Brooklyn Nets

D’Angelo Russell is having the breakout no one planned for

Discarded from the team that drafted him and overshadowed by his backup for most of the season, D’Angelo Russell is finally taking over in Brooklyn.

As a former No. 2 overall pick and point guard for the league’s premier franchise in the Los Angeles Lakers, D’Angelo Russell burst into the NBA with high expectations and unceasing confidence to match but his move into the tighter structure and bigger opportunity available as the lead playmaker in Brooklyn has ultimately made the difference in his breakout.

In the ten games since the start of 2019, Russell is averaging 24.0 points and 7.5 assists per game and crashing the 50/40/90 party. He put together a 40-point masterpiece on Friday night at home, leading the Nets to a comeback win over Orlando, the team’s 16th win in its last 21 games. He followed that up with a 31-point, 8-assist game in a huge win over the Kings on MLK Day. Russell is one of the biggest reasons for the Nets sudden upswing, but initial pessimism followed him from one coast to the other when the Lakers dealt him to Brooklyn back in 2017.

Los Angeles effectively chose the sensational Lonzo Ball over Russell when they used the Ohio State alum as a chip to move Timofey Mosgov’s bloated contract. They clearly had their eyes on big fish like LeBron James and Paul George, and likely believed Ball not only had greater two-way potential but would fit better with superstars. Russell’s style of play only made sense if he could run the offense. Bereft of talent and in the throes of a rebuild, Brooklyn gladly took on the challenge of developing Russell and turned its offense over to the 21-year-old.

The smooth playmaker put together a performance in his third season nearly identical to his second. As other top prospects from his draft class (including best friend Devin Booker) inked life-changing contract extensions, Russell continued working on his game.

“(An extension’s) not something I can control, so I just want to play, to be honest,” Russell told The Athletic over the summer. “That’s really been my main focus. … As a team, there’s a lot that we can really work on. Those have really been outweighing my thoughts on an extension and all of that.”

The Nets were more concerned with Russell staying healthy and buying into their system than what his eventual price tag would be. This year, Russell has missed just one game and lately is playing like an All-Star.

“I think we’ve been good for each other in terms of he’s got a great imagination, a really good IQ about the game,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson told The Athletic. “But all the little things you have to do in this league to be a consistent player in the NBA, I think he’s maturing and learning.”

Despite Russell’s electric play recently, what’s most exciting is how much room he still has to grow. He’s a bit of a Jamal Murray East in terms of the way he can take a game over with his shooting while simultaneously instilling excitement about what comes next.

Russell is shooting just 51 percent at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass, and inconsistency putting in shots through contact is by far the biggest hole in his game. It creates a ripple effect that limits his production — Russell almost has to shoot the lights out to put up big scoring nights. His monster 40-point performance in Orlando over the weekend came on 25 shots. He didn’t get to the line once.

In fact, as Russell continues to fill out his body and develop strength around the basket, teams are taking advantage of the one weak part of his offensive skill set. Opponents foul Russell on just 3.8 percent of his shot attempts, leading to a minuscule 10.7 percent free throw rate. Both numbers put him near the bottom of the league and certainly don’t paint the picture of a dominant scorer. On the year, Russell has shot just 1.8 free throws per game on average but his creativity and feel create space for efficient shots.

It’s working for Brooklyn. Most of their best lineups feature Russell — whose usage rate is a soaring 30 percent — running things. General manager Sean Marks sang his praises in an interview with local radio hosts last summer, saying, “I can’t question his basketball skills and IQ because they’re at a different level.” It’s always a good idea to make the guy who could give you a new contract look smart, and that’s just what Russell has done, putting Marks’ acquisition of the ball-handler near the top of the Nets’ general manager’s growing list of great decisions.

Whereas in Los Angeles, Russell was a turnover-prone scorer with tunnel vision directed at his own shots, in Brooklyn he has become a patient part of Brooklyn’s motion system. Russell has one of the most fluid handles in the league and he uses his unpredictable dribble moves to create for himself and others. His dribble never dies, and he shimmies this way and that to jab the defense into crooked decalibration.

Brooklyn spaces the floor better than almost any team in the league with a four-out system and a quickly developing interior monster in Jarrett Allen. The players around Russell convince the defense to give him room to operate, and he punishes. Just when you think he’s headed downhill, he hikes back up to the arc and it’s bombs away.

Russell’s chemistry with Allen is developing nicely. Allen has soft hands, moves well and gets out of Russell’s way. Their two-man game is tough to read, knowing Russell is a threat to pull up in an instant.

The Nets know they can get efficient offense out of Russell and Allen. The more uncertain tandem moving forward is Russell and his backup Spencer Dinwiddie, who extended for three years and $34 million last month.

With both Russell and Dinwiddie on the court, Brooklyn scores just 105 points per 100 possessions, a paltry number that would place them just ahead of the Suns — a team with no true point guard — on the year. Yet when Dinwiddie operates without Russell, the Nets’ offense soars to the equivalent of a top-five offensive rating, according to Cleaning the Glass. Units featuring Russell without Dinwiddie circle near Brooklyn’s season-long efficiency.

This summer will present Brooklyn with big questions for its future. The Nets can create nearly $29 million in cap space by renouncing all their cap holds aside from Russell, just below the amount necessary to offer a max contract to someone like Jimmy Butler or Kyrie Irving but plenty to add second- or third-tier free agents such as Tobias Harris.

In December, when the Nets’ other breakout star, Caris LeVert, went down with an injury, many would have believed it too early for Brooklyn to be aggressive with its cap space. But if they integrate LeVert back in successfully, make noise in the first round of the playoffs and boast a legitimate core trio of playmakers in Russell, Dinwiddie and LeVert? That’s an appealing situation for a star.

Next: Can the Pelicans use the trade deadline to build around Anthony Davis?

Brooklyn can create no-doubt max cap space by attaching a first-round pick (or perhaps someone like Dzanan Musa) to Allen Crabbe’s $18 million price tag for 2020-21. That would allow them to keep Russell and upgrade the roster elsewhere. Locking Dinwiddie in on a value contract for a reserve guard makes it more palatable to keep both. The Nets can also shop bench playmaker Shabazz Napier, who was puzzlingly signed as insurance at the guard spot this past summer on a two-year deal. Brooklyn has options at point guard to maintain the depth it has at the position and keep its finances clean.

Patience is paying off for the Nets in their rebuild and Russell is the latest breakout player to make the most of the wide-open opportunity Brooklyn offers young players who work hard.

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