"I'm gonna win that s--t. Watch. Put it on record. I'm gonna win it."
D'Angelo Russell beams with confidence as he firmly tells me that he's going to win the Most Improved Player Award. I mention a few names. He doesn't want to hear it. He's winning it.
"I'm telling you, I'm winning it!"
Russell just turned 23 years old and he's currently on top of the world. The former No. 2 overall pick is having the best year of his career, averaging 20.5 points and 6.7 assists on 37 percent shooting from three entering Monday's game -- all career-high's during a contract year. He just recently returned from All-Star Weekend and he's leading the Nets on an improbable run to the playoffs.
Like Jay-Z says in "Otis," "I guess I got my swagger back!"
"It's all mental. This game, becoming great… it's all mental," Russell told SNY when asked about the difference in his game. "Diet and things like that -- things people don't see. It's something I had to learn when I got here. I was used to playing ball and letting things come to me. You come into this league and you know you got to work hard and get in the gym, but there's more to it. I think I've worked on some things and I know I'm not perfect. But I want to be great and a big part of that is the mental aspect. I've always been confident, but this is the most confident I've been in my career."
Russell was 19 years old when he was drafted by the Lakers. He was an afterthought during Kobe Bryant's farewell tour. Coaches spoke down on him to the media. He fell victim to an incident with Nick Young and then-fiancée Iggy Azalea. General Manager Magic Johnson said he needed a leader after trading Russell, then 21 years old.
It was all different types of things he had to deal with… and learn to let go.
Ed Davis is a nine-year veteran who spent one year with the Lakers. Davis is one of the players closest to DLo, literally and figuratively. The two share neighboring lockers and talk about everything ranging from basketball to life.
Davis recalls the first time he really heard about him.
"So, me and him have the same agent. When I signed here, my agent talked to me from day one and was like, 'Man he's a good kid, he just needs a little guidance, somebody who's going to stay in his ear. You know, things like that. Then I talked to Evan Turner and he said the same thing, 'Just help him out. He can play, he just needs some guidance,'" Davis says.
"You know all that s--t from the past… I haven't seen it. Either he's doing a great job of hiding it or a lot if it is just bulls--t. That happens a lot in this league. Me and him are tight and have a good relationship. All that stuff in the past… man, I don't know."
Davis had somewhat of a disappointed look on his face. It almost looked as if he felt his pain, understanding that his agent and Turner were both spot-on about Russell.
"He was 19 years old, No. 2 overall pick, man. A lot of money is involved. There's gonna be some bumps and most of these teams are so quick to give up on a guy. Magic [Johnson] and [Rob] Pelinka are regretting that right now."
The incident with Young was more than NBA drama. It brought a new world into the discussions. Russell wasn't just in the LA Times. He was involved with Hollywood tabloids.
I volunteer to say that kind of media becomes like TMZ. Not about basketball.
Davis subtly agrees and nods his head. He understands.
"This is a much better situation even for myself. They treat you good around here, make sure you take care of your body and things like that. It's a place you want to be long-term."
As Davis reflects back, it's important to note that nobody on the Nets is looking back. It's more a talk of appreciation on how far the 23-year-old has come. Russell is hitting game-winning shots, he's leading the team to the playoffs and on top of all of that, he continues to get better.
In my sit-down with Russell, I explain John Schuhmann's recent finding on clutch plays and how Russell is two shots behind the league-leading Kawhi Leonard. The stat is measured by players who hit a shot to tie or take the lead in the last minute of the game. He's done it four times this season.
"Oh wow, for real? Y'all have some crazy stats," he says with a smile.
Russell points toward the ice in his veins when he hits a big shot, his signature gesture since the day he entered the league. It's a sign of his blatant confidence.
"I'm a leader," Russell says. "I want to be put into those spots and now I'm earning more trust. That dude who came into the league with the ice in my veins … that's who I've always been. That's who I want to be and it's all part of the mental growth. I wasn't getting the ball late in games or really even playing at points, so to be out there and doing what I do, closing out games, it feels good. We're a playoff team, aren't we?"
Indeed. His reputation was tainted at such a young age, but Russell bought into Brooklyn's culture. He became a leader through his play and work ethic. Coaches started trusting him more along with his teammates.
Now, he's an All-Star and Most Improved Player candidate.
