- The Lakers gave up on him. He was banished to an unknown situation in Brooklyn. Now he is an All-Star and leader on one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. Here is the story behind D'Angelo Russell's breakout season.
He knew the call was coming, but D’Angelo Russell still had to let it sink in.
It was Friday, Feb. 1, and Russell was just coming off of another strong January performance, this time a 25-point outing against the San Antonio Spurs. The Brooklyn Nets guard was playing the best basketball of his young career, so there was no reason to be surprised when he heard the news. Every big game and every Nets win brought him one day closer to taking the court with the NBA’s best in Charlotte.
But as he sat there on the team’s flight to Orlando, replaying what his coach had just told him seconds earlier, Russell had a hard time holding in his tears. The moment he’d been dreaming of had just become reality. The invite was official.
D’Angelo Russell was an NBA All-Star.
"It gave me chills," head coach Kenny Atkinson said about delivering the news. "I'm an emotional coach, emotional person. I didn't cry, but I got emotional. There was a lot of work put in, No. 1 by him, the work he's put in; staying here all offseason, really working his tail off. To see him be rewarded, it's a great testament to his work ethic."
It was only a matter of time before the honor came. In what was deemed by many a make-or-break year for the fourth-year guard, Russell so far is making it, posting career highs in points (19.6), assists (6.4), field goal percentage (.437), 3-point field goal percentage (.374) and free throw percentage (.818) through 54 games this season.
Russell has been especially dominant since the calendar flipped to 2019, scoring at least 20 points in 12 of 15 games in January. He averaged 23.8 points, 7.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, shooting 47.9% overall and 41.3% from three-point range. He set a Nets record with 50 three-pointers made, the most any player has made in a single month in franchise history.
He scored 40 points during a comeback-win against the Magic on Jan. 18 and was awarded his first career Player of the Week honor two days later. His celebration? Burying the Kings with 31 points on 7-for-14 shooting from three.
“It's a blessing," said Russell of the honor following that win. "I want to thank God for that, putting me in a position to do that, my teammates, the coaching staff. I want to keep going. It's something you can really take time and appreciate it right now as player of the week, but I think we've got bigger goals in mind as far as the next game, taking each game, putting that as our main priority and taking advantage of it."
Brooklyn has certainly been taking advantage, winning six straight in the month of January and 20 of their last 29. The Nets currently sit at sixth in the Eastern Conference, their first playoff berth since 2015 well within reach.
“There's no fear," Atkinson said of Russell’s recent play. "He believes in himself. He's got tremendous, tremendous confidence.”
That confidence is what had Russell believing his All-Star days were coming sooner rather than later. Still, even with the play to back up the honor, it was hard for Russell to believe it was actually happening.
“I'm going to be star struck. I'm not going to lie,” Russell said. “At the end of the day, I'm 22. A lot of these guys are a little older than me, so I watched them on TV. Dreamed of playing in that game. I can't imagine being in an All-Star Game, knowing that you're among some of the best of the best. I was in awe on the plane. I’m a crier, honestly. I was holding my tears in.”
There was a reason behind Russell’s emotion. At just 22-years-old, Russell has already experienced his fair share of turmoil.
A college All-American at Ohio State, Russell was drafted second overall by Lakers in 2015 with high expectations at just 19 years old. He showed flashes of potential as a scorer and passer early, but by year two in Los Angeles, Russell’s image started taking a different shape.
His leadership was questioned. Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson didn’t try to hide his displeasure with Russell, emphasizing that the Lakers needed someone "that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with.”
His maturity was disparaged. After a secretly taped video exchange with then-teammate Nick Young leaked out and ended the latter’s relationship with singer Iggy Azalea, Russell, whose Snapchat reportedly was hacked, tried to apologize, but the damage was already done.
After just 143 games, the Lakers gave up on him. He was banished to Brooklyn, sent packing in a trade with Timofey Mozgov for Brook Lopez and a 2017 first-round draft pick that became Kyle Kuzma.
Russell accepted his fate without much hesitation. In fact, he was looking forward to it, a fresh new start in a brand new city. But Russell’s early days in Brooklyn didn’t look very promising. His debut season was a relatively disappointing one, with Russell’s scoring average decreasing and his turnover rates a career-high despite playing a career-low 25.7 minutes per game.
Russell could hear it in his head—the words that made up his image in L.A.—screaming louder as he sat for nearly two months last year after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
Talented but inconsistent. Discarded from the team that drafted him. Overshadowed by his backup for most of the season.
But Russell was having none of it. This year was his to own, and nothing was going to get in his way. “I trust my craft,” Russell said he told himself. “I trust my craft and I knew what I was capable of."
His teammates knew he had it in him, too. The leadership that was doubted? The maturity some said he didn’t have? Jarrett Allen sees a different picture, one where even if Russell isn’t scoring, he’s making an impact. One that showcases the 22-year-old’s diverse skill set, where he’s making passes from different angles for easy layups, driving and freezing defenders with ball fakes and using his special court vision to thread passes through tight windows. One where Russell is a selfless, energizing leader, the leader the Nets needed.
“He’s been through a lot, but he’s grown because of it,” Allen said. “Even when he doesn’t have a good game or when he’s off, and someone else needs to take his place, he’s still doing stuff others don’t see, on the bench talking to us, helping us out, making defensive and offensive readings.
"It says a lot about his selflessness, and it gives us a lot of energy. It shows us that––even though when he has a bad game, he could easily just be pouty and sad––he wants to be a part of the team and see us improve and be in the game. That’s growth, right there.”
Allen isn’t the only one who sees it that way. Five-year veteran guard Joe Harris agrees, praising Russell’s embodiment of the team’s spirit.
“Everything that we do offensively, he is the lifeblood of us,” Harris said. “Everything flows through him. 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."
Russell is also lucky to have landed with the Nets, a team whose culture Russell believes was instrumental in getting him where he is today.
“For myself, I can say that I have been through so much,” Russell said. “I didn’t know how to be a professional. So to come around this organization, they nurtured how to be a professional. You're around it every day. There's no let-offs. Everybody's two feet in on just being in for everybody else instead of yourself. I needed that, that reassurances, and almost that humbling experience just coming to a new organization where they take pride into that.”
That development—that investment Russell felt firsthand—is the reason the 6’5” guard believes the future is bright in Brooklyn. He doesn’t know exactly what the future holds, but he knows how far he’s come.
And if every journey leads to playing with the best of the best, Russell will welcome it with open arms.
“Just to get this opportunity, I’m lost for words,” Russell said. “The coaches that I've had, my teammates that I've met throughout this journey, it's something that you can't take away. It almost feels like a degree. You can't take that away from somebody. You get that one All-Star, two, you never know when you're going to get that opportunity again. I'm forever blessed for that."