Since becoming the number two overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, D’Angelo Russell’s career has been a bit of a mixed bag. After two seasons of inconsistent, but promising play, he was traded from the Lakers to the Brooklyn Nets. The Lakers had decided that Lonzo Ball was their point guard of the future, eliminating the need for them to have Russell on their roster. Also, the Nets, with their paucity of draft picks due to their 2013 trade for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry, were desperate for an infusion of young talent and were willing to take on Timofey Mozgov’s contract in order to acquire Russell.
Yet Russell’s first season as a Net was marred by injuries to his knee, and he required arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in November. He came back in January as a bench role player reclaiming a starting position after the All-Star Break. Even in those 23 games as a starter, though, Russell’s performance was marred by inconsistency. Six times he scored less than ten points while in seven others he scored more than 20, averaging 15 points and just under six assists per game during that span.
The role that Russell is expected to play in the Nets’ future has been called into question a bit by the emergence of Spencer Dinwiddie as a valuable contributor. This, along with the team’s general logjam in the backcourt, which will only be exacerbated with the return of Jeremy Lin who only played one game last season, leads one to wonder who will start and how the 96 minutes available per game at the guard positions will be allocated. Last season, Dinwiddie had a break out year of sorts, averaging over 12 points and 6 assists per game. However, he struggled to make his shots, shooting less than 40 percent from the field overall and under 33 percent on 3s. Due to the large percentage of 3-pointers he took, though, along with his ability to draw fouls at above a league average rate, Dinwiddie was still able to have a true shooting percentage than Russell.
While Dinwiddie instinctually seems like the better player to many observers, much of that is simply due to the lack of expectations placed upon him as he entered the league as an unheralded second-round pick, meaning that his being a solid rotation player is a success. Meanwhile, Russell, being a second overall pick, seems more disappointing even though he remains the more skilled, younger, and promising guard.
There needs to be no immediate decision made between Russell and Dinwiddie, though. Firstly, neither has distinguished themselves enough to make the other superfluous. Also, there’s no reason they could not play together as they are both at least 6-foot-5 which would limit their likelihood to be complete defensive liabilities when on the floor together. Russell is better off the ball than Dinwiddie so it’s possible to imagine him alternating between point guard and nominal shooting guard when sharing the floor together. Both are good enough creators that it’s easy to imagine their collective leading of an efficient offense.
The big question that will loom over the Nets front office this upcoming season will be the question of what to pay Dinwiddie and Russell following next summer as both players are on very cheap contracts that will expire after the 2018-19 season. The Nets are still in a bad place, but with lots of cap space available next offseason, as well as their own first round draft pick for the first time in years, along with some promising young players things may be changing in Brooklyn soon. With their cap space, if it turns out there is a bidding war for either of their services next offseason, the Nets will be in prime position to retain either, or both, of them. What remains to be seen is how big of a priority that will be for Brooklyn — how much they want to retain them, and how much they’re willing to pay to do so.
Of all the players in the Nets’ crowded backcourt, Russell remains the one with the most potential and upside. I’m still a Russell believer, but I concede that there’s less and less reason for me to be one with each passing season. I mean, it’s just not ideal that what Russell is most known for amongst NBA fans is outing Nick Young for cheating on Iggy Azalea. His numbers and percentages have hardly changed at all from his rookie season, with the exception with a notable increase in assists, showing his growth as a floor leader.
Nevertheless, if any player on the Nets’ current roster could be a future All-Star, it’s him, unlikely as that may appear at the present time. The natural talent is there, along with a great handle, fluid jumper, above average court vision, and an ability to get to the rim at will; the question just remains if it will all come together as originally expected when he entered the league three years ago.