D'Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets are Taking the Next Step
At 27–23 and sixth in the Eastern Conference, the Brooklyn Nets are this season’s biggest surprise. The loss of Caris LeVert was supposed to send the Nets free-falling to the lottery for the fifth straight year. Even though they went 2–2 in the next four following LeVert’s injury, their fate seemed all but sealed when they lost 8 consecutive games, dropping their record to 8–18.
One of the NBA’s youngest squads, Brooklyn was plagued by inconsistency early in the season, with a 4–12 record in games that entered clutch time. It’s worth noting, however, Brooklyn’s net rating actually rendered them a fringe playoff contender (12–14).
Now, they look like a legit playoff contender regardless of what the net rating entails. Winners of 16 of their last 21, Brooklyn is not only holding onto victories — with a 10–2 record in clutch time — but also reeling off wins over contenders, including; the Rockets, Lakers, Celtics, at home and the 76ers and Rockets on the road.
This type of success would have been unthinkable last season, when Brooklyn was 18–32 at this point. They proceeded to end the year 10–22, only one more win than the record they now boast.
In fact, the last time Brooklyn buoyed above .500 at the 50-game mark was when their core consisted of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams, and Joe Johnson. The steep cost of the former two — unprotected first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018 drafts — set them back until now.
They’re finally recovering with a core who are all castaways in their own unique way. Caris LeVert’s injury trouble at Michigan caused him to drop to the 20th pick. And he exploded as a star this season until suffering an ankle injury. His replacement, Rodions Kurucs, seemingly appeared out of thin air, forcing his way into the rotation with legit two-way ability. Spencer Dinwiddie was recently awarded a three-year, $34 million contract, two years after being cut by the Bulls on two occasions. Only in his second season, Jarrett Allen has a nose for rejecting star-players shots. Joe Harris is literally the best jump-shooter in the NBA this season after two bench-ridden years in Cleveland.
The most surprising development for Brooklyn, however, is D’Angelo Russell. Since the start of the New Year, the former Laker is producing a blistering 24.0 points and 7.5 rebounds on 50/40/90 splits.
Zoom further out and Russell is averaging an impressive 19.3 points on 53.4% true shooting and 6.4 assists. Even his surface-level statistics place him in elite company, with; James Harden, Nikola Jokic, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Jrue Holiday, and Devin Booker.
Those figures resemble career-highs for him, too, as his career averages are 15.5 points and 4.7 assists on 51.7% true shooting.
Any number, though, doesn’t truly place Russell’s improvement into perspective. What's most impressive is that the fourth-year guard is the unquestioned leader of this team. Just two years ago, his lack of leadership played a major part in him being traded to Brooklyn in the first place.
Magic Johnson, the Lakers' GM, fundamentally chose Lonzo Ball over D'angelo Rusell, on the basis that he wasn't a leader and didn't make his teammates better, even though he had the skill to one day become an all-star.
Russell has flipped the switch, as noted by Brooklyn head coach, Kenny Atkinson.
“He has great confidence right now, on both ends of the floor,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I think the other guys are feeding off that confidence. And it’s not just the shots he’s making, but how he’s running the offense and his command of the offense and guys following his command and his leadership. That’s a big part of our success.”
Indecisiveness about when to shoot and when to pass held Russell back from being a leader on the court before this season. Now, he knows when to thread the needle— whether in the pick and roll, to cutters, or transition.
No matter the situation, Russell — who moves at the same speed as Kyle Anderson—is never in a hurry, waiting for opportunities to show themselves.
He’ll lounge and watch as cutters (specifically Joe Harris) curl around double-staggered screens, then zing passes to them right as they zap under the basket.
16th in the league in potential assists created, the Nets simply need Russell to make these reads. With Caris LeVert out until further notice, Spencer Dinwiddie stands as the only other creator on the team. And considering Dinwiddie is mostly staggered in lineups sans Russell, Brooklyn needs Russell to carry the creating load. Russell has done so and more, nearly doubling his career assist rate over the last ten games.
Being in the right situation at the right time isn't the sole catalyst for Russell's explosion, a good bit of personal improvement is, too.
