D'Angelo Russell's Path to Stardom and Beyond

D'Angelo Russell
Orlando Magic v Minnesota Timberwolves | David Berding/Getty Images

In the middle of his second season with the Brooklyn Nets, D'Angelo Russell tweeted, "Control what you can control 2019, 20, 21."

“I started living by that,” Russell told The Big Lead.

In the ninth game of that 2018 campaign, Russell was benched during the entire fourth quarter in a loss against the Houston Rockets.

Sitting for the final period was not an uncommon occurrence for Russell that year.

“I couldn’t control that,” Russell said. “I’m not going to let it break me or bring me down. You see players nowadays, younger players in the league go through that same adversity in their careers and they let it break them. I try to send that message of, 'Man, you gotta play the game, dog.'" 

Russell missed 34 games due to injury in his first season in Brooklyn after the Lakers sent him to the East Coast. Now he isn't seeing the court in the most important quarter of the game. This wasn’t how the No. 2 overall pick’s career was supposed to go.

Yet, following Russell’s career trajectory and life patterns, it's unsurprising this is how his path unfolded.

“I’ve always been a late bloomer,” Russell said. “When it comes to high school, college, summer league, rookie year, it was all getting my feet wet.”

Russell has already had monumental moments in his young career; Magic Johnson and the Lakers picked him second overall in the NBA draft, he earned an All-Star game berth, was teammates with Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry, and played in Dwyane Wade's final game.

All before his 25th birthday.

The process started in a small town called Valley Station right outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Alongside his best friend, Jake Mills, they emulated players such as Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Manu Ginobili. Rajon Rondo, also a Louisville native, was a player they would root for everywhere he went.

"The whole city was on your back if you made it out," Russell said. "Nobody made it out of Valley Station."

At Stuart Academy in the seventh grade, Mills and Russell started talking over a pair of shoes Russell was wearing. The two found out they were on the same school bus later that day, and the rest was history.

Mills not only became a best friend but a brother to Russell who motivated him to do better. He continues to do so today.

“When you see somebody get thrown this hand of cards and they come back and play an even better hand, it’s just a joy and it’s special to watch," said Mills. "Especially when it’s on a personal level of somebody you know and been around the majority of your life.” 

Often, after school, Russell would challenge Mills to a game of 21. When they played in the driveway, Russell would use his non-dominant hand. Other times he would attempt to only shoot the ball off the backboard. Even on his own, he had to make a specific shot, or else he wouldn't get a scholarship in his mind.

"I don't look at it as an accident," Russell said. "I look at it as the work that I put in and Jake was there to witness it."

D'Angelo Russell
Kelly Kline/Getty Images

When high school came, Russell transferred to Montverde Academy in Florida for his sophomore year. The school was a culture shock from what he was used to at home, and he struggled with the distance from his family and Jake.

Kevin Boyle, the head coach of the Montverde Academy Eagles, would ride Russell hard while the point guard was under his tutelage.

"He would just hound me, hound me," Russell said. "I wanted to quit."

Then-Ohio State head coach Thad Matta went down to Florida and watched practice at Montverde. He was unsure that Russell would stay.

"Kevin Boyle, he rode him so hard," Matta recalled. "I remember coming out of the gym and called [Ohio State assistant coach] Jeff [Boals], and I said look, I don't know where he's going, but he's not going to stay here and put up with this."

Yet, his father Antonio didn't let him leave. Russell endured the tough times and stayed for the remainder of his high school career, which he says is the best decision he ever made.

Boals had told Matta to come with him to watch the rising star in Russell. Matta couldn't believe Boals had him going to see a kid that was not even in 10th grade, but the second he watched Russell play, he knew why.

"He was unbelievable," Matta said. "I was blown away by how good he was. From that moment, he became a target for us. I just loved him."

After the tough start of his Montverde career, Russell led his team to two national high school championships. He played in two of the most prominent high school basketball games in the country: the McDonald's All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic game. ESPN ranked him as the 13th-best basketball player in the 2014 high school class. Yet, even with all of the accolades, being a one-and-done prospect did not seem realistic.

“I was special at a young age and I didn’t know it,” Russell said.

That sentiment changed fast once he got to Ohio State. He scored over 30 points and hit a game-winner during his first exhibition matchup against West Virginia. Matta quickly realized they had landed more than just a top recruit-- and he might not be on campus for very long.

"We got on the bus I turned to the coaches, and I said, 'Hey fellas, we gotta find another guard,'" Matta said. "I've never seen anything like what he just did in there."

Thad Matta, D'Angelo Russell
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Russell impressed Matta and the coaching staff with his competitiveness and drive. If he had a bad practice, he'd take a student manager into the women's practice gym and work on his game long after his teammates had gone home.

