No one saw this coming. Not the Los Angeles Lakers, who two years ago used D'Angelo Russell as a tool to clear cap space—almost unheard of for a No. 2 pick in the draft—and then insulted him on the way out. Not the Brooklyn Nets, who, yes, took a shot on Russell but didn't feel the need to lock him into a contract extension earlier this year when viewing young wing Caris LeVert as their top gun.
And yet, despite the early career hiccups—or perhaps because of them—Russell transformed into an All-Star this season. More than that, he was the best player on a playoff team. It was an impressive campaign, one that will surely get him paid. How much, though, and who should be willing to cough that up, will be one of the more polarizing questions of this NBA summer.
"Damn, I just got out of college," Russell said Tuesday night following the Nets' season-ending loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, an attempt to make light and evade a question about his future. "I ain't even said I was going pro yet. That's how I feel. It is what it is. I think every organization wants to take that next step, as far as being better than they were. So it is what it is, and I let God take care of that. Whenever I'm in a position where I'm supposed to speak on it or be involved, I will."
Talk to decision-makers and scouts around the league, and you get all sorts of different opinions on Russell. Those more analytically focused are turned off by his style of play. He's sort of the anti-James Harden—lots of mid-range shots, very few free throws, shaky finishing at the rim. It's one of the reasons fancy metrics like Real Plus-Minus rank him behind reserves like Derrick White and Monte Morris.
Others point out that those numbers can be noisy and counter to what we're often told these days, there is more than one way to play the game. Russell is Exhibit A of how one can do so effectively.
Anyone who averages 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game for a playoff team and does so while boasting one of the highest usage rates in the NBA—at the ripe age of 23—needs to be taken seriously. Russell might not be an explosive attacker or a big leaper, but he's a crafty lefty and a maestro at manipulating defenses with herky-jerky, slow-motion, in-and-out dribbles. He always boasted brilliant court vision, going back to his college days at Ohio State, and this year, he seemed to finally develop a feel for how to leverage that gift into assists. The running floater may be the NBA's equivalent of "The Electric Slide"—once en vogue but now frowned upon—but any shot that goes in more than half the time (which Russell's floater does, according to NBA.com) is a potent tool.
"I don't worry about the mid-range stuff," said an NBA executive. "He can score."
"He can get his shot off," added a league scout. "That's exactly what you need from an NBA guard these days."
The key to Russell's growth (aside from the sort of maturation that any 23-year-old goes through) was his improved jumper. It's the weapon that forces defenses into compromising situations. Russell shot 36.9 percent from deep this year, a considerable improvement over his 32.4 percent mark from the previous season. Most notably, though, he drilled 34.9 percent of the nearly five pull-up triples he launched per game, according to NBA.com. In comparison, the sweet-shooting Damian Lillard connected on 36.4 percent of his 5.3 looks per contest.
The pull-up means that defenders guarding Russell need to fight over screens—which opens up runways to the hoop and forces opponents to choose between poor options (help and leave open shooters or stay home on shooters and surrender the lane). Only Kemba Walker had more on-ball screens set for him this season, per NBA.com, and it's no coincidence that Russell upped his efficiency in the pick-and-roll; he finished in the 67th percentile after finishing in the 56th last season.
"I think D-Lo took how he worked this offseason and taking care of his body and how it benefited for him," Jared Dudley said Tuesday night. "I think he took how they're going to play him bigger guys in size to try to take away his jump shot and force him right. I think the experience, what he knows—I think D-Lo now is an established player, established All-Star, so his confidence level is high, and this year he can just keep building and building."
Even Russell's much-maligned defense improved, at least a bit. It's still a weakness, but he seemed to devote more effort to that side of the ball, and statistically, he did a better job contesting shots and stifling opposing ball-handlers on pick-and-rolls.
It's why an underwhelming playoff performance (19.4 points on an ugly 36.3 percent shooting to go along with just 3.6 assists per game) is unlikely to scare off potential suitors. Yeah, the Sixers locked him up by assigning the bigger Ben Simmons to him and sitting on his left hand. But Russell is far from the first 23-year-old to struggle in the playoffs. Teams in search of a point guard will come calling.
Who might those teams be? The Nets are the ones with the power. Russell, remember, is a restricted free agent, meaning the Nets can match any offer he receives—meaning it's up to him to set his own marker, or at least that's how restricted free agency usually plays out.
This offseason in general will be a fascinating one for the Nets. Getting to this point was the easy part. But they've made the playoffs now, and with that comes lofty expectations and new challenges. You don't get to remain the plucky upstart or shake off disappointing first-round defeats for long. Big decisions are looming, starting with what to do with Russell.
The Nets have spent the past three-plus years under general manager Sean Marks carefully digging themselves out of the hole dug by former general manager Billy King. They've done so by moving methodically, by understanding it was baby steps that would save them. They haven't anchored themselves to anyone (though, to be fair, they did try with Otto Porter, only to see the Wizards match the Nets' monster free-agency offer). Russell could be the first player to change that.
The Nets will enter the summer with between $25 million and $44 million in cap space, depending on what they do with restricted free agent Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Allen Crabbe, who will surely exercise his $18.5 million player option. And assuming, as we all do, they retain Russell's cap hold (the only theoretical reason they wouldn't is if they were 100 percent certain Kyrie Irving is coming, an outcome that seems unlikely). They also have two first-round picks and an early second, some good young players in Jarrett Allen and LeVert, and Spencer Dinwiddie inked to a team-friendly three-year, $34 million deal.
So, to translate that, they'll have the option this summer to chase one max free agent, one second-tier player and bring back Russell. To sift that down even further: The decision facing them is, essentially, whether they are comfortable trekking forward with Russell being paid like their second-best player. Or to put it a different way: How good a team can you be if Russell is your second-best player?
"Anytime you can have somebody 22, 23 on your roster who's just starting and the sky's the limit, a lot of people are going to want to play with D-Lo," Jared Dudley said Tuesday night following the Nets' loss.
Will a lot of teams want him, though? It's unclear. The list of those in need of a point guard is pretty short. The Phoenix Suns could use a point guard, and Russell and Devin Booker are close friends and both CAA clients. The Dallas Mavericks could covet a ball-handler to play alongside Luka Doncic. The Indiana Pacers need to find Victor Oladipo a wingman (though it's worth pointing out that Russell's agent, Aaron Mintz, represents Paul George as well; some around the league wonder if George's unceremonious breakup with the Pacers could get in the way). And we all know about the New York Knicks' summer desires.
In other words: Russell won't get stiffed. But he might not receive an offer sheet for a max deal (which, for him, would be about four years and $117 million) that he'll no doubt crave—especially when you consider how teams often shy away from restricted free agents (the offers are often matched, and the two-day window incumbent teams have to do so can clog up a rival team's cap sheet).
His future will likely be determined after some of the free-agency dust settles. There are more teams clearing cap space to chase stars than there are stars to go around. It's the ones who don't get Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving who will likely come calling for Russell. That's a group that will likely include the Nets. After all, how do you walk away from the player who led your renaissance?