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  • Erik Slater

D’Angelo Russell proving he belongs among the Eastern Conference elite

The Brooklyn Nets entered the 2018 season with several long-term questions to answer.

None was bigger than the future of D’Angelo Russell.

Without any significant offseason acquisitions and Russell’s impending restricted free agency looming, the 22-year-old needed to elevate his play to the star-level that was expected when he was selected second-overall in 2015 if the Nets were to be successful.

In his fourth NBA season, Russell is making the jump from a good player to the star player and leader the Los Angeles Lakers believed he would never become.

Russell was somewhat forgotten around the league after his tumultuous time in Los Angeles, but Brooklyn’s dramatic turnaround has brought him back into the national spotlight. Since starting 8-18, the Nets have won 18 of their last 23, propelling themselves to sixth place in the East.

This improbable hot streak has many wondering, what has changed for the Brooklyn Nets? How is a team that won 28 games last season with an assortment of castoffs in serious playoff contention?

Russell is at the center of what has changed.

He is averaging 24.1 points and 7.7 assists per game on shooting splits of 49.3/44.2/89.5 in the New Year and was selected Eastern Conference Player of the Week last week. The point guard is playing with the poise and swagger of a star late in games.

The 22-year-old’s diverse skill set makes him a unique offensive talent. The most impressive aspect of Russell’s breakout is that he continues to add weapons to his offensive repertoire.

He has shown improvement in several areas, shooting from 3 off of screens and in transition, keeping defenders on his back hip off the pick and roll to create space in the mid-range, making passes from different angles for easy layups, driving and freezing defenders with ball fakes each game.

The control in Russell’s game has been a revelation for Brooklyn. He often struggled with decision making late in games last season, often forcing difficult passes that had little chance of being completed.

Russell now uses his special court vision to know when he can or can’t thread a pass through a tight window.

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson pointed to Russell’s court vision as his elite skill in Wednesday’s postgame press conference:

“What I’m really proud of is his turnovers have gone down. He’s still finding guys but his turnover rate is decreasing. I’ve said that from the beginning, that’s his elite skill. I’m thrilled.”

This season Russell has matured and taken over games when Brooklyn has needed him most. He wants to be the player who brings the Nets back from a huge deficit or takes the last shot to ice the game or rallies the team together when things aren’t going their way. That’s a star’s mentality.

It is not surprising that Russell is beginning to reach his potential in his fourth season.

With one-and-done players becoming commonplace in college basketball, people tend to forget the incredibly young ages players are being drafted at. Russell was just 19 years old when he came into the league.

There is an obvious learning curve and adjustment period in which young players must mature and figure out life on and off the court. Russell clearly struggled with that in Los Angeles.

The point guard position is particularly difficult to play at a high level at such a young age. Young point guards must adapt to the speed of the game and figure out their strengths and weaknesses against athletes far superior to the ones they faced in college.

Russell is beginning to understand how to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses at the NBA level. This is evident in his improved shot selection, decreased turnover rate and improved leadership qualities.

Russell emphasized the importance of his teammates in a postgame interview after Monday’s win over Sacramento:

“My teammates. I can say it, it’s gonna get old, it’s gonna sound cliche, but my teammates. Everybody’s stepping up, doing they’re part, and we’re doing this collectively every night. Every night it’s collective, it’s a collective group doing it.”

This is more than Russell being a good teammate as Brooklyn has received steady contributions throughout the entire roster over the hot streak.

Spencer Dinwiddie has risen to another level this season, averaging 17.2 points and 5.0 assists on 36.6 percent shooting from 3.

Russell and Dinwiddie both posted stellar performances in Wednesday night’s win over Orlando, something pundits have accused the duo of being incapable of this season.

Joe Harris has morphed into one of Brooklyn’s most consistent all-around players, shooting at the highest rate of his career and frequently making huge plays down the stretch. The sharpshooter ranks third in the league in 3-point percentage at 47.1 percent.

Jarrett Allen continues to be a force in the paint defensively for Brooklyn. The 20-year-old possesses the unique ability to rim protect while being able to switch onto guards and defend on the perimeter.

DeMarre Carroll’s resurgence has sparked the Nets over the last two months. The 10-year veteran is averaging 15.4 points per game on 40.7 percent shooting from 3 in January.

Rookie forward Rodions Kurucs has exceeded expectations, backup center Ed Davis is second in the league in rebounds per 36 minutes at 17.0 and Shabazz Napier has played well in his role as an energetic offensive presence off the bench.

Each of these players has been an important piece of Brooklyn’s turnaround, but Russell’s play was the catalyst that sparked it all.

With the NBA All-Star Game around the corner, Russell has earned his spot among the Eastern Conference’s best.

Following a horrible knee injury to Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, Russell has a good chance of being selected to the All-Star team.

Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker were selected as starters for the East and Bradley Beal is a lock as a reserve in the East’s backcourt. Kyle Lowry and Eric Bledsoe will be Russell’s biggest competition.

Dwayne Wade received the second-most votes among guards in his final season, but the fan vote only accounts for 50 percent. With the media and players each accounting for 25 percent, Wade did not make the cut to be selected as a starter.

Reserves are picked by the coaches in each conference, so Wade is unlikely to make the team.

Russell has outplayed both Lowry and Bledsoe this season. Brooklyn’s unanticipated emergence from the Eastern Conference cellar and Russell’s stellar performance in the New Year may give the guard a boost in the eyes of the players and media.

Brooklyn’s offseason plans will likely now account for a new contract for Russell. He will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season and will garner significant interest around the league.

The Nets would be wise to begin dialogue with Russell about his next contract sooner rather than later.

Brooklyn’s belief in Russell, a coaching staff that every player raves about, his teammates, and the big city may encourage the young guard to workout a team-friendly deal to allow the Nets to pursue other big-time free agents.

With Spencer Dinwiddie potentially sidelined with a thumb injury, this is now Russell’s team. Without Caris LeVert and Dinwiddie, he will need to carry the load.

Russell’s performance this season has put him in the conversation of the league’s best young guards. At just 22 years old, he will be a focal point of Brooklyn’s long-term plans.