Sticking with the process was something that his father ingrained in him. For instance, Ohio State was up big one game, but Matta did not like how Russell was conducting himself throughout. Matta called a timeout and went on a tirade, yelling at Russell all the way from the court to the huddle.

"There was a text message at 7:17 that night from his dad," Matta said.

"Coach, please don't stop ever coaching my son like that."

During the season, Russell continued to stay focused on the task at hand. The noise that surrounded him as a future lottery pick that summer did not change his approach.

"Even at the end of the year, he did a phenomenal job of having two feet in and staying focused and locked in and avoiding the noise," Boals said.

Mills' first time going to see his childhood best friend at Ohio State happened to come at the same time Phil Jackson, then the president of the New York Knicks, came to campus. Looking back on that gave Jake and Russell chills.

Even at this point, Russell still did not fully grasp that he would make the NBA until the Big Ten Tournament at the end of the season.

"It was shocking to me," Russell said. "I'm really out here busting these dudes."

Ultimately, he loved Ohio State, but he was guaranteed to be a top-5 pick, and he couldn't pass up that big of an opportunity. The team finished 24-11 and made the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Russell averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.

At the time, one of the best star traits about him from the scout's point of view as an NBA prospect was his court vision. His trainer, Dion Lee, would always tell Russell to see the game three seconds ahead.

"Any play, anything you can think of, I just remember it," Russell said. "The irony of the situation may come back around, and I see it again. I think it's a gift, honestly."

Still, to this day, Russell hears Lee's voice in his head, saying, "Guard arm up,” whenever he plays. 

The work that Lee did with him as a young player helped mold the star that’s seen today.

"Out of all of the kids that I ever had that soaked everything in, he's the one," Lee told me. "He soaked it all in."

Upon being drafted, the Lakers situation did not go as planned. Seeing a No. 2 draft pick get traded before his third season is almost unheard-of in the NBA. After an up-and-down first two years in the NBA, the Lakers shipped him to the Brooklyn Nets during the summer of 2017. On his way out, then-Lakers president Magic Johnson told reporters at a news conference that he needed a “leader”. Somewhat of a harsh good-bye from the man who drafted him second overall in 2015, and a narrative that Russell had to shed over the following years. 

"Kenny Atkinson called me when they were thinking about making the trade," Matta said. "He was very thorough in his approach, and I thought it was a really good situation for him in terms of what they needed."

In his first season with the Nets, he put up similar stats as he did with the Lakers, and while they showed promise, he ended up getting hurt, and the team only won 28 games.

The following season is when everything clicked.

D'Angelo Russell
Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four | Elsa/Getty Images

"I figured out how to be a f--king professional," Russell said. "Be all about my body, be all about my diet, be all about my recovery."

Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game and led the Brooklyn Nets to the playoffs as the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference in 2018.

"When I did it, I didn't surprise myself," Russell said. "I set those goals before the season, and I felt like I was good enough to do it the year before, but I got injured."

Being in Brooklyn meant he could reunite with the man who recruited him in high school. Boals, the assistant from Ohio State, was the head coach of Stony Brook just an hour down the road from Brooklyn. The two were able to see each other face-to-face, something they couldn't do when he played in Los Angeles.

"I got pretty close with his agent," Boals said. "Sometimes his agent would call me and say 'Hey, you need to call D [D'Angelo]. He needs to hear from you.'"

Having Boals in his corner is without a doubt connected to the positive transition he went through. 

Perhaps the most memorable moment of that season came in Sacramento with the Nets trailed by 25 points entering the final quarter. Russell exploded for 27 points in the fourth alone.

"I tapped into something that game," Russell said. "I remember when we were playing, and we were down, and I remember when I used to play against the Chris Paul's, the Kyrie's, the Damian Lillard's at a young age when we were young, and we would be up like 15, seven minutes to go. I'm thinking it's over so I'm talking sh-- and they find a way to win that game. I'm like, 'How the hell do ya'll manage to do that?'"

It came full circle that night because Kings star Buddy Hield was talking trash to Russell when the Kings were up big. Although, this time, Russell was the one who got the last laugh.

"He's like, 'It's over,'" Russell said. "Timeout, and we went crazy. I remember being in that position and now look at it."

Even with the success of the season, there were still ups and downs.

The amount of times when he would ride the bench late in the fourth quarter piled up. Instead of sulking at the demotion, he embraced the situation. He lived by the mindset of his tweet: control what you can control.

"I looked at it as, alright, let me get Theo Pinson over here lit because this dude is the funniest dude in the NBA," Russell said. "He's on my side. We're talking trash to other teams; we're getting hype when somebody scores. We aren't playing, but we over here lit, you're going to hear the bench too. It became fun to sit on the bench. If I wasn't in the game I'm sitting on the bench, alright my day at work is about to be fun."

