times and made three—but the Lakers won, 124-112. No jawing. No hold-me-back moments between the two. In the end, all that nervous energy manifested itself as little more than the NBA equivalent of a shoulder shrug. Even the one-on-one matchups were limited for most of the evening, with the Lakers hiding Ball defensively on just about anyone not named Russell.

That’s one thing the two point guards have in common at least. Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson admitted that Russell has a long way to go as a defender—“He knows it,” Atkinson said—but on the whole, he’s pleased with Russell’s production. As you’d expect, he also defended Russell’s work ethic, leadership, and demeanor. The overall takeaway is that Atkinson and the Nets have afforded Russell the agency and ownership he craved. Atkinson said he stresses to Russell that “We’re in it for the long haul with him,” which undoubtedly goes a long way with Russell given that his haul with the Lakers wasn’t very long at all.

“In L.A., it’s not like college,” Russell said. “The way that Brooklyn runs things seems more college-y. You have a schedule laid out every day, every time, and you know what it is.”

Russell said that, as a young player, you get structure in high school and college, and “you definitely thrive” in that atmosphere, as opposed to when “you get to the NBA and you got no structure, so it’s different.” That’s part of why Brooklyn appeals to him. “I noticed it right away,” Russell said on Friday.

The unambiguous implication is that the Lakers did not provide the same support. (After “the troubles,” team chemistry was so corrosive that some of Russell’s teammates reportedly wouldn’t even eat breakfast with him.) Even so, it’d be hard to fault the Lakers for pushing back on that. The NBA is a league for grown-ups, and there’s a sink-or-swim case to be made about professionalism, independent of age. (In the interest of fairness, that should also apply to the Buss family, which is still recovering from an ugly internecine knife fight.) When Russell’s remarks were relayed to Walton, he had what amounted to an atypically clipped response.

“Structure is good for all players, yes,” he said. Then he stopped and blinked for a bit. He was clearly choosing his words carefully. When pressed further, he added, “You need structure to succeed. Especially when you’re young. So I encourage structure.”

He didn’t overtly state the obvious: that there are sliding scales when it comes to structure. But Walton did say that there are guys like Steph Curry who—specifically on the court—would have their creativity limited if they were “in straight structure all the time.” Not to mention that off the court, Curry is a grown man with a family and well beyond the hand-holding stage.

But there are lots of reasons why Russell isn’t Curry—or, for that matter, Kobe. If the idea was to mold Russell into the new Mamba, the Lakers were quickly divested of that plan. They’re very different people, and they entered the league under wholly different circumstances. But maybe that’s what Magic’s endless point guard/leadership comments are really about—disappointment that Russell was Russell and not just about anyone else.

There’s no shortage of players, coaches, executives, and agents who share stories about how Russell and the Lakers comported themselves. (When I told someone around the Lakers that I watched Russell all but blow off Baron Davis after a game last year, the reply was “Only once?”) But for all the drama, real or overblown, Russell’s return to Cali was outwardly warm. The fans (mostly) cheered when he was introduced. And Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle spoke glowingly about him in advance of his return. He had a mini reunion with them on the court during pregame shootaround and hugged it out with both—first with Clarkson, then Randle.

That had to be an unusual feeling for Russell—being on the floor with them while also being on the floor against them. It had to be a little weird. Afterward, in the cramped closet that passes for the visitors’ locker room at Staples Center, Russell conceded “It was different.” He said that a couple of times.

It initially seemed like he was open to more discussion on the matter, but that was basically where it ended. He was asked about the (mostly) warm reception he got from Lakers fans during the pregame introduction, because he had to be asked about it. In the history of players facing their former teams, that question has never not been asked. The responses are always selected from the same variety pack: (1) It was nice. (2) It was not nice. (3) I did not hear it. Those are the choices. Russell, like the Lakers before him, went in another direction.

“I don’t recall,” Russell said. “I don’t recall.”

It was strange. Either he heard it or he didn’t hear it, but not remembering if he heard it would indicate some serious testifying-before-Congress, rapid-onset dementia that the Nets medical staff should check out immediately. Or maybe he just meant I’m good. I pass. I don’t really want to talk about the Lakers anymore. And if that is what he really meant, you couldn’t blame him.