D’Angelo Russell and Devin Booker have traveled similar paths in the NBA. But this season only one will walk in guaranteed for five seasons.
Their friendship stems from a high school basketball camp in St. Louis Missouri years ago. D’Angelo Russell and Devin Booker watched and challenged each other to make it playing professional basketball.
The year is 2018, and that goal has since been accomplished.
For Russell however, his career will follow an alternate path soon enough, should he not land a max extension like his buddy Booker. A look at the path taken by two young guards, and why their careers sit at a different pair of crossroads.
Both drafted in 2015, Booker and Russell were clear-cut lottery picks from the jump. The former went second overall to the Los Angeles Lakers, as a potential heir to Kobe Bryant. The latter, to the Phoenix Suns, a franchise that was open for the taking.
And take it he did.
Despite the team’s 68-178 record since his arrival, Booker has proved himself worthy as the Suns’ next franchise star. This past season, he averaged 24.9 points and 4.5 rebounds on 38 percent shooting from behind-the-arc.
Booker and the Suns agreed to a five-year, $158-million contract extension in early July. With the future locked in, Phoenix will now continue the beaten path of rebuilding.
Russell met some criticism in Los Angeles, after recording teammate Nick Young admitting he was disloyal to then-girlfriend Iggy Azalea. The controversy stirred a storm in the locker room, and he was traded just a year thereafter.
Now in Brooklyn, Russell was happy to turn the page on his career and prove his value to a winning culture. The Nets were happy to host such a young talent, and once viewed him as a cornerstone for the rebuilding franchise.
One year after his arrival, his future remains as much a question mark as it did when he was booted out of Hollywood. Does Booker’s contract extension prove good or bad for Brooklyn’s point guard?
The true impact of Booker’s extension can only be measured by how Russell reacts in the 2018-2019 season. The Nets have until October to make an extension offer on the rookie scale.
Conversely, Brooklyn and Russell’s camp have not discussed an extension yet a league source told The Athletic. The 22-year-old guard is owed $7.02 million this upcoming season and is eligible for a $9.16 million qualifying offer and restricted free agency next summer if he doesn’t agree to a rookie scale extension before the start of the regular season in October.
It makes sense, following his up-and-down introductory year with the Nets. Russell averaged 15.5 points and 5.2 assists on 41 percent shooting from the field.
Not the kind of numbers that motivate any team towards offering an extension of such proportions. But Booker’s deal is the kind of contract that will motivate Russell moving forward. That comes from the Suns’ guard directly:
“Obviously, everybody wants to be in that situation to be a max player, and it comes at different times for people, so I think D’Angelo, I was with him yesterday, he looks at it as motivation, something that he’s going to get towards. I know Karl Towns is most likely going to do his this summer I would think, but it’s a blessing for sure.”
Nonetheless, Russell proved he’s just as capable as Booker when healthy, which is what makes the situation such an enigma for Brooklyn. Over the Nets’ first twelve games, he averaged 20.9 points and 5.7 assists on 46 percent shooting.
That’s before missing 33 games to arthroscopic knee surgery on his right knee, an injury that possibly cost him any potential extension.
If Russell had maintained that level of play over at least 70 or more games, he’d be up for some kind of contract continuation, though maybe not as lucrative as his friend in Arizona.
What’s there to work on?
Russell’s three-point shot and overall efficiency could use some fine-tuning and turnovers were also a major problem. He averaged a career-high 3.1 per game.
Advances on defense could even be enough to solidify his place as a top guard in the East. He’s already displayed the proper tools on offense, but basketball is a two-sided game.
Russell is a guy that’s used to having that chip on his shoulder. He was heavily criticized by Magic Johnson for not being the leader Los Angeles needed in his tenure with the Lakers.
Then, he came to Brooklyn and was just that. A locker room voice, a guy who shows up to games even just to sit on the sidelines, and more recently: a player who shows up at Las Vegas Summer League to support his new (and old) teammates.
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) July 10, 2018
The Nets are going to need to see Russell take large strides this season while maintaining his health. The recent trade of point guard Jeremy Lin proves that Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson trust that he’s capable of such.
Russell will play the main facilitator of the Nets’ offense, and the coaching staff has made it clear they want the ball in his hands. His on-court vision is precisely what made the Nets’ trade for him last summer.
With the state of the franchise’s current financial situation, Brooklyn will have north of $70 million in cap space next summer.
That makes them eligible to sign two max contracts, and the 2019 free agent class is loaded. If the Nets feel they’ll be in place to compete with a core that doesn’t feature next year’s version of Russell, he very well may be looking for a new home.
Fortunately enough for the guard, a lot of teams are looking at some serious cap space in 2019.
Unless he falls to some season-ending injury, Russell will get paid for the 2019-2020 season and beyond.
But it’s about Brooklyn right now, a place that he’s made clear he’d like to finish his career. It would only be sweeter to be a part of a competitive Nets team, something fans have longed for since the infamous Celtics trade of 2013.
Booker’s extension should be nothing short of a daily reminder for this 22-year-old guard.
Russell’s play in year four will hold heavy implications for what kind of player he becomes, and what kind of contract he earns. The Brooklyn Nets fans and front office have made it clear they are rooting for Russell to thrive.
So quit “loading” D’Angelo, and go secure that bag.