At the same time, Russell made an All-Star team without seeing the court in the most important moments of the game. Playing in the fourth quarter or not, he went through a transition as a leader.

"I remember when I got All-Star picked over Eric Bledsoe," Russell said. "Eric Bledsoe had a different approach towards me. I felt it. But me, I'm not even worried about him, I'm worried about trying to win, but I feel him, his energy's a little different. Dudes are so competitive in the league."

After three years of being on sub 30-win teams, he also got the chance to play in the playoffs and win 40+ games. 

"To get to do that, I was in awe the whole time," Russell said. "It was a movie. I always use that expression. That's what it is to me. It just seemed like a movie; I'm in the playoffs, I always dreamed of it, watched it, we win a game."

Lee told him now that he's made the playoffs he will never want to miss them again.

"Every year you don't make the playoffs is like a wasted year," Russell said. "That's what it feels like to me. I feel like I wasted a year."

That season only resulted in a first-round playoff appearance but is one of the most underrated achievements in NBA history considering all of the factors at play with Brooklyn and Russell himself. After such an impressive season, Russell was a restricted free agent, but the Nets went all-in on acquiring superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. As a result, he was shipped out west once more and signed a max contract with the Golden State Warriors to the tune of $117 million.

"It didn't go unnoticed because I signed the deal that I signed," Russell said. "I'm humbly saying that. To get paid in this league is hard; it's not easy. It's so many bumps that you have to get up from just to get that."

Playing with the Warriors was a short experience that only lasted 33 games, but in that time, he learned from some of the game's greatest players ever and a team that had been to five straight NBA Finals.

"I took advantage of Steph Curry's mind as far as his approach to the game," Russell said. "On the court off the court investments how he worked his body just little things like that. Draymond [Green] the same way, I picked Steve Kerr's brain about film and things, so I took advantage of everything."

At the trade deadline, he was once again on the move and was sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Over the summer, signing with the Timberwolves was a strong possibility because of their need for a franchise point guard and his close friendship with Karl Anthony-Towns. On February 7, 2020, the Timberwolves made the Russell/Anthony-Towns partnership a reality by acquiring the star point guard in a blockbuster deal.

"Now I get to take all of that that I learned in Brooklyn and all of that from Golden State and now I get to just lay it all out in Minnesota, so I think we're going to make it home. It's going to be special," Russell said.

After the trade, he moved in with his buddy Anthony-Towns for the final three months of the season. Russell has not had much stability besides playing in high school at Montverde for three consecutive years. Since arriving at Ohio State, he has played for four different teams and five different head coaches in five years.

"As soon as I get to unpack my bags, it's going to be different," Russell said. "I get to perfect my craft, and I've got a team that wants to play for me and with me, and we're attacking this shit head down. We know what we're capable of. It's going to be spooky."

Playing with Towns is exciting because of their friendship, but even more importantly, he is an All-Star caliber player around the same age as Russell.

"I feel sorry for dudes that he's going to be matched up against," Russell said. "He's coming with a complete different killer [attitude] about him. His approach is completely different. I recognize it with just being around him. I live with the dude. I moved to Minnesota I've been living with him for three months."

Stability is important on the court and off of the court. Now, his way of perfecting his craft can be used towards teammates who he hopes to play with for a long time.

"When I'm playing with players I know what their best attribute is," Russell said. "They may not even know it, because I study these dudes, I study everybody I play against, everybody I might play with. When I get out on the court, it's a flow because I know that I am going to give them the ball when there in their most comfortable position."

Still, there is another gear Lee thinks Russell can reach. Yet, Russell is not planning on predicting any MVPs or NBA Championship trophies. Instead, he keeps his hard work to himself.

"My dad always said to me whenever I talk about it or put it out there, it never happens," Russell said. "My whole life, I've always been like that. I just like to go in with a zone where I can go perfect my craft, and then I just look up and I'm an All-Star, we won ten in a row, we're in the playoffs. That's where my success has always kinda come in when I just go to work, put my head down."

He likes to use the saying “comfortable being uncomfortable." Keeping this mindset has allowed him to battle through the tough times and taken him to where he is now. Still, he will always be that same kid from a small town in Kentucky who loved to play basketball in the driveway with his best friend Jake.

"When I see a kid with my jersey on, that shit's crazy to me every time," Russell said. "I'm in the process of making my own shoe. I look at this moment, I'm just like, this is crazy. It'll never be normal to me."

He’s always been a late bloomer, and even with all of the success to date, the final product is far from complete.