D'Angelo Russell Is Breaking Free

Leo Sepkowitz

Rewind to Thursday, Feb. 7. It’s the afternoon. It’s the NBA trade deadline and a particularly busy one at that. A quarter of the league might be gunning for Anthony Davis, and everybody else might be moving their best players, or sitting tight, or getting antsy, depending on the latest update, though—ding!—there’s been another update since that one. And yet somehow it is totally calm here in Brooklyn, New York, at the Nets’ training facility. Over the East River, the crosstown rivals traded their franchise player for a dream, but there is none of that funny business here. No, the Nets are insulated from the drama that has captured the NBA. Last night, they handled the rolling Denver Nuggets, leading by as many as 20 points in a victory. Brooklyn is growing more cohesive by the day. The wins keep coming, keeping everyone at ease. This is a pace that suits the team’s star, D'Angelo Russell.

“When we come here, it’s love,” he says. He just finished practicing with his shoes off, sliding across the court in socks alone, casually flinging jumpers. It’s just that type of day. If any noise creeps in from the chaos outside, it’s only because Jared Dudley, the 12th-year veteran and Twitter fiend, is closely tracking his phone as he paces the open gym.

Russell sits comfortably on a long cushioned bench that lines one facility wall, which is a series of massive windows. “I’ve never won in this league, and it’s an art to win in this league. It’s so hard. To finally get some type of that, it’s like refreshing, you know?” he says. “I’m just riding that wave.”

For months, there has been something mysterious elevating the Nets, a sort of secret sauce lathered on every victory. The team has 29 wins after totaling 28 last year; its 21-12 record since Dec. 5 is a 52-win pace. Contributions have come from everywhere—the mark of a connected team. Rodions Kurucs, an unheralded second-round pick, has started 29 games. Treveon Graham, an undrafted third-year player, has started 14. Two of the Nets’ best players, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, are former G Leaguers. When Dinwiddie recently injured his thumb, Shabazz Napier, a journeyman on a one-year guarantee, and Theo Pinson, an undrafted rookie, combined for 37 points in their first game replacing him—a victory, of course. In Brooklyn, there is a success story at every turn.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Russell is perhaps the greatest one. Two years ago, the Nets acquired him from Los Angeles in what amounted to a salary dump for the Lakers after Russell’s tenure in L.A. turned sour. Two weeks ago, he was named an NBA All-Star. It is the first nod for him and the first for the Nets since Joe Johnson five years ago. Russell, 22, has enjoyed a breakthrough fourth season, especially in recent months—he is averaging 21.3 points and 7.2 assists per game since Thanksgiving. He is among the dozen or so best closers in the game—only a handful of players have taken as many clutch-time shots as Russell (47) while hitting at a comparable clip (44.7 percent). He has long been praised for his court vision—and his assists have climbed for a fourth straight season—but his scoring sets him apart now. Commanding the Nets’ system, which relies heavily on high screens, he has shown brilliant offensive flexibility.

This season, when defenders have gone underneath screens, Russell is shooting 50 percent, per Synergy Sports. Far more often—two-thirds of the time—they go over screens, which might prompt Russell to drive and then shoot his beloved floater, which he converts 51.5 percent of the time, per Synergy, a remarkable number. His effectiveness is surprising, even to Russell himself. “Really?” he says excitedly upon hearing his statistics read to him. He had guessed 40 percent for each figure. “Wow.”

In a league that applauds free throws and threes while deriding the mid-range game, Russell plays against the grain. Yes, he’s an excellent three-point shooter—2.7 makes per game on 37.4 percent—but you won’t catch him diving into a defender to draw a foul or trying the popular, unbearable rip-through move. Recently, he scored 40 points without attempting a free throw, a stat that might be concerning if it weren’t so amazing. In Brooklyn, playing for a modernist coach in Kenny Atkinson—complete with a penchant for pace, threes and skinny ties—Russell is improbably leaning on the mid-range game.

“Kenny hates that shot. He hates it. He thinks it’s a low-percentage shot,” Russell says. Atkinson will sometimes send Russell a sort of lowlight reel of his worst mid-range attempts to prove their futility, though, slowly, he’s softening up. “Coming in [last summer], Coach was like, ‘We’re not shooting mid-range, and we’re not shooting floaters!’ And now it’s like, ‘OK, you can shoot your mid-range, you can shoot your floaters.’ That’s the trust we have, the trust we grew.”

