Brooklyn Nets: D’Angelo Russell’s ceiling and consistency

BROOKLYN, NY - MARCH 17: D'Angelo Russell
BROOKLYN, NY - MARCH 17: D'Angelo Russell /

In his first season with the Brooklyn Nets, D’Angelo Russell’s journey has not been too smooth. Now finally healthy, Russell will look to find his groove as the Nets starting point guard.

The date is June 20th, 2017. It’s a sunny evening in Brooklyn, and a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles. Not a single cloud in sight, in either city. The quiet atmospheres in each city were about to change, however. The Lakers and Nets agreed to a trade. The Nets sent Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the 2017 draft to the Lakers in exchange for Timofey Mozgov and of course, D’Angelo Russell. The Nets got a player that can be a part of their future, while the Lakers got the opportunity to free up cap space for the summer of 2018.

This trade shocked both fan bases because the departure of Russell in Los Angeles and his arrival in Brooklyn changed the landscapes of both teams.

To begin the season, Russell looked like he was on track to become the player the Lakers drafted to be in 2015. He was on pace for a breakout season. In his Nets debut, Russell dropped 30 points in 30 minutes. But the Nets were dealt a blow just 44 and a half minutes into the season. Brooklyn would lose starting guard Jeremy Lin for the year with a ruptured patella tendon.

This meant the job would get harder for Russell, and he would have to take on a bigger role. However, Russell was embracing his new role, even without Lin by his side to help him grow. Russell was hitting clutch shots night in and out. It was early, but the Nets had a winning record for the first time since November 12th, 2014.

Ironically enough three years from that date, November 12th, 2017, the team received some bad news. Russell would be out for quite a bit of time after suffering a knee injury the night before in a loss to the Utah Jazz. This was a huge blow for the team as they would need to step up in Russell’s absence if there was any hope of sneaking into a playoff spot.

Six days later however, fans learned some shocking news. What was thought to be a two to four week absence for Russell would turn out to be much longer. Reports began to surface that Russell underwent successful arthroscopic knee surgery that afternoon. The optimists who believed a playoff berth was possible were now left realizing what path the season would take for the team.

Without Russell the Nets did better than many expected. The team held an 11-20 record during Russell’s 2 month absence. Not great, but better than many expected considering the team lost both its starting guards. Spencer Dinwiddie in particular stepped up big and did a great job manning the starting point guard duties.

Upon his return, Russell had trouble getting re-acquainted with his Nets teammates. In his first game back with the team, he shot 0-5 from the field and scored only one point at the line. The team went on to win that contest against the Miami Heat, but Russell wasn’t the deciding factor like he had previously been.

Russell’s struggles continued on much longer than just that game. Over his first five games back, the third year guard would only average 6.4 points per game on 28% shooting from the field. Something was off, as this was nowhere near the way he had performed before his injury.

Russell did look like he was getting back to his old self just before the All-Star break. He would hit the 20-point mark twice in the team’s final 8 games before the break. He also scored 15+ points five times in those eight games as well.

Since the All-Star break, Russell has put up big numbers and had some of his best performances of the season. His two best games since the break have both come against the Toronto Raptors. The first contest was a 32-point game in which Russell shot 7/7 from three to start the game. The second was his first career triple double. He scored 18 points, dished out 13 assists and grabbed 11 rebounds. These were two encouraging performances that make one question just how high his ceiling is.

These performances are very encouraging for a former number 2 overall pick and third year player. The problem however has been his consistency. Russell’s scoring averages would be much higher on the season if it weren’t for multiple single-digit scoring games. He has shown flashes of being a player that can be considered one of the league’s best, but has struggled with handling that success.

An good example is Russell’s performance following his 32 point game against Toronto. In a road game against the 76ers, he could not find his rhythm and only contributed eight points on 21% shooting from the field. In addition, coach Kenny Atkinson sat Russell down the stretch due to his performance and turnovers. Not at all what he is capable of.

On the contrary, before his 32 point performance he scored 26 points while shooting 52% against once again against the 76ers. These are perfect examples of the consistency issues he’s needed to address all season long.

There’s no question his talent is there and his ceiling is looking like it’s still very high but for a player entering his fourth year and was drafted number 2 overall in a great draft class, Russell has under performed to say the least.

D’Angelo Russell deserves some more time to get adjusted to his new home. He has had a few off-court problems to worry about in his first three years. The question is when will we see him hit his peak? No one knows for sure but a big thing to remember is how bigger guards take longer to develop and mature than smaller guards do.

A good statistical comparison, is Steph Curry. While Curry and Russell are completely different players, style and build wise, Curry also suffered a major injury in his third season and had terrible games scoring and shooting wise. These hurt his season average in points, and he was able to bounce back. 

To critics, D’Angelo Russell is not on the pace that other superstars were on in their third season. While that may be correct, it’s fair to say he deserves some slack with all that has occurred around him. This ranges from controversies and injuries, to having to handle the pressure of playing in big cities.

It hasn’t been easy for a young player who just turned 22 last month. There’s a lot on his shoulders and a lot of potential inside of him. Russell may have a bigger ceiling than many think given what he has showed so far. With a big fourth season coming up we will soon get a better chance to evaluate. Soon, we’ll see just how great of a player Russell can be.