Brooklyn Nets: D’Angelo Russell to see what could have been

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

When the Brooklyn Nets face the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night, Nets guard D’Angelo Russell will see Suns guard Devin Booker, fresh off signing a max extension.

Before he came to the Brooklyn Nets in a draft-night trade in 2017, D’Angelo Russell had been one of the top picks in the 2015 NBA Draft, a group that — most of them anyway — is coming to the end of their rookie contracts.

Russell was taken No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers after a season at Ohio State and was seen by the Lakers as their point guard of the future. That was before two inconsistent seasons, a knee injury and the Lakers’ decision to draft another point guard, Lonzo Ball, No. 2 overall in 2017.

Another knee injury sidelined Russell for 34 games in his first season with Brooklyn and when the Oct. 15 deadline for first-round picks in that 2015 draft class to sign extensions, Russell was still standing when the music stopped.

Now entering its fourth season, the Class of 2015 has been a largely lackluster group. The class has produced two All-Stars, No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves as well as Kristaps Porzingis, taken fourth overall by the New York Knicks.

When it came time for the first-round picks to talk extensions, only five of the 30 players selected wound up putting their names on the dotted line.

Towns got a max deal, five years and $158 million, from the Timberwolves in late September. The only other max extension in the class went to Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, who signed his deal just a week into the new league year in July.

Booker was a late lottery pick, going 13th overall to the Suns.

It was a deal that Russell paid close attention to, given that he considers Booker his best friend and took Booker’s deal as motivation, per Michael Scotto’s Aug. 31 article for The Athletic (subscription required).

So this is an important season for Russell as he prepares to become a restricted free agent and the Nets determine whether they will be the second team to decide Russell is in fact not their point guard of the future.

Russell’s consistency has remained an issue in the early going this season. He’s averaging 15.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists in 27.4 minutes per game while shooting .411/.377/15-for-19.

There have been highs, most notably a two-game stretch against New Orleans and Golden State in which he scored 49 points on 18-of-30 shooting and was 11-for-17 from 3-point range.

There have also been lows.

In the two meetings thus far with Detroit, Russell was a combined 6-for-24 shooting, 1-for-10 from 3-point range and had 14 points, 11 assists and was benched down the stretch of each game, a three-point loss on the road in the season opener and an overtime win at home on Halloween night.

Russell rebounded from another late benching in the loss Friday night to the Houston Rockets with a solid outing against Philadelphia on Sunday, finishing with 21 points and six assists while playing perhaps his best defensive game of the season.

Up-and-down, however, might be the best way to describe most of the 2015 draft class.

The other three 2015 first-rounders who received extensions included Myles Turner (No. 11 to the Indiana Pacers), who signed a four-year, $72 million deal; Larry Nance Jr. (No. 27 overall to the Lakers), who received four years and $44.8 million from the Cleveland Cavaliers; and Justise Winslow (10th overall pick by the Miami Heat), whose three-year, $39 million extension includes a team option for the third year.

The top 10 of that class did not fare as well.

Towns and Winslow got the only extensions of the group, although Porzingis may still get max money — or close to it — from the Knicks, but his torn ACL in February prompted New York to let him enter restricted free agency while they determine if he’s recovered.

Of the 10, only five — Willie Cauley-Stein of the Sacramento Kings, Stanley Johnson of the Detroit Pistons, Frank Kaminsky of the Charlotte Hornets along with Towns and Winslow — remain with the teams that drafted them.

No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor and No. 5 selection Mario Hezonja didn’t even make it to the fourth year of their rookie deals, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic, respectively, declining their fourth-year options in October 2017.

Okafor, who finished last season with the Nets, eventually got a two-year veteran’s minimum deal from the New Orleans Pelicans in August, a deal that is only partially guaranteed for this season and includes a team option for 2019-20.

Hezonja is with the Knicks on a one-year, $6.5 million contract.

Russell is set to become a restricted free agent next July, as is No. 7 overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay, who was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the Knicks at last February’s deadline.

Of the 29 members of the class that signed contracts — Nikola Milutinov was taken 26th overall by the San Antonio Spurs, who retain his rights — four others joined Okafor and Hezonja in not completing those deals.

R.J. Hunter was waived by the Boston Celtics in 2016. Kevon Looney‘s fourth-year option was declined by the Golden State Warriors, though he re-signed with the team this offseason.

Chris McCullough, Brooklyn’s pick at No. 29 with the Atlanta Hawks’ choice, was traded to the Washington Wizards in 2017 and had his option declined by the Wizards last fall.

Rashad Vaughn was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 17th overall pick. His option for the final year of his rookie deal had already been declined by the Bucks before he was traded to the Nets a few days before the trade deadline in February.

He was dealt to the Pelicans at the deadline for Dante Cunningham after one game and four minutes with Brooklyn.

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Russell certainly has fared better than that group. But you have to think that somewhere in the back of his mind, he’ll see Devin Booker Tuesday night in Phoenix and think, however briefly, that it could have been him.