As NBA drama reaches its peak on this trade-deadline day, Russell is joyfully out of the news. Still, he can relate deeply to the league’s top storylines.

There is the situation in Golden State, for instance. Kevin Durant has just aired out his frustration with local beat writers who focus on player movement more than player production. Russell understands where Durant’s coming from—he’s not a particularly talkative player, either, and he cares little for the sideshows that accompany life in the NBA.

Sarah Stier/Getty Images

“He just wants to play basketball,” Russell says of KD. “He wants to go to the gym and go home. A lot of guys aren’t like that, and a lot of guys in [the media] don’t make it easy for us to do that.” He adds: “The message is really powerful. [Outside distractions] can definitely get in the way. When you can come here and just focus on basketball, you don’t have to worry about nothing else outside of these doors.”

Meanwhile, an even bigger story is unfolding in Los Angeles, Russell’s old home. In recent weeks, it’s become clear that the Lakers are willing to trade any and all of their young players to New Orleans for Anthony Davis. Endless speculation—and torment for the youngsters like Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma—will culminate one way or another in just a few hours at the deadline’s buzzer. Russell was once part of the Lakers’ young core; today, he seems fortunate not to be.

“I can’t imagine what they’re trying to block out,” Russell says. Later, he adds: “If [the Lakers] didn’t let me go then, they were gonna let me go now, and I’d be going through what they’re going through. Best thing that happened in my career.”

The Lakers’ distress was underscored two nights prior, when a titillating photo of LeBron James sitting alone on the team bench went viral. The Lakers lost that game, in Indiana, by 42 points—the worst margin of defeat in James’ career. It was easy to appreciate the image as a symbol of the Lakers’ disjointedness. But Russell, far removed from such drama, is happy to shrug it away.

“You guys are gonna stretch that,” he says, referring to the excitable NBA media. “We see what you guys want us to see, kind of like the government.” Russell is half-kidding, but he is more than a little jaded when it comes to the way players and their careers are perceived by the public. “I’ve already been through the blender,” he says.

As a rookie in 2015-16, Russell tagged along for Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour on a Lakers team disconnected from its storied past, uncertain future and perilous present. The team could have built around Russell, plus fellow rookie Larry Nance Jr. and sophomore Julius Randle, but the season was mostly a swan song for Bryant, who led the team in field-goal attempts while shooting below 36 percent from the field. (Still, Russell says of Kobe: “Incredible player. Better person. I learned a lot.”)

The season turned to a nightmare that March, when Russell posted the infamous Nick Young video. The L.A. Times reported that Lakers players distanced themselves from Russell afterward. Then-head coach Byron Scott felt the situation would “absolutely” make it hard for teammates to trust one another. An already bad team—winners of 17 games in the end—fell apart at the seams, and blame largely fell on Russell. A negative perception began to bubble, and Russell could do little to change it in his second season, which was stifled by left knee issues. When summer swung around again, the Lakers began dismantling their core.

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Russell was traded to Brooklyn in June of 2017 while hosting a barbecue in Los Angeles. His agent called him with the news, to which Russell replied: “Let’s get it.” He had sensed something amiss in the lead-up to the trade. LaVar Ball had been trying to will his son Lonzo to the Lakers, and oddly enough, it seemed to be working. The fact that the two played the same position was not lost on Russell.

The Lakers dealt him, alongside Timofey Mozgov, for Brook Lopez and a first-round pick (later used to select Kuzma). For L.A., the deal was as much about replacing Russell with Ball as it was wiping away Mozgov’s monster contract. Russell understood that, too.

“It was smart to get off that. Hell yeah. I understand every piece of business in this league. I just knew that they had Luol Deng and Mozgov and whichever young player had the most stock, they were gonna tag him along with one of those guys,” he says. In a way, Russell found it flattering to be considered the brightest of the Lakers’ young bunch and promising enough to be worth the Mozgov money.

But the stakes were raised following the trade, when Lakers president Magic Johnson, typically a beacon of positivity, passively dissed Russell. At Ball’s introductory press conference, Magic said: "He [Russell] has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with."

In the public eye, Russell’s reputation was deeply in question. The team that drafted him had given up on him after just two seasons; one of the all-time greats at Russell’s position had doubted his leadership. Russell had a chance to fire back at his introductory presser but took the high road instead. “I can’t really control that—what they say when I’m gone,” he said. “So it’s the past. I’m here now, so it’s irrelevant, honestly.”

