ORLANDO — The moment that D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets have been eyeing came to life on Friday afternoon, arriving miles high with Russell and the Nets on the way to Florida.
It was the culmination of torrid play over the last month in particular. With every big game, with every Nets win, the moment came closer to this reality: D’Angelo Russell is an NBA All-Star.
The NBA announced Friday that Russell had been selected to replace injured Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo. Two weeks from now, Russell is bound for Charlotte to take the court with the NBA’s best in the 2019 NBA All-Star Game.
“I was on a plane,” said Russell. “We just traveled from San Antonio. I heard the news and then coach congratulated me, told me. He was the first one to break it to me. I was in awe on the plane. I’m a crier, honestly. I was holding my tears in.”
“It gave me chills,” said Atkinson about delivering the news. “I’m an emotional coach, emotional person. I didn’t cry, but I got emotional. Listen, there’s a lot of work put in, No. 1 by him, the work he’s put in; staying here all offseason, really working his tail off. To see him be rewarded, it’s a great testament to his work ethic.”
The 22-year-old guard is posting career highs in points (19.6), assists (6.4), field goal percentage (.438), 3-point field goal percentage (.374) and free throw percentage (.808).
“The coaches that I’ve had, my teammates that I’ve met throughout this journey, it’s something that you can’t take away,” said Russell. “It almost feels like a degree. You can’t take that away from somebody. You get that one All-Star, two, you never know when you’re going to get that opportunity again. So I’m forever blessed for that.”
The 6-foot-5 guard’s play has been integral to Brooklyn’s 20-7 surge over the last two months as the Nets have moved from below .500 to playoff position in the Eastern Conference, currently sitting in sixth place.
“The team’s been thriving, and I think recognition comes when you’re winning and doing the right things,” said Russell. “Coaches, the league, in general, it’s what gets noticed, when you’re winning around the league. I think just in general, our whole team, our whole coaching staff, performance (staff), everybody’s just logged in to winning and sacrificing what they have to do to win. Individual accolades come with it, but just all in general our whole team’s been getting that success.”
A huge performance in January helped Russell surge into All-Star consideration. In 15 games, Russell averaged 23.8 points, 7.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, shooting 47.9 percent overall and 41.3 percent from 3-point range. With 52 3-pointers made in January he rose to ninth in the NBA with 140 total 3-pointers made.
Earlier in January, Russell earned his first career Player of the Week honor after matching his career high with 40 points — including the go-ahead 3-pointer — in a come-from-behind win at Orlando on Jan. 18. He also scored 34 points against Boston in the same week, posting seven assists each time.
“He’s in a state of grace right now,” said Atkinson. “I’m really proud of his defensive improvement. I think he’s really taken steps there. Offensively, he’s a talented, gifted, gifted player. The last part about it, he’s done a fantastic job taking care of his body. I think he’s improved athletically. His recovery practices have gotten better. He’s really bought into our performance team. It’s a total success story. It’s a wonderful story.”
Getting the news, as much as it meant to him, is of course just the start of the story. It will be an entirely different emotion when he gets to Charlotte to share that All-Star spotlight with some players who are already legendary.
“I’m going to be star struck,” said Russell. “I’m not going to lie. At the end of the day, I’m 22. A lot of these guys are a little older than me, so I watched them on TV. Dreamed of playing in that game. But it’s just another chapter in my book. I’m going to be star struck, in awe the whole time. I can’t imagine being in an All-Star Game, knowing that you’re among some of the best of the best.”
Russell is the first Nets player to make the All-Star Game since Joe Johnson in 2014. He’s also the second-youngest among the franchise’s 15 All-Stars behind Nets legend Buck Williams, who was younger in both 1982 and 1983.
His selection is milestone personally, but also for the franchise as it continues its steady ascendance since GM Sean Marks and Atkinson took over in 2016. Russell will also have company in Charlotte — teammates Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs, each 20 years old — will be playing in the Rising Stars game.
“It goes back into just development,” said Russell. “I could speak for myself, but just from the outside looking in, you see how many players that we have that have grown, just over the time that they’ve been here. The summer of hard work that they put in. For myself, I can say that I’ve been through so much.
“I didn’t know how to be a professional. So to come around this organization, they nurtured how to be a professional. You’re around it every day. There’s no let-offs. Everybody’s two feet in on just being in for everybody else instead of yourself. I needed that, that reassurances, and almost that humbling experience just coming to a new organization where they take pride into that. Just to get this opportunity, I’m lost for words, but I know how far I’ve come. That speaks for the development of the players we have here. I think that’s going to go a long way in the future.”