During this NBA season, we’ve seen the rise of many young stars throughout the course of the year. There are some players who we already knew were gifted, but are just now starting to scratch the surface of their potential such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic, whose play this season has propelled their team to the top, or near the top of their respective conferences. Then there are other players whose team may not be the face of the league, but their performance is definitely making a huge impact, Brooklyn Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell is a prime example of this narrative.

In recent memory, the Nets are not a franchise that most NBA fans would label as a top end basketball club, they have shown talent at times, but they’ve always been sporadic. They’re past the glory years of 2012-2015, where they able to reach the playoffs for three consecutive seasons behind the leadership from now-retired veterans Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. However, after their three-year playoff run, things dissolved quickly for the Nets, after their 2014-2015 playoff run, they went 21-61 in the next season, and only four of their 19 players from their last playoff run are still in the league.

The Nets were in free fall for three straight seasons, putting together a combined record of 69-177 through their past three seasons, after the departure of Brook Lopez, who was arguably their most effective player during that time, the Nets were in need of a savior. Oddly enough, the Lakers were in a major transitional phase, restructuring the front office, and looking for ways to remedy the disastrous cap space situation created by former general manager Mitch Kupchak. That phase included sending Russell to the Brooklyn Nets, a move that not many of us expected, after two solid seasons with the Lakers in which he averaged 14.4 points per game and roughly four assists in 143 games. However, the Lakers didn’t deem that performance good enough to retain him and traded him away in order to draft UCLA alumni Lonzo Ball two days later.

When Russell arrived, he was tabbed with the expectation of being a franchise ball player for the Nets, last season definitely did not reach those expectations with Russell only appearing in 48 games due to a significant knee injury early in the season, which plagued him throughout most of the rest of the season. He was still able to put up 15.5 points per game and 5.2 assists in that time frame, but the Nets certainly suffered without his presence, finishing the season with an abysmal 28-54 record. Things were not off to a good start for Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, and he had to find some answers, and fast.

Russell stepped up this season to provide those answers averaging 21.2 points per game and 7 assists per game and is shooting 43.4% from the field, all career highs, and the Nets clinched a spot in the playoffs today with a win over the Pacers, for the first time since 2015. Russell has had a major breakout season, and a bounce-back season, which is why he’s one of the leading candidates for the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award. At the beginning of the season, it looked like history was doomed to repeat itself with the Nets getting off to an 8-18 start riding an eight-game losing streak, and the future once again looking bleak for Atkinson, and the future of the Nets.

Then the Nets flipped the switch, and absolutely grinded out wins in their next seven games, winning all of them by an average margin of roughly just six points. In that stretch though Russell, with some impressive performances from Spencer Dinwiddie, led the way with 17.9 points per game and 7.9 assists. With his effective play, the Nets were able to get back on track and into the mix for the playoffs, his performance earned him an All-Star selection in place of the injured Victor Oladipo. In my opinion though, he didn’t really step into his role as the franchise player the Nets needed until after the All-Star break, which most notably included Russell’s 27 point performance (44 total) in the fourth quarter, which helped the Nets come back from a 25 point deficit, to defeat the Sacramento Kings 123-121 on the road.

His other impressive performances involved a 40 point performance against the Charlotte Hornets, a 29 point double-double against the Portland Trail Blazers, and a 25 point double-double against the Milwaukee Bucks, the best team in the Eastern Conference. Russell has obviously had help in the form of Dinwiddie, who has potential to take over games at any given night, Caris Levert is fresh off a gruesome dislocated foot injury and has been effective in the latter half of the season averaging 11.6 points per game in 24 games since recovering from the injury and Joe Harris who’s averaging a career-high 13.6 points per game this season. Oh, I also forgot to mention that Russell got the sweet honor of eliminating his former team from playoff contention earlier this season, I don’t think a redemption tour gets any better than that.

Russell has clearly made not only himself, but his teammates around him better, and who knows how high his ceiling can be after this season, don’t forget he’s only 23 years old. Sure he’s a restricted free agent after this season, but the Nets have the cap space to offer him a max deal worth almost $160 million, secure him while he’s still scratching the surface of his potential and still go after another free agent superstar if the cards fall in that direction. If you’ve watched Russell this season, you’re more than aware of how invaluable he is to the Nets, he impacts the game in so many ways on the offensive end, he isn’t known for his defensive prowess but he manages to hold his own on that end of the floor, something the Nets can definitely develop with the right coaching.

All in all, numbers and statistics aside, it’s no secret that Russell spearheaded the Nets push to the playoffs for the first time in what feels like a long time. At the end of the day, we can say he wasn’t built to succeed with the Lakers or whatever reason you want to go with, but I certainly don’t think Russell is complaining about the way things worked out. If the Nets are smart, they’ll show Russell the money during the offseason, and commit to building a team around him, because if we’ve seen anything this season, it’s that Russell is preparing to show us that his best years are definitely in front of him.

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