What's clear is that over the offseason, the fourth-year guard inserted files of moves onto his pre-existing hard drive. Russell uses a lefty in-and-out move to break down multiple swarming defenders. Russell ball-fakes or shot-fakes opponents to trick them. He negates his lack of foot-speed with an elite stop-and-go hesitation move. The statistics provide evidence to these improvements, with his 36.4% assist rate sandwiching him between the likes of Jeff Teague and Trae Young.
Back away from the statements and statistics, though, and Russell’s additions become even more clear.
“I think he’s really finding that nice niche between scoring and finding open guys whether it’s on the perimeter in the pick-and-roll, Kenny Atkinson said. “and I would say the other thing is he looks fresh.”
An area Kenny Atkinson pointed to, the pick and roll, is where Russell’s presence is most felt. With Brooklyn missing their pick and roll maestro in LeVert, they rely only on Russell. Russell is taking that mantle and running with it.
He’ll launch threes if the defense sinks too deep into drop coverage. Or Russell will gently snake the screen while glueing the defender to his hip.
He sometimes signals for another pick and roll if the defense doesn't switch.
He never over-dribbles in the pick-and-roll, fining the roller right as they bleed open.
And if the pick and roll fails to develop, he scopes out one of the many knock-down shooters on his team, dribbling once, then swinging them the rock.
When he isn’t making keen reads in the pick and roll, Russell is searching for his own shot. He drags mismatches to the half-court early in the possession like a car does road-kill, only to isolate them by the tail-end of the possession.
However, Russell was already touted as an elite creator — both for teammates and himself—since entering the league, it’s the areas in which he has made the most progress, rather, that punctuate him as the leader of Brooklyn’s revolution. Chief among his improvements is the drastic shift in his shot-profile.
While that last statement, for most players, would infer an increased focus on layups and lessened focus on the in-between game, it evokes the opposite for Russell, who is taking 12.6% less layups (0–3 feet) than last season, while lobbing 6.4% more floaters (3–10 feet), and shooting 8.8% more short mid-range jumpers (10–16 feet). Simply put, he is the antithesis to so-called "Morey-ball."
As a player who shoots horrendously near the rim (51% from 0–3 feet), Russell’s main priority — whether through the pick and roll, isolation, or off-ball — is to prance around the in-between area to find a shot of his liking.
He will exert all his energy just to get to his favorite spot: the mid-range. He will even attack the best defenders in the game to do so.
On top of reveling in the mid-range, Russell, who is sniping three-pointers at a 37.9% clip on 7.9 attempts (both career-highs), has become a lethal shooter as well, whether it be in catch and shoot opportunities or off the bounce.
When Russell doesn’t find his rhythm in the mid-range, he will step-back for a swag-filled three-pointer.
When he isn’t confidently stepping-back for threes or mid-range jimmies, Russell approaches the basket with cautionary skill, tossing a high-arcing floater towards the rim.
With a newfound focus on leadership and apparent improvements as a creator — both for his teammates and himself — Russell is finally fulfilling his destiny as the number two pick. The relationship is symbiotic, too. The Brooklyn Nets are speeding past their expected trajectory, led by Russell’s siege.
Not only that, the players around Russell are feeling the impact as well. The core of Rodions Kurucs, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and Joe Harris, seem firmly implanted in Brooklyn's future for years to come. Having already dotted Dinwiddie’s three-year, $34 million contract, Brooklyn has to wonder if Russell fits next to him. The 105 offensive rating — equal to the Phoenix Suns — when the two share the court should act as a cause for concern.
With that in mind, it will be intriguing to see if Russell, whose rookie contract expires this Summer, is entertained by a max contract by an outside team. If he is, Brooklyn will be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Is Russell worth the max considering his inconsistency? Are his flashes real this time?
Management has expressed their desire to go star-hunting this Summer, but it's worth wondering if Russell is the star they were looking for all along.
That being said, Brooklyn can create a bit of wiggle room if they want to sign Russell plus another free agent to a maximum-level contract. For example, the Nets can attach a first-round pick to the albatross of Allen Crabbe’s $18-million contract.
The best decision for the Nets is to vie for the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. Then, by the end of the season, they can assess whether Russell is a budding star or whether this mini-run was just another small spurt of promise in the grand scheme of inconsistency.
Statistics courtesy: Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, and Spotrac