Russell reflects on low point that sparked his career turnaround


SALT LAKE CITY — The last time D’Angelo Russell was in Utah, he hobbled off the Vivint Smart Home Arena court with a knee injury that required surgery. It cost him two months, and the Nets finished near the league cellar again.

But it also gave Russell the motivation — and the blueprint — for a workaholic summer that changed his career.

Russell returns Saturday as a newly minted All-Star, turning in a career season in a contract year. And he’s been so busy leading the Nets’ playoff push — they are in sixth place in the East — he hasn’t even thought about how far he’s come.

“It sounds cliché, but this year has been going by so fast with a lot of success and ups and downs early, but a lot of success has overruled or overexerted energy that I had to take that time to realize, ‘Man, I’ve come a long way,’ or ‘I did this in a short amount of time,’ ” Russell said. “I’ve been in kind of a head-down mode, and then I look up and I’m in this position.”

Russell went down with 2:57 left in the Nets’ loss at Utah on Nov. 11, 2017. He needed knee surgery that sidelined him for 32 games.

Coming off the first serious injury of his NBA career, Russell drew motivation from that surgery for his summer regimen.

“It was more about getting my body right versus the adversity. I knew I was in [an important] position. Going into contract year, you want to prove to yourself and to your peers that you’re meant to be here,” said Russell, who will be a restricted free agent.

“When it came down to locking in and trying to get my body right, that was the first year of my career that I’ve had to spend that time to get my body right. I didn’t know what it meant or what it took to be healthy and be prepared for 82-plus games. … Injuries come with sports. I know that. But you can be prepared, get your body as prepared as it can be through practice and weights.”

Throw in rest and diet and other subtle but vital lessons that Russell learned from last season’s rehab and used to lay the groundwork for this season’s breakthrough.

“It’s easy to stop if you see a little success, if you see a little bit of light. But I knew I was going to prioritize myself to keep going and preparing like I’m trying to recover from injury versus trying to beat the risk of it,” Russell said. “It may sound cliché, but sleep [was key]. I definitely got my sleep habits way better.

“Full-time chef. I’m not going out of my way to eat something that’s not prepared for me. Routine as far as preparing each day with a business approach to whatever it is — practice, weights, film, road trips. … The norm was me being immature, so I definitely had to prove that a little bit as well.”

That new maturity — which started with his last visit to Utah — has spurred a career season in which he is averaging 20.2 points and 6.8 assists.

Russell joins Kyrie Irving as the only players in the East averaging 20 points and 6.5 assists; James Harden and Damian Lillard are the only other players in the NBA combining those stats with 150 3-poitners. All that work is going to land him a big raise.

Russell is earning $7 million this season with a cap hold of $21 million entering free agency. He is likely to land an offer sheet for even more. It could be from the Magic (despite their trade for Markelle Fultz) or the Suns (who would need to clear cap space or renounce Kelly Oubre). Or the Nets.

Wherever it comes from, it would have been hard to imagine when Russell was helped off the court in his last trip to Utah.