There’s a narrow, shortsighted way of looking at D’Angelo Russell’s young career and seeing him as a bust.
Sean Marks was brought in as general manager of the Brooklyn Nets to put an end to organizational shortsightedness. Narrow thinking led the franchise to arguably the worst trade in NBA history when they were ransacked of multiple lottery picks for the rights to what basically amounted to the 2019 Inside the NBA crew.
A more open-minded look at Russell’s first two seasons would acknowledge his environment and understand that he offers valuable NBA skills.
If Russell had played three years at Ohio State rather than coming out after his freshman year, I’m not sure he would enter the league in 2017 as a much different player than he is now. But I’m sure we would currently think of him quite differently. He likely would have been a better college player than Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz. He might not have the elite passing skills that make Ball special, but his superior speed would possibly have suggested he was the more deadly transition player. He also shot 40 percent from three in his one college.
In that scenario, Russell, at 21 years old, might have been the number-one overall pick in the 2017 Draft.
Instead, he was drafted by a Lakers team during Kobe Bryant’s last season where he watched a washed up version of Hero Ball and listened to the get-off-my-lawn wisdom of Byron Scott’s lectures on the cowardice of three-pointers.
The following year was a less toxic environment, but in no way tailored to Russell’s skills. Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, and Julius Randle were all encouraged to attack and do what they’re each best at. And that was productive in a sense. Russell improved as a player, gained some confidence, and had a handful of excellent performances.
Still, there’s a difference between encouraging a player and putting him in the right system. Russell is lightning quick getting to the basket, has great vision, a deadly mid-range game, and could be a terrific three –point shooter if he improves his shot selection from behind the arc. If you were betting against the Lakers last season the guy you’d be least comfortable heating up was Russell. The best version of that team was the version when Russell was the best player on player on the court.
But the Lakers drafted Ball and traded away Russell. The Nets acquired Russell, but it’s hard to look past their theoretical motive of “well, honestly, what else were they going to do?”
The Nets aren’t ready to contend for the playoffs. But they started something last year. They changed their front office and coaching staff and they decided to ditch shortsightedness. Russell is the first piece of evidence they are building on that philosophy.
Last year, rookie head coach Kenny Atkinson did something far from revolutionarily brilliant, but relatively uncommon: He applied the kind of winning basketball formulas that require talent to a team that didn’t have any talent. He implemented five-out basketball with players that hadn’t previously shot threes. He scientifically orchestrated precise-but-evolving rotations that factored in the experience and effectiveness of each player.
The results will not shock you. They did not win. There is still no secret formula to overcoming massive discrepancies in talent. Seven Seconds Or Less lands you in the lottery without Steve Nash to run it. The Death Ball Lineup without Draymond Green is just a team giving up a lot of offensive rebounds.
But embracing what works in the NBA and tailoring young talent to adapt to those strategies is the best possible formula a coach can implement when he doesn’t have the talent to win regardless. Most of the elements to a Gregg Popovich or Rick Carlisle game plan don’t require all-star players. They require an understanding and commitment to the system and one or two blue-chip players to make everything click.
Russell hasn’t done enough to be called a blue-chip player, but we’re about to be much closer to finding out if he will be. On paper, he can do the types of things that are asked of point guards in historically successful offensive systems.
In Byron Scott’s restrictive, antiquated structural approach to basketball Russell looked all flash and no substance. Under Luke Walton he looked like one of a number of Lakers auditioning for their future, fluctuating between flash, substance, and frustration with his own irrelevance.
Under Atkinson, he can be something more productive: a system player.
He has to buy in, and even if he does, it won’t always work. The talent surrounding him is still minimal. They may not be good enough to execute what Atkinson wants to happen. But if last year is any indication, they will be standing in the right places, doing the right things, and trying to accomplish the same goals.
Russell isn’t going to be on a playoff team this season. But Atkinson is going to try to find out what it would look like if he were.