Russell went from potential first-round bust to All-Star on a playoff team
"I've seen a lot of growth, really in all areas. Maybe the most important area, is as a team leader ... that said, the point guard is always going to have the most complex job of ball distribution, mixing in an aggressive attack, to score and set up playmaking opportunities. There's real nuance to all that stuff. But he's smart. He wants it, and I've really loved how he's played. He gets a little better every day."
Those were the words of Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle at the beginning of the season about his then-starting point guard, Dennis Smith Jr.
A lot has happened since then: uneven play from Smith, some immaturity, and the emergence of a rookie named Luka Doncic. Fast forward to today and Smith is now a member of the Knicks, on a completely gutted roster (or a young rebuilding one, at least) looking to find stable footing and develop into the player many thought he could be when Dallas selected him No. 9 overall in the 2017 draft.
But for Smith and the Knicks to be hopeful, they needn't look any farther than across the Brooklyn Bridge at the development of D'Angelo Russell.
NBA fans know the story. In 2015, Russell was drafted No. 2 overall by the Lakers, who saw Russell as a player with "star" potential that could help usher in their next period of glory during life after Kobe. But it was never meant to be. Russell never got the opportunity to be "mentored" by Bryant. Then there was the "Snapchat incident" -- but that terrible lapse in judgment, poor play, immaturity and the drafting of Lonzo Ball led to Russell's 2017 draft day deal to the Nets.
Now Russell is an All-Star and it's safe to assume the Lakers wouldn't mind having this version of him right now. Such is the plight of young point guards in a dynamic NBA, where we want immediate results.
Like Doc Rivers recently told the NY Post of Russell: "Sometimes, you've just got to wait on a kid."
But for the Knicks, the development of Russell at least shows what they could have in Smith.
Most point guards don't fully develop until the age of 22 or 23, or their third or fourth season in the league. Looking at both Smith and Russell's rookie years, there are some similarities (Smith's rookie numbers also compare favorably with another athletic point guard and former league MVP in Oklahoma City)
Even though their games aren't carbon copies, Smith would do well using Russell as a blueprint. Both players are good at reading their defender in ball screen and pick-and-roll action; the 6-foot-5 Russell is very good at it. Smith, standing at 6-foot-3, would do well studying that part of his game.
Imagine advanced-level ball screen and pick-and-roll skills coupled with pure athleticism?
In terms of personality, there are some similarities, too. As rookies, both could be described as headstrong point guards with something to prove. Russell, though still out to prove his doubters wrong, has developed a calmness. Yes, part of it is maturity. But, it's also the situation he's in and the relationship he has with his head coach, Kenny Atkinson.
Roadmap to Success
Year one in Brooklyn was a bit rocky for Russell, but before it was derailed with an injury, he was starting to get it. Russell was averaging career-highs in points per game (15) and assists per game (5.2). His per 36 numbers were great at 21.7 ppg and 7.3 apg. He began developing a relationship with Atkinson and the seeds of trust were planted.
In year two, now his fourth season in the league, Russell is an All-Star. The presence of veteran leaders like DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis, Jared Dudley, and Shabazz Napier have all helped with the young point guard's development and maturity. He is averaging career highs across the board: 20.4 ppg, 6.8 apg on 36 percent shooting from three.
He also has the highest usage rate of his career at 31 percent. During a rough stretch for the Nets in late November and early December, Russell was in a slump and being pulled in and out of the lineup during crunch time because of ineffective play. During a players' only film session, Russell sought help from his veteran teammates, asking "What am I doing wrong? How can I be better?"
The result was improved play from the young point guard, including the best month (January) of his professional career, and the team recording an 11-4 record and establishing themselves in the playoff race.
Self-awareness is among the most important skills any person can possess. In that moment of poor play, Russell humbled himself and asked for help. He wanted to be better, but not just for himself.
The NBA is made up of approximately 470 players. The ego and bravado that exists is overwhelming. Rightfully so. You have to be extremely good at basketball to make it in this league. Humility is not an easy virtue for this level of professionals.
Russell credits Atkinson and the situation in Brooklyn for his success. At his All-Star media availability in Charlotte when asked about working with Atkinson he said: "He's been great. He's gotten better as well. I think just with the youth that we have on the coaching staff and as players, we're all getting better together. It's a good feeling."
There is a trust that has developed between the two and it has unlocked freedom for Russell.
If Smith can develop a bond with head coach David Fizdale, the sky's the limit for him. For his part, Fizdale wants that for Smith.
"I want to put the ball in his hands a lot and get him out in the open court and get him a lot of space. Give him some freedom to make some mistakes and while he's learning," Fizdale told ESPN of Smith, adding, "But man, there's no doubt about it. The kid's a talent and hopefully we can bring it out consistently."
The Challenge of Staying the Course
The NBA, much like society, is about immediate gratification. We need results now. General managers, coaches and players are seemingly judged game to game. But development, growth and improvement are not linear. It's not true in life, why should sports be any different?
There are ups and downs, and maximizing potential in the NBA is all about fit and situation. For the elite talent within the league, they will thrive and grow into their talent regardless of where they are. But for the other 99 percent, it is incumbent upon organizations to have a plan, a roadmap, and stick to their core principles (of course leaving room for some flexibility). Giving up a year or two in for the next shiny, new prospect or idea is generally bad for business.
In Brooklyn, the Nets clearly have a plan and it looks to be with Russell as a cornerstone of said plan. Can the same be said of the New York Knicks? We'll wait and see what the plan is for Smith Jr.