All the talent in the world can't save upcoming prospects if they don't play in an optimal environment. How many careers have been short-circuited by the incompetence of management in Sacramento? They haven't cracked 38 wins since the 07-08 season despite drafting in the top ten every year. How about Orlando? Six years of tanking post Dwight has netted them a crowded frontcourt and Jerian Grant as their starting PG.
The fact of the matter is, sometimes you just need a change of scenery. No one is aware of that reality more than D'Angelo Russell.
In his rookie season, ya know, the one where you're supposed to get lots of reps and learn the ins and outs of the league? Yeah, he took a front row seat in the circus that was Kobe Bean Bryant's farewell tour. Not a great situation to be in if you're trying to figure out what the heck is going on.
As a 2nd overall pick, he was 3rd in shots per game behind Kobe and Jordan Clarkson. In terms of minutes per game, he was even lower down the totem pole taking a backseat to Kobe, Clarkson, and Lou Williams. Keep in mind that Lou Williams is a two-time 6th man of the year that has made a living off of dominating the ball (Kobe 2.0?) and scoring the rock. Oh, and you can't forget about that Byron Scott guy. Word has it Coach Scott wasn't particularly hospitable or forgiving towards younger players. Yeah, Russell certainly faced some challenges right out of the gate.
We talk a lot about shot attempts, but honestly it's much more than that. In Los Angeles, Russell's growth was stunted due to a lack of direction, some hollywood chaos, and a few backcourt mates that were terrible fits for what he is trying to accomplish in the game.
He escaped it all in a trade that involved a draft pick and Brook Lopez. Russell took the whole experience in stride and said all of the right things after being shipped out. In a interview with ESPN's Marc Spears he mentioned this:
"It was good...I learned a lot from it. It opened my eyes a lot in terms of the business standpoint of this league. It just gave me a better blueprint on how to be a professional."
Spending a season with Kobe Bryant, one of the most competitive human beings on planet Earth will open your eyes to how you approach the game both inside and outside the locker room.
In his first action with the Nets, you could tell Russell attacked the defense with more poise. He's always been a crafty player, but he stepped up his deceptiveness in a nice way in the introduction to 17-18.
In a semi transition scenario, he probably would of forced the issue a couple years ago. Now he slows it down, surveys the court, and flows right into a P&R with Hollis-Jefferson. Jefferson slips here, but still gives Russell enough of an advantage to get Cory Joseph on his hip. Russell uses his excellent deceleration to stop on a dime and get Joseph flying forward after overcompensating for lost ground on the screen. The beautiful sequence is topped off with the application of a smooth, on balance mid range jumper.
Don't be fooled by Russell's iffy field goal percentage: His form is a work of art and actually shot 43% from this area last season- the best mark of his career so far. Stepping outside the arc for a bit, his three point percentage regressed last season to a career low of 33%, but some of that can be contributed to a knee injury he sustained after only 12 games with the Nets. He is still a threat from WAY downtown and it can end badly for the defense if they go under the screen.
Oh by the way, his averages were quite nice while he was healthy.
Take a look at these stat lines from two players last season:
1. 20.9 PPG, 4.7 REB, 5.7 AST
2. 23.1 PPG, 5.3REB, 4.3 AST
Player one is D'Angelo Russell before sustaining the ill-timed injury that lingered throughout the 2018-2019 season. Player two is Victor Oladipo from last season...the 2018 Most Improved Player, I might add.
If D'Angelo can replicate those early season levels of impact, it could be huge for his development going forward. If Oladipo is any indiction, it could mean being in the conversation for a nice distinction as we go through the upcoming NBA campaign. One thing that stands out from D'Angelo's numbers through 12 games is the 5.7 assists average. If I remember correctly, his main selling point leading up to the 2014 draft was passing prowess...not his scoring.
As he repeatedly demonstrated that in college, it certainly helps to gave that great size at the PG position. Huge asset when you're looking for the right read in a half court set. Surprisingly, he has sticked to the simple plays for the most part so far in his NBA career.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember what Russell is capable of. Brooklyn management has got to be banking on him taking the big leap this season. The Nets are making headlines due to the pursuit of a star, but if Russell turns into one, or at least something close to that, then that's one less thing they have to worry about long term. He has made subtle strides in his three years as a professional and now that he is out of Cali and injury free as far as we know, things could finally click here.
This team needs someone to take charge and lead them into their upcoming run at a playoff spot. This 6'5" point guard still has ice in his veins as evidenced by his willingness and success in making big shots. What better man to step up as the alpha than one that is looking to rediscover this insatible confidence.