D’Angelo Russell’s tenure with the Brooklyn Nets has gotten off to an excellent start, and it’s far different than his time with the Los Angeles Lakers.
After two unsuccessful seasons in Hollywood, the Lakers elected to trade the former second overall pick to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the draft rights to Kyle Kuzma. The decision came with split reactions. There were Laker fans who were thrilled that the “snitch” was no longer in the locker room, but there was also a section of the fanbase who felt that Russell got the raw end of the deal because no one put him in a position to thrive. Over here on the east coast, optimism was at an all-time high.
In Russell’s two years, Los Angeles won 43 total games. The front office had no plan with anything. After an incredible freshman season with the Ohio State Buckeyes (19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists), the Lakers felt comfortable taking Russell second overall with the hope that he could lead them back to prosperity. At the time, it wasn’t an ideal situation for any rookie. The 2015-16 season was all Kobe Bryant’s because it was his farewell tour. No one expected Los Angeles to win many games with the focus of the season being Kobe’s past. Regardless, Russell played fine and averaged 13.2 points and 3.3 assists in 80 games.
He became a hot commodity in college because of his natural and crafty scoring ability. Russell has the size and skill to play either guard spot. At Ohio State, he torched defenses on a nightly basis with a stroke from the perimeter that paired nicely with a handle that allowed him to knife through defenders. What also helped — and this is something that we can’t overlook — was that Thad Matta didn’t rely on him to play point guard all the time. Russell is a score-first player who’s not focused on making his teammates better. That’s not an indictment on him. He’ll make the right play if that’s his only option, but he’s getting the ball to create a bucket.
Shannon Scott was the Buckeyes’ starting point guard during Russell’s freshman season. Having a four-year player at that position is huge because he’s going to make the right play no matter what it is, and he also knows how to properly facilitate an offense and get the ball to his playmakers. Once Russell went to the Lakers, that all changed. Basketball Reference estimates he spent 86 percent of his minutes as a rookie at the one.
It’s a challenge for teams to deploy rookie point guards. What’s tougher is deploying a rookie point guard who isn’t a natural point guard. There’s so much nuance to the position that’s impossible to learn in one season, and the Lakers didn’t have any veterans on the roster to serve as teachers.
During that first season, aside from the losing, things were smooth. Russell had developed a friendship with Nick Young, who was his teammate at the time. At some point, the two had a conversation about Young’s infidelity with then-fiance Iggy Azalea. Russell recorded their talk and the video somehow leaked. From there, it was all downhill. The Lakers lost trust in their lottery pick, and Russell faced endless torment from almost everyone. Was he deserving? To a certain degree, yes. It wasn’t right to record a private conversation where one party was speaking in confidence to another, and I understand why people in the organization felt the way they did. However, I must ask — why was Young comfortable telling a teenager about him cheating on his fiance? If you’re going to question Russell’s judgment, at least do the same for Young.
(I’ve never cheated on anyone so I don’t know about that code. Are you supposed to be open about it? My gut tells me no; that’s something you hold to yourself because that’s damaging evidence if it ever gets out. If the government is vehement about keeping aliens a secret, shouldn’t you do the same with your side chicks?)
That whole fiasco has been over with for some time. Both guys have moved on. It did, however, leave a bad taste in the mouth of the front office and it’s not a coincidence that we heard D’Angelo Russell trade rumors once Lonzo Ball started entering high lottery territory. Magic Johnson became enamored with Ball because he saw a lot of himself. Lonzo is a pure point guard whose contagious passing had a showtime effect on the UCLA Bruins. Magic also felt that Ball was a better leader than Russell. The Lakers drafted Zo second overall in the 2017 draft. DLo was gone that same day.
In the aftermath of the trade, I scoured NBA.com and watched hours of video to see why Los Angeles gave up on a potential star. Russell made improvements in his second year as a scorer (15.6 points) and a passer (4.8 assists), and I’m sure he would’ve welcomed Ball because that would’ve meant more minutes as the off-guard. The answer lies in how they wanted to play. Magic is hellbent on bringing the Lakers back to glory, and entertainment is just as important as winning. I don’t believe they would’ve returned to showtime status with Russell running the show, but that doesn’t mean they’d spend their future in mediocrity.
Because Brooklyn was on the hunt for a young, dynamic playmaker, they jumped on this offer — even though it meant sending Brook Lopez across the country (I didn’t cry, I promise). The fans welcomed Russell with open arms. He sounded enthused to be somewhere new, where he could start a new chapter of his playing career. Throughout the summer, Magic sent subtle shots in Russell’s direction and not once did he respond, which is a testament to his newfound maturity. The most exciting prospect, though, was how Russell would work in Kenny Atkinson’s system.
A huge issue with the Lakers was that they had no identity on offense. The Nets are going to move the rock and shoot threes. After four games, Russell’s been exciting to watch. Heading into Wednesday’s contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Russell’s averaging 23.0 points and 5.5 assists with a true shooting clip of 56.1 percent.
Brooklyn has shown us that their offense is undoubtedly one of the league’s most potent; they’re first in points scored per game (123.5), second in free throws made (26.8) and tied for second in field goals made (43.0). Russell is the centerpiece. The Lakers didn’t get around to building an offense that intimidating.
Brooklyn is one of the more well-spaced teams in the league to start the year. Russell is a key contributor to that. He’s made 9-of-23 triples to start, which works out to 39.1 percent, four percentage points higher than what he shot with the Lakers.
Any player who’s versatile on offense opens up the game when their three is falling consistently. Russell is no different. He’s not an explosive athlete like John Wall or Russell Westbrook, but he does a great job of changing speeds on his dribble moves and using his body to protect the ball when penetrating. Most importantly, Russell doesn’t force any of his shots; he watches how the defender responds and adjusts. If the Nets believe they have their star of the future, at some point, he’ll have to make the defense react to him instead of the other way around. However, Russell has created a solid foundation in his new home. It’s amazing what a change of scenery can do for a player.
I don’t know what it is, but Russell just looks different. The free-flowing offense helps, but I think getting out of Los Angeles has also freed up his mind and he’s no longer burdened by an organization that doesn’t want anything to do with him.
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