Russell isn’t one for the explicit comeback. He prefers to send subtle messages.

Take, for example, his Twitter account. On his page, the feed itself is standard: retweets of his teammates’ highlights, or of his own, or of slightly vague sponsored partnerships. Much as he rarely opens up to the public, he rarely tweets actual words—beyond his favorite hashtag, #Loading, a sort of combo mantra and nickname (D-Loading, or D-Lo). The insight into Russell lies in his profile header. Where most players display a photo of themselves on the court or in their community, Russell chose a drawing. It depicts a newsman holding a microphone, his nose growing so long, a la Pinocchio, that it protrudes out of the TV, into the living room of a dope and right through the viewer’s head. It is a clear commentary on the supposed fake-news era and can be taken as one on Russell’s own career as well.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images

“There’s so much meaning behind it,” Russell says of the image. “I’ve been through it, and people were kind of begging me for a response—they want me to respond to what [Magic] said, they want me to speak on everything that I’ve been through in my career, and it’s like, Nah.” Russell is naturally laid-back and thoughtful. (“It’s so easy because it’s who I am,” he says.) The drama and spotlight of Hollywood made for an awkward fit; Brooklyn is more his speed. Russell likens the Nets’ environment to a close-knit college type, and to what the Spurs have built—steady and concerned with players’ well-being. (General manager Sean Marks spent three years in San Antonio as a player and four more working for the franchise.)

“This organization has done an even better job of accepting me for me, and letting me be who I am.”

When Russell arrived in Brooklyn, the Nets were a clump of shapeless clay, waiting for a star to mold them. They had won 41 games over the previous two seasons. Their picks belonged to the Celtics. The team held Washington’s first-round pick, No. 22; it seemed unlikely to help the short-term cause. (Brooklyn would select a starting center in Jarrett Allen.) The team’s best player was probably Jeremy Lin, who played the same position as Russell. Caris LeVert had played an interesting rookie year but was basically an unknown. Atkinson had been a head coach for all of one season.

None of this bothered Russell.

“I came here with open arms,” he says. “I always knew I could do what I’m doing, it’s just all about opportunity in this league.” He was appreciative and excited for a restart. “For Sean Marks and those guys to come get me and make it happen here, give me the opportunity to help myself thrive, I think it was more than necessary.”

Atkinson admired Russell’s open-mindedness. “He didn’t come in with airs about him, an ego, he didn’t want any special treatment,” he says. “There was never a comment to me like, ‘I should be the starting point guard.’ I do think we sent a message, like, You’re gonna have to earn this. There was never a handing of the baton, like: This is your deal, or you’re the guy, or we’re gonna put you on billboards. No. You have the earn this. I think he embraced that message, and he did have to earn it.”

In the process, Russell has embraced a leadership role—even in the local community. This winter, Russell led a coat drive in Brownsville, and he participates in teammates’ local events as well. “We’re in Brooklyn, but we haven’t had the time to support Brooklyn the way Brooklyn has supported us,” he says. He plans to host free basketball camps in the years to come.

On the floor, since arriving in Brooklyn, his leadership has jumped from a “level 3 to a level 8” out of 10, in Atkinson’s estimation. “He’s pretty vocal. He sees situations, he talks to guys on the court—they’re switching this play, or hey, you can get a slip on this play,” Atkinson says. “He really sees things well, and I think the guys respect that. So although he’s a mellow guy, I think he’s got good leadership qualities because he’s smart. He understands the game.”

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Jared Dudley, who has played with Chris Paul, John Wall and Steve Nash at point guard over the years, has appreciated Russell’s maturity as a team leader.

“When he first came in, it was something he was trying to find,” he says. Earlier this season, LeVert was the team’s primary late-game closer, and Dinwiddie was thriving as well. Russell wasn’t often the go-to guy and would sometimes even ride the pine late in games. There, he would lead the Nets’ explosive bench mob.

“People don’t understand: That is leadership,” Dudley says. “To be able to root your team on when you’re not maybe doing well, or you’re not even on the floor, and to do it genuinely. A lot of people can do it, but genuinely, with celebrations on the court—that’s what I like to see.”

For help in this area, Russell called on the league’s most steady player. “I actually reached out to LeBron this summer,” he says. Russell asked: “‘What’s the best thing for becoming consistent?’ He’s like, ‘You have to be prepared mentally to go out and dominate every game, and then your teammates will follow that.’” In past years, Russell lacked routine. “After shootaround,” he says, “I might play video games, might talk shit with my boys, might take a nap, might eat a pregame meal, might get treatment—might. Now it’s so strict with what I’m doing every time. Game day, off day, it’s so strict, and that’s played a lot into my success.”

