It’s been more than a year to the date, but it still feels weird. In June 2017, the Nets made a trade which broke the hearts of many and the path the franchise had followed for almost ten years. Back in the summer of 2008, a kid from California was heading to the New Jersey Nets via the NBA draft. He was picked in the 10th spot, five places before he listened to his surname pronounced from the podium again, only this time referring to his brother.
To me, that night marked the start of a new Nets era. I didn’t know that back then, because Brook Lopez wasn’t really that coveted a prospect. Lopez arrived for his short college career as the number nine player in the national rankings and was selected just one position behind that number two years later. Not bad considering he could have opted to enroll into the pro-circuit 12 months prior to when he did. Time would only prove doubters wrong, as Brook Lopez became the face (and the arms, the legs, the torso and everything left) of a franchise that saw him better his game while he watched it change places and venues, moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn.
There is an intrinsic relationship between fans, teams, and players. This is the most common thing in sports, and it won’t change any time soon. People create images in their mind, attach uniforms and colors and meanings to individuals and by mere context, those players are linked forever to franchises. Or it ends up being just the opposite if they can’t seem to find a place that fits their game, be it for on- or off-field issues. The relation between Brook and the Nets, to my eyes, looked like it would never end, and to an extent, I think it shouldn’t. It is not the most common thing nowadays, but one-team players are quality players, no matter their abilities. Brook Lopez was the franchise player in New Jersey, even with an old-yet-still-productive Vince Carter around for a year. Lopez was the franchise player in Brooklyn too, even with the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett coming his way. Yet in 2017, things took a turn and Lopez was gone for good.
In a blatant salary-dump flavored deal, the Lakers acquired Brook Lopez and a pick from Brooklyn, sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov packing. Turns out Paul George slept and LeBron James made them wait. On the other side of things, the Nets weren’t getting much in Russell. He was a former number two overall pick, yes, but he was also someone who had not played to the level of excellence expected from the Los Angeles franchise, who looked like were locked on another point guard for the future, Lonzo Ball.
A trade like this rings the “disrespect” bell to someone like Brook Lopez and what he represented (or should have represented, at least) to the Nets franchise. The gamble was in place. If D’Angelo didn’t pan out in Brooklyn and up his game, more than one Brooklynite would be mad-furious with the front office. The operation was taking a 180º turn, indeed. Brook was leaving the Nets as the player with the second-most games to his name for the franchise (562), only behind Buck Williams (635). An era was closed and another one, with eyes on the future once the errors of the past in the trade no one wants to talk about, was kicked open.
And D’Angelo Russell wasn’t bad. At least not that bad. In his third year in the league, leading the Nets backcourt, he was able to replicate the numbers he had posted in LA and even raised some up, improving his overall game. The emergence of Spencer Dinwiddie, though, made him play the second-fiddle role on ball-handling duties. It wasn’t until this season when things truly clicked for the Louisville native. Now in his fourth year in the league and 47 games into his second season as a Net, D’Angelo has taken the league by storm and remember: Russell has not yet turned 23 years old. He is besting his career averages from every angle dropping 19.2 points a game (38th-best in the NBA), getting 3.7 boards and contributing with a 19th-best 6.4 assists per game. All of this with an eFG% of 51.7, not mind blowing but definitely over his past averages, showing symptoms of development.
At this point, already past the first half of the season and approaching the All-Star break, it looks like the gamble is starting to pay off. (Starting because the gamble itself, to my eyes, and as I’ve already explained, had a great deal of drama to it as it broke a carefully curated relationship that lasted almost a decade. )We’re running out of fingers to count 30+ points performances from Russell (he’s already had eight such games, including a 40-point explosion against Orlando), true. We’re watching a hyped Ohio State prospect finally blossoming into a true leader on the court. We’re experiencing the wrinkled cocoon turning into a beautiful butterfly in front of our eyes on a nightly basis. Yet we’re still waiting for it to be sealed, and most of all, delivered.
D’Angelo Russell is about to hit the market this next July. Brooklyn has the right to match any offer put on the table for the point guard, no matter where it comes from. We, as fans without access to any potential discussion regarding the franchise decision on what to do with the soon-to-be free agent, can only wait and see. I watched Stephon Marbury come and go. Kenyon Martin. Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter, and Jason Kidd. And lastly, Brook. I don’t need more letdowns. The good thing is, sunlight is starting to rise in Brooklyn. The Nets look solid and the players are young. The front office will have tough decisions to make, and D’Angelo was not an original draft pick of the team, but it sure feels like it knowing where the franchise comes from after enduring more than a rocky path these past few seasons.
The future looks bright. D’Angelo can only, I hope, onward go.