Nets’ Russell Thriving in Leadership Role
Named Player of the Week before dropping 31 on visiting Kings
Best Leading Man wasn’t the category D’Angelo Russell was expected to be nominated for prior to this 2018-19 season of resurgence for the Brooklyn Nets.
But it is Oscar season, and unexpected nominations will be all the rage from now until they hand out those coveted gold statuettes.
In fact, one of the biggest question marks hanging above Russell’s head after he was acquired by general manager Sean Marks during the summer of 2017 was whether or not the talented but enigmatic point guard could become a true leader.
Forty-eight games into his second full season with the Nets, it’s hard to deny that the still-blossoming 22-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, native is becoming just that for Downtown’s NBA franchise.
After being named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Martin Luther King Day, Russell went out and backed up the honor with a game-high 31 points Monday night as the Nets remained the NBA’s hottest squad with a 123-94 rout of the Sacramento Kings in front of 14,233 fans at Barclays Center.
Questioned for his lack of leadership skills by Los Angeles Lakers Team President Magic Johnson on his way out of La-La Land, Russell suffered through an injury-plagued 2017-18 campaign here before finding his groove this season.
He averaged 28 points and seven assists per contest last week, including a career high-tying 40-point performance in last Friday’s comeback win over Orlando. More importantly, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound playmaker has improved in virtually every aspect of his previously suspect game.
On Monday, Russell’s hot shooting — he finished 12-for-25 overall, including 7-of-14 from 3-point range — wasn’t the only contribution he made to Brooklyn’s sixth consecutive win at Barclays and 17th win in the past 22 games overall.
He also dished out eight assists, grabbed four rebounds, blocked a shot, picked up a steal and didn’t commit a single turnover during 32 scintillating minutes of court time.
It was the type of effort that should fortify Russell’s bid to become an NBA All-Star next month, but it also strengthened his position as the team’s go-to player when the going gets tough.
With the Nets down by seven points at the half, Russell turned the third quarter into his personal All-Star audition tape.
He buried four 3-pointers and made five shots overall during the period, fueling a 22-4 burst that put Brooklyn in front to stay.
“Those pull-up threes are something,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson gushed of Russell’s dead-eye display from deep.
“Those are [reigning NBA MVP James] Harden-esque,” he added. “They switch, and he gives a couple moves, couple dribbles and punishes the switch with the pull-up three. And then I thought, later, he mixed in the drive against the switches.”
Russell also intimated that after yielding 60 first-half points, the Nets were committed to slowing Sacramento’s transition game over the final 24 minutes.
“We wanted to make it a focal point of our defense to get back and make plays,” he noted after helping Brooklyn fortify its grip on sixth place in the ongoing Eastern Conference playoff race.
Though he currently leads the Nets (25-23) in scoring (19.2 points per game) and assists (6.4 per contest), the most impressive stat in this breakthrough campaign for Brooklyn has been Russell’s consistency.
He has started and played in all but one of the Nets’ games thus far and is shooting at a 44 percent clip from the floor, including nearly 38 percent from long range, impressive numbers considering the volume of shots he has taken as the team’s primary scoring option.
“I think you’re just seeing him playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Joe Harris said of Russell after pouring in 19 points and pulling down seven boards himself against the Kings.
“Everything that we do offensively, he is the lifeblood of us,” Harris added.
That wasn’t always the sentiment here when Russell was limited to 48 games, including 35 starts, due to a left knee injury during his initial Brooklyn campaign.
Many presumed that Marks would jettison Russell out of Brooklyn prior to next month’s trade deadline or this coming offseason after he declined to pick up the option year on the Ohio State alum’s rookie deal.
But now it’s looking more and more like Russell will be a key figure in attracting other stars here next summer when the Nets will have control of their own first-round pick for the first time since 2013 and upwards of $60 million to spend in free agency.
The player who experienced well-chronicled growing pains in Los Angeles is experiencing a growth spurt right in front of our eyes here in Brooklyn, and his teammates are following his lead into serious playoff contention.
“Everything flows through [Russell],” Harris insisted. “He does a really good job of dictating the pace, getting guys in rhythm and just doing a really good job on every level.
“He does a really good job facilitating for others and himself. Obviously, we are really lucky to have a player of his caliber on our team.”
Nothing But Net: The Nets haven’t lost a game at Barclays since Dec. 21 and are 13-11 at home this season despite winning just three of their first 14 games on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. “I feel the momentum building with the fans,” Atkinson said of the Barclays crown. “I hear it. I hear the rhetoric in the stands.” … The Nets will continue their three-game homestand here Wednesday night against Orlando before finishing it up Friday evening vs. the arch rival New York Knicks.
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