In mid-November, after LeVert dislocated his right foot, Russell’s leadership was put to the test. The team had fallen into a funk, eventually losing eight straight to move 10 games under .500. Russell, buoyed by his new approach to the game, broke loose. “I always had confidence,” he says, “but the wins we had earlier in the season, after we had the big losing streak, just kind of gave me the confidence that, You can really kill this shit, y’know?”

The team’s first signature victory came in early December, against the Raptors, when Russell scored 29 in a one-point overtime win. Ten days later, he exacted vengeance on the Lakers, hanging 22 points and 13 assists in a home W. Crooked numbers arrived often from there. In January, he beat the Celtics with 34, though nothing could top what he did in Orlando, where he brought the Nets back from a 21-point hole with 40. He nailed a contested step-back three to complete the comeback—and then stared down at his right forearm. It was a trademark ice in my veins moment.

Russell credits his signature celebration to his father. “He used to say that all the time. There’s clips of me in high school saying it as well,” Russell says. “Before I’d get out the car and go to the game, he’d say: ‘Play like you got ice in your veins. Play like you don’t have no feelings, just play,’” Russell says. “That’s how I kinda play with the shots I shoot. It’s just kinda, no feeling. Letting it go. Playing free.” The gesture is most appropriate, he says, when he seals a game, as he’s done time and again.

“He’s not afraid of the moment,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said last Wednesday, hours before Russell cooked him with 27 points and 11 assists. “He’s made big, big shots and plays for them, and when you take away the jump shot, he has an ability to get into the lane. He’s got a great mid-range game, floater—one of the more efficient mid-range games in the NBA—and he’s making his teammates better.”

Malone would know—the Nets beat Denver twice this season. On Sunday, Malone will get a third look at Russell, when he opposes him in the All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina.   

For Russell, the nod came after a brief scare; he did not make the Eastern Conference’s initial roster but was named as the injury replacement for Victor Oladipo the next day.

“First of all, they tried to disrespect me by snubbing me and whatnot. Man, that’s disrespectful,” Russell says, his voice ranging up high, like he’s kidding, though on some level, he’s surely not. “I’m trying to say this as humble as I can, but what do you have to do, you know?”

Russell strives for the admiration of his peers. Back when he was traded by Los Angeles—and “kicked on the way out,” in his words—he took solace in the feeling that players around the league appreciated him, even if Lakers management did not.  

“When the league respects you and then you have a guy like Magic coming out to say something like that, it’s like, I don’t care, I’m not playing against him,” he says. “I’m playing against my peers, and if my peers respect me, that’s all I can ask for.”

And so the process of being selected an All-Star—as decided by the league’s coaches, many of whom are former players—was at first the ultimate letdown for Russell and later the ultimate validation. (Not to mention that conference rival Giannis Antetokounmpo selected Russell No. 17 in the All-Star Draft, with five certified All-Stars still on the board.)

“I’m blessed that they found a way to put me in,” Russell says. He learned he’d made the roster during a team flight from San Antonio, where he’d tallied 25 points and nine assists. Atkinson had pulled him aside to tell him the news, in a moment the coach describes as “emotional.” He continues: “I just think seeing the blood, sweat and tears he put into this since the day he got here, and the doubts everybody had about him, and to accelerate his progression so quickly—I think we all thought it was going to be a two- or three-year process to get him to where he was playing at this level. To have it this quickly was kind of a shock to the system, but it was a cool moment.”

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Indeed, it marked an improbable achievement for a Nets team whose future once seemed historically bleak and for a player once easily cast aside. “It’s a hell of an accomplishment,” Russell says. “That’s respect from your peers, your coaches, from other teams. For them to vote for you, to understand like, Yo you deserve it, you’ve been killing us, so we know you’re built like that—it’s a great feeling.”

Yes, Russell has arrived. He’s an All-Star now, the leader of a playoff team. His winding past is an afterthought, irrelevant. “I am where my feet are,” he says. “There’s a reason I’m here, a reason I’m waking up, and this is what I see.”

Russell gazes across the Nets’ airy gym, well-waxed, shining brightly as sunlight pours in. He’s come a long way to get here. Outside, over low-slung Industry City, it’s easy to see what comes next.


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