"It wasn't an easy start here for him," 12-year veteran Jared Dudley says emphatically. "He was getting subbed in and out and had guys like Caris [LeVert] and Spencer [Dinwiddie] playing over him. He stuck with it and did the little things like watch film in the middle of the season. Kudos to him for everything… leading us to the six seed, hitting big shots and really becoming the leader of this team."
As Dudley alluded to, Russell hit a couple bumps early this season. He was often kept out of games in late situations and it was chalked up to "Sticking with the hot hand," according to head coach Kenny Atkinson. It was a mental test -- a test to see if he could handle adversity and buy into being a team player. Everything Brooklyn's about.
He explains a tweet he sent out a day after he led the Nets to their 10th victory in 13 games. Playoffs lingered. People speculated. Was it about it contract? Was it about the late-game benchings?
"I literally meant, you can only control what you can control," Russell says. "I think people overthought and looked too deep into what I said on Twitter," he explained. "I was just saying control what you can control, some things you can't. At the time, I didn't know why I wasn't [playing late in games]. It was out of my control. It just goes with everything in life. Don't let it get to you, work harder, buy into the little things that people can't see. I think that's why I struggled with consistency and certain things along those lines because there were still things I had to learn."
Russell wanted help. He sought advice not only from teammates, but from great players around the league.
"Man, I shouldn't have said anything about talking to LeBron," he says. "It got blown out of proportion."
Reports came out that Russell reached out to James about finding consistency and how to keep a level head. You know, those types of things that differentiate a good player and a great player.
"He told me about the mental aspect of the game," Russell says about his conversation with James. "You have it, now go get it. It's all a mental test, getting through the season, playing 82 games and things like that. It's an adjustment, man. This is what the league is. I appreciated that from him."
Then, he lights up as he goes into brief detail about Dwyane Wade giving him advice at All-Star Weekend. Cameras caught Wade telling Russell, "You're one of the best in the league."
"It kind of look staged, right? I don't believe in staging anything. It was all candid." Russell says. "Everything you see with me… it's real s--t. And talking with D-Wade was real. Talking to him like that, you appreciate any encouragement or advice especially from somebody like that… He told me to just stay at it, be great, love it."
The video cuts after Wade gives him one bit of advice: "Whatever you did to get here… Do more."
And he is.
He bought into a promising culture and he believes in himself. The two go hand-in-hand. He credits the Nets for not only helping him develop, but for instilling structure and discipline in their infectious culture. He credits them for giving him a clean slate and letting him be himself.
"You hear the stories, but you never judge a man until you go, and you see him," Dudley says. "Look, my first impression with D'Angelo was that he was working his a-- off, being on the table, hitting the weight room… A lot of him buying in is Brooklyn… it's the culture. This is how it is here, and it goes beyond D'Angelo, it's Joe [Harris], Caris [LeVert], Jarrett [Allen]. Even when I got here, it was late, but they put you in the program and they're on you. We do a survey every night, 10 questions asking about your body and things like that. D'Angelo really took it serious."
Russell's improbable story has shown us that the facile, two-dimensional depiction of a young man as a professional athlete is often not what we should believe. Context is so important. His teammates learned who he was and helped him along the way.
… And look at what came from it: A leader.
Before the All-Star Break, the Nets and Cavs were in a tight overtime game. Collin Sexton laid home a bucket to tie the game with 2.8 seconds left. From the bench, Tristan Thompson did DLo's signature ice-in-veins gesture.
Russell scored the final 14 points in triple overtime and put the Cavs out.
Then, in their second game following the break, Kemba Walker hit a three-pointer to give the Hornets an eight-point lead with 3:08 left in the game. Like Thompson, Miles Bridges was on the bench, doing Russell's signature gesture. He ended up scoring the final 12 points of the game and the eventual game-winner with less than 40 seconds left.
"Were they really mocking me or were the doing it to celebrate for their teammates?" Russell asks. "I don't know, I think the media overplayed that. I don't really think that was directed at me."
Fair enough. But in a weird way, the gestures sort of signified Russell's past with Los Angeles in the sense that people mocked him behind his back just for him to turn around and prove them wrong. After everything that happened in L.A., Russell left a toxic situation and has become a star.
No mention of you-know-who. It's obvious enough.
"I guess you can look at it that way. My whole career people been doing things [behind by back] and proving them wrong is what I try to do. If they were mocking me then so be it," Russell says. "We got the win and that's what I'm here to help do… Get wins."
He points at my phone and reminds me one last time how he's going to win Most Improved Player.
"I don't care who else is on that list. I'm winning it, believe it."