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Brooklyn Nets

How Nets guard D’Angelo Russell has managed to turn himself into an All-Star and Most Improved Player contender

#DLo

D'Angelo Russell has had many ups and downs in his young NBA career, and what hasn't broken him has made him stronger.

Russell was always expected to reach the levels he's on his way to reaching. That's why the Los Angeles Lakers selected him with the second pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.

For the 2019 NBA All-Star, the journey between now and then has been anything but smooth, and that's what makes his case for the 2018/19 Most Valuable Player award so interesting.

Russell's first season in the NBA was a difficult one - he had his moments, hit game winners, showed his potential. But this was all overshadowed by the Kobe Bryant travelling retirement circus that the Lakers season became. A feud with coach Byron Scott and an immature off-court incident that the rookie played a part in threatened to tear the team apart.

His second season would be less controversial - but the writing was on the wall, the Lakers considered him damaged goods and traded him to the Brooklyn Nets - giving both player and team a fresh start.

D'Lo's first season in Brooklyn wasn't without its own problems. His first two weeks with the Nets included two 30+ point performances but he was still marred with inconsistency and producing consistently high turnover nights.

One month into the season, Russell would undergo knee surgery keeping him out until mid-January, where he'd start the slow road back to game shape and consistency.

This off-season something clicked for D'Angelo. He spent his summer training with Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker whilst reaching out to the likes of LeBron James, James Harden and Chris Paul for leadership and off-court advice.

And when you talk to his teammates, it's those off-court changes that have allowed him to take his game to the next level.

"His off the court antics - everything he's done with his body, getting treatment, going to sleep, that's big," said Russell's Nets teammate DeMarre Carroll told NBA.com. "We always knew that he had the talent but now I think him improving off the court and maturing has been the biggest thing to his growth."

Toronto Raptors guard and close friend Jeremy Lin was in Brooklyn when D'Lo arrived and has kept a close eye on Russell since moving on.

"I feel like when he got here last year, obviously I wasn't around the team much, I was in Vancouver rehabbing, so I have very limited knowledge aside from my experience with him at training camp," Lin said. "But it felt like when he first got here, he was battered and unsure and kind of broken from everything that happened in LA and I think now he's really stepped into his own and emerged as a leader and just being more consistent with everything, I think that's a big part of it."

That off-court improvement has led to on-court results. Most importantly, in the win column. The Brooklyn Nets are currently sitting in the seventh seed in the East and are likely to be rewarded with their first playoff appearance in four seasons.

All of this whilst having to increase the load due to Caris LeVart and Spencer Dinwiddie dealing with injuries throughout parts of this season.

His playmaking has gone to another level. Earlier on in Russell's career, he fell into the trap of forcing plays, causing turnovers. But one of the biggest changes that can be seen from Russell this year is he's patient on the court, reading the defence and waiting for the right moment.

Russell has also been a key catalyst in the many second-half comebacks the Nets have had this season, including dropping 27 fourth-quarter points two weeks ago in Sacramento to lead the Nets to a win - erasing a 28-point deficit.

"D'Angelo's come along way on the court in terms of making us become a better team," Nets big-man Jarrett Allen told NBA.com. "This season, in my opinion, he's had better decision making, his shooting has gone up a lot. His assist to turnover has improved and his overall leadership on the court."

Russell's shooting has improved immensely. The 23-year-old has gone from 41.4% from the field last season to 43.1%. Making this impressive is the fact that Russell is the focal point of defensive coverage when he's on the court - often finding himself doubled or at a minimum, dealing with the opposition's best defender.

Russell has been able to deal with this through his improved three-point shot, regularly getting quick release looks off screens along with developing a killer pull-up three that coach Kenny Atkinson has previously described as "Harden-esque". For a guy who's not as athletic as the other guards in the league, he's managed to include a handy floater that has become one of his go-to moves.

All of this has seen D'Lo, along with Pascal Siakam, become the front runner for the MIP. Both D'Lo and Siakam went head-to-head on Wednesday night in a match-up that most thought could settle the argument. But really, it complicated it further.

Siakam's Raptors may have got the win 115-105 with Siakam leading the way with 28 points, but Russell ended up finishing the game with 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists, leading another second-half comeback as the Nets eroded a 22 point third quarter deficit to only 5 with 1:13 remaining.

Russell seems to be the player's choice to take out the award. Last week Richard Jefferson and Tracy McGrady got into a heated argument with ESPN analyst Zach Lowe over the Siakam/Russell conundrum.

DeMarre Carroll agrees, comparing D'Lo's season to that of last year's winner Victor Oladipo who changed situations, became the number one guy, and lead his team to the Playoffs whilst making his first All-Star appearance.

"If you're going to give it to Victor Oladipo last year, then [Russell] deserves it in his own manner," Carroll explained to NBA.com. "Just what he did. He's been our MVP of this team, he made the All-Star so I think he deserves MIP."

Jeremy Lin also believes that Spencer Dinwiddie should be in the conversation too, and in a perfect world he'd like to see all three of them - Russell, Siakam and Dinwiddie take home the award.

"You can't say anything bad about any of them, they're all taking huge steps, taking huge strides, have huge responsibilities on all their teams and the great thing is I know all three of them personally and I'm rooting for them," Lin said.

"They're all friends of mine, genuinely and I want to see all my friends succeed."

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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