When D'Angelo Russell was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, head coach Kenny Atkinson had the biggest development task of his career. Not because Russell wasn't skilled, rather the fact that he was the lottery pick the Nets never had. This was his chance to develop somebody with serious potential. Somebody who fit the script of what Atkinson needed. Somebody who has high character but also has a chip on their shoulder.
Somebody who could challenge Atkinson to be as great as he challenges those around him.
And for Russell, he got a coach who could challenge him to become great and push his limits -- the intangible things you don't see that separate a good player and a great player. Things that categorize players as one who can buy into something special versus becoming a glorified journeyman.
In short: Kenny Atkinson needed D'Angelo Russell just as bad as D'Angelo Russell needed Kenny Atkinson.
Russell was traded to the Nets after a 20-win season. Atkinson made it clear from day one that egos would be checked at the door. He comes from a wealthy tree -- a Gregg Popovich branch-off in Mike Budenholzer. There would be no nonsense with anybody, including Russell, who has been nothing but a consummate professional since his reputation was tainted at such a young age in Los Angeles.
With that being said, Russell is going to be held just as accountable -- if not more -- with everything he does. It comes with the responsibility of being the team's leader.
With the Nets down seven in Boston, Atkinson made a bold move to sit Russell for the final 8:42 of the game despite just a seven-point deficit and 25 points in 24 minutes for the savvy point guard. He missed a mid-range jump shot, fell asleep on two rebound attempts and turned the ball over twice, causing Atkinson to pull him for a "teachable moment."
"Look we do have standards," Atkinson said Tuesday. "I think it was 90-90 when the game started going the other way. I think it was the turnover, a couple bad shots, then a rebound I thought he should've come up with."
He told him he'd get him back in, but the Celtics went on a 12-4 run over the next five minutes and at that point, it was already too late. It was the first night of a back-to-back and the Nets were down 15. It wasn't the first time Russell's been benched late this season.
"I think there's certain standards, certain cultural things that we've done from the beginning, so last night was no different," said Atkinson.
Instead of complaining, Russell showed the growth and maturity he's gained since coming to Brooklyn.
"He's got us this far so I'm trusting his moves. I missed a rebound, 50-50 play that set him off a little bit. I've got to be better, something I've got to think about going into the next one. We need those plays," Russell said after Monday's loss to Boston.
The following night, Russell is scorching hot again with the Nets up single digits in the fourth. Atkinson takes him out for a brief moment and tells him he'll be back in a minute.
"I mean, he told me that yesterday too, 'One-minute break, one-minute break' and I was like, 'You said that yesterday!'" Russell said after Brooklyn's 122-117 victory over the Bulls.
Russell came back in and helped the Nets secure their 28th win, matching last season's total with three months still to be played. They're the sixth seed in the East with Russell in the All-Star debate and Atkinson as a top candidate for the Coach of the Year.
Whatever Atkinson did, worked. He gives a ton of credit to Russell's willingness to learn and deal with adversity in the process.
"What's great about D'Angelo is he accepts coaching. He knows I have tremendous confidence in him, he's allowing me to coach him and look, I tell him all the time, with talent comes responsibility," Atkinson said Tuesday. "And he has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and is responding fantastically, but we need him to play both ends and he's capable of it. There are games where we gets seven rebounds, eight rebounds, like he's very capable of it, so we're going to keep holding him to those standards."
"Honestly, I give him a lot of credit for the teaching moments." Russell said of Atkinson. "I feel like my knowledge and I.Q. has rose to another level just from learning from my mistakes and him breaking it down, or us dissecting film together. … I give him a lot of credit for the knowledge he's given us."
Russell, 22, is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 19.5 points 6.5 assists on 44 percent shooting and 37.6 percent from three, all career-highs. You can debate whether he's an All-Star and/or Most Improved Player, but the thing that sticks out the most is his leadership quality on a good basketball team.
The Nets are 20-6 since December 7 with Russell averaging close to 21 points and seven assists during that span. He's averaging similar numbers since Caris LeVert went down in early November.
The correlation is obvious, and Atkinson knows it. He fields a question asking whether D'Angelo has always been this coachable.
"From day one. [But] I do think the relationship has grown in the sense that he will dialogue with you, whether it's a certain play we'd run or a defense that we're doing," Atkinson said. "Although I see less of that [now] we're more on the same page, there's more of a buy-in and it's normal when you're in a new system. There are a lot of things we do different here and he had questions in the beginning, but like anything -- as he's had more success, we've had more success."
All of it happens together. Atkinson's ability to get through to players has been second-to-none, especially players looking for a second chance. His club is competing for a playoff spot and he's earning a case in the Coach of the Year debate.
And with a willingness to learn and buy into what's being preached, a star is rising in Brooklyn. He just needed the proper guidance.