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D’Angelo Russell Is on the Rise

Russell used to be the future of the Lakers; now is he the future of the Nets? The oft-criticized guard is finally living up to the hype in Brooklyn, and making a compelling case for an All-Star spot.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

D’Angelo Russell had been on a roll for two solid months, drilling shots and threading needles as one of the playmaking forces behind the Brooklyn Nets’ surprising rise out of NBA purgatory. But early in the fourth quarter of Monday’s visit to TD Garden to take on the Boston Celtics, the 22-year-old guard hit a speed bump:

After whiffing on a handful of effort plays in about 15 seconds—missing box outs, failing to come up with loose balls, floating on the periphery rather than crashing the glass, allowing the Celtics four chances to extend their lead—Russell picked up an offensive foul for charging through Marcus Morris with his off arm on a drive. Nets coach Kenny Atkinson had seen enough; out came Russell, in went reserve guard Shabazz Napier. Russell spent the final 8:42 watching from the bench as Boston finished off a 112-104 win.

After the game, Atkinson confirmed that he yanked Russell, who had scored 14 of his team-high 25 points in the third quarter, for that lack of rebounding effort. A “teachable moment,” the coach called it. It was also a moment when the fourth-year pro could have bristled—I’m our leading scorer and assist man, the best player you’ve got right now, and you’re benching me over a rebound?—and killed the kumbaya vibe that has attended Brooklyn’s ascent. (He wouldn’t have been alone in fuming; Anthony Puccio of NetsDaily wrote that “it felt like they quit on this game” when Atkinson sat Russell.)

Instead, Russell responded like a veteran.

“Whatever Coach’s decision was, I’m buying with it,” he told reporters. “He’s got us this far, so I’m trusting his moves. I missed a rebound, [a] 50-50 play that set him off a little bit. I’ve got to be better—something I’ve got to think about going into the next one.”

In the next one, against the admittedly cadaverous Bulls, Russell looked like a man intent on keeping a good thing going:

Russell was pristine on Tuesday, scoring a game-high 30 points (24 in the second half) with seven assists, four rebounds, three steals, and no turnovers in 35 minutes of work to help Brooklyn hold off Chicago. Since the NBA started tracking turnovers in 1977, only 13 players have recorded multiple games of 30 or more points, seven or more dimes, and zero cough-ups in a single season, and entering 2018-19 no one had managed more than two in a campaign. Russell now has notched three such games since mid-December. That’s eye-popping, and it’s perfectly in keeping with what has been a career-redefining run for the no. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA draft.

Over the past 25 games, Russell has averaged 21.1 points, 7.1 assists, and 3.6 rebounds in 30 minutes per game, shooting 47.1 percent from the field, 39.2 percent from the 3-point line on more than seven attempts a night, and 90.5 percent from the free throw line. He has everything working right now: The herky-jerk staccato rhythm that wrongfoots defenders and creates space to rise up; the patience and vision in the pick-and-roll to weaponize both rolling bigs and weakside shooters; the touch to slip passes through tight windows, hit contested floaters and midrange jumpers, and knock down quick-release triples off screens.

Pick your advanced stat of choice—box plus-minus, value over replacement player, win shares, player efficiency rating, real plus-minus, player impact plus-minus, player impact estimate—and in most of them, Russell’s in the mix as one of the 10 or 15 most effective point guards in the league. His production has helped the Nets weather a slew of injuries and continue the upswing that has seen Brooklyn win 20 of its past 26 games.

Nets wing Joe Harris recently called Russell “sort of the lifeblood of [...] everything that we do offensively.” Veteran DeMarre Carroll called him “the head of the snake” on a team that has the East’s third-best record since the start of December. The guard has played himself into a new stratosphere, becoming a dark-horse pick for a reserve Eastern Conference All-Star spot, with injuries to Spencer Dinwiddie and 2018 All-Star Victor Oladipo bolstering his candidacy.

In mid-2017, Russell was a sweetener to shed Timofey Mozgov’s mind-boggling contract. (Watching Russell bloom as Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball continue to struggle to make a consistent impact might have some Lakers fans gritting their teeth; at least L.A. hit on Kyle Kuzma with the draft pick it got in the Russell/Mozgov-for–Brook Lopez swap.) In early 2019, though, considering Russell the centerpiece of a potential Anthony Davis trade might not get you laughed out of a lot of NBA war rooms.

After failing to come to an agreement with the Nets on an extension of his rookie contract before the start of the season, Russell will hit restricted free agency this summer. With every high-efficiency, low-turnover, buckets-in-bunches performance, he’s making himself more and more money.

ESPN’s Bobby Marks wrote that “Russell’s [2019-20] salary is projected to fall well below his cap hold,” which slots in at just above $21 million. That might have been what the Nets were thinking heading into the season, having just watched two former high-lottery point guards who hadn’t broken out as stars, Boston’s Marcus Smart and Utah’s Dante Exum, get a four-year, $52 million contract and a three-year, $33 million deal, respectively, in restricted free agency. But neither one of those guys has shown the combination of shooting, scoring, playmaking, and efficiency that Russell has over the past two months. If he keeps this up, is it outside the realm of possibility that a team with money to spend and a need at the point might throw caution to the wind and present Russell with an offer sheet more in line with the four-year, $78 million deal that the Sacramento Kings gave Zach LaVine last summer?

Maybe that’s too rich an estimate. Even considering his strong recent work, there are holes in Russell’s game. He lacks explosive athleticism, which can make it tough for him to get to the rim (only 17 percent of his field goal attempts this season have come at the basket, ranking him in just the 15th percentile among guards, according to Cleaning the Glass) and even tougher for him to finish there (he’s shooting a career-worst 50 percent at the rim, putting him in the 12th percentile among guards).

With his slight frame, Russell tends to shy away from contact, which can be harmful on both ends. Of 47 qualifying players who are using at least 25 percent of their teams’ offensive possessions this season, Russell has, by far, the lowest free throw rate. Those same instincts also limit his effectiveness as a defender; he can struggle to get through screens, and doesn’t always give his best effort when it’s time to help in the paint and get into the fight. (See: the possession that got him benched in Boston.) And given how much he’s blossomed under Atkinson, it’s fair to wonder whether his stop-and-start, midrange-heavy game would look quite as good alongside fewer shooters with worse spacing and less room to operate.

Warts and all, though, Russell’s a bona fide offensive talent at the point whose next contract will contain his athletic peak; somebody’s going to pay for that. The Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns—who happen to be led by one of Russell’s best friends—will be out there this summer, with money to spend and a need at the point. The Nets could head any dilemma off at the pass by hitting Russell with a big offer of their own as free agency opens, but after not extending him last summer while giving Dinwiddie a new extension last month and reportedly viewing Caris LeVert as a ballhandling playmaker of the future, you might wonder whether they may prefer to let someone else set Russell’s market.

If a team does give Russell a hefty offer sheet, it’ll be very interesting to see what general manager Sean Marks does. Will he match to retain Russell as a building block, or even just to keep him under control as an asset? Or will he keep his powder dry, knowing that he can open up to $46 million in cap space by letting Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson walk, and that the rest of Brooklyn’s emerging young core might be enticing enough to allow him to go big-game hunting?

It took a high-profile debacle in Los Angeles, a sell-low trade, and two seasons of slow and steady growth under esteemed point guard developer Atkinson, but Russell has emerged as the smooth-scoring, mature playmaker many envisioned when he was drafted out of Ohio State. As cool as it’s been to watch him arrive, though, it might be even more fascinating to watch where he goes from here.