Being the center of attention in the Hollywood is not an easy burden to carry.
As soon as he was taken second overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, D’Angelo Russell had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Perhaps the most historic franchise in the entire league, the Los Angeles Lakers needed something, anything to get back on the road to prominence. The foundation of that path was a 19-year-old freshman out of Ohio State with sky-high potential.
Russell’s rookie campaign did not go as planned. While in instances he showed the dazzling display of talent that made him so sought after in the first place, it just wasn’t consistent enough. Then-head coach Byron Scott did not appreciate the efforts put forth and in-turn punished him throughout different parts of the year. His teammates lost trust in him after the infamous Nick Young SnapChat scandal. On top of all that, it was Kobe Bryant’s swan song season.
Scott was fired after a disappointing finish and the Lakers found their new leader three days later—Golden State Warriors assistant coach and former player Luke Walton. This relationship was immediately a better fit for Russell.
Everybody knew that Los Angeles wasn’t going to have the best record, but Scott made matters worse by relying on his veterans too heavily and didn’t spend much time developing his young players. Walton possessed an inverse philosophy. He wanted to win games, but simultaneously get his guys important on-court experience.
Without a coach holding him back and the pressure of Bryant’s farewell tour, Russell could take hold of the reigns and lead the Lakers into a new era.
Year two wasn’t much better, though. After a solid start to the year for Los Angeles and himself, Russell dealt with some knee issues that sidelined him for a couple of weeks. By that time, the team’s record plummeted from above .500 to below. The inexperience caught up to them fast and soon they were back in the basement of the Western Conference.
In February, the direction of the franchise shifted. Lakers president Jeanie Buss canned general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of basketball operations, Jim Buss. Magic Johnson was brought aboard in a stunning move to overtake the operation and oversee a brand new front office. Right then and there, things started to change.
Johnson wasn’t going to wait long before shaking things up. As impatience with Russell began to mount, an infatuation with Lonzo Ball came along with it. Knowing Los Angeles was going to be set for a top three pick in the draft lottery, pundits pegged the UCLA freshman phenomenon as the perfect future face of the franchise. This was still with months left to go in the season, and it all but confirmed Russell’s days were numbered in the purple and gold.
The suspicions were confirmed on June 20th, when the Lakers sent Russell and the hefty contract of Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the draft, which turned out to be Kyle Kuzma.
Nets general manager Sean Marks saw an opportunity and struck gold. With little flexibility and hardly any assets, it’s been difficult for the franchise to invest in the future to improve the roster. Couple that with the fact that they’ve been at the bottom of the Eastern Conference in back-to-back years and it’s clear that things haven’t been great.
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Marks has done yeoman’s work in upgrading personnel and player talent. It started with the hiring of Kenny Atkinson before last season and it’s continued this summer. Through the draft and trades, Brooklyn has added Jarrett Allen, Allen Crabbe, and DeMarre Carroll along with Russell and Mozgov. It’s not a complete overhaul, but it’s enough to be optimistic about the organization moving forward.
Russell is the crown jewel of the offseason for the Nets. He’s got the skillset to be successful as a starting guard in the league, and he also is a bit of a mystery regarding how high his ceiling can be. Remember, the kid is only going into his third year and is 21 years old.
Watching him in college, and the pros in some cases, it’s obvious that Russell refuses to back down from a challenge. He’s a player that demands the ball with the game on the line and has the ability to be a dependable go-to guy in those situations. If he can bring forth that same aggressiveness and attitude every single game, there’s no question he can be “the man” in Brooklyn.
Looking at the negatives, it’s going to take some work for him on the defensive end. There’s often an uncertainty when it comes to his efforts guarding his opponents. He goes for the steal too frequently, and when unsuccessful, his opponents blow right by him. That’s fixable though, especially with a player’s coach like Atkinson.
Strength-wise, there’s a ton of upside. He has his ebbs and flows, but Russell is a sharpshooter from beyond the arc. He’s an expert at distributing the basketball when asked to be a floor general, especially with his bounce passes. For a player with just two years of experience, he does an excellent job taking care of the basketball (average of fewer than three turnovers per game). Perhaps the most dangerous thing about him is his own confidence.
As far as adjusting from life in L.A. to New York, Russell is already embracing his new home. Recently, he was playing in a street ball tournament with teammates Isaiah Whitehead and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at Dyckman Park. The trio came out victorious because of Russell’s game-winning three-ball and the crowd went nuts. It was a fitting introduction for the Nets’ new potential star.
With the drama and pressure left behind on the west coast, Russell has officially pushed the reset button. It’s a new opportunity with new teammates and a different coach.
He’s started a new life that he can look forward to with a franchise that believes in him. With a fresh start, a player’s coach in Atkinson and the collective support of his new franchise and teammates, it seems the talented guard is destined for superstardom in Brooklyn.
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