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Kenny Atkinson pays D’Angelo Russell the ultimate compliment

Nobody ever doubted D’Angelo Russell’s ability to score. Or to pass.

But could he lead? Could he win?

Guiding the rebuilding Nets into the playoffs for the first time since 2015 may have put those questions to bed, as well.

“It’s another star on his résumé,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “He’s more than just a scorer, he’s more than just an elite passer. You’re a winner. To me, you make the playoffs, you put that on your label on your locker. It’s so hard to make the playoffs. We were so far away these past two years. To make this big jump, that was really unexpected. That makes it all the more sweet.”

GM Sean Marks bought low on Russell after a tumultuous time with the Lakers made him available. But he has made that big jump to an All-Star, elevating the Nets as well. They had offered Russell not only a clean slate, but a more stable environment for him to grow and mature. Two years in he’s done both, blossoming into the point guard — and professional — they need.

“D’Lo obviously was recognized by the league, All-Star appearance, and I think he’s honestly played on an All-NBA level. He’s been the main focus for us all year,” said Joe Harris, adding, “Our offense goes as far as D’Lo takes us.”

After the first non-losing season in Brooklyn since 2014 — and the first of his career — Russell is champing at the bit for his first postseason.

“Yeah, for sure,” said Russell, who had been 71-175 through his first three seasons in the NBA. “I’ve been through losing so much in this league, so to finally get a taste of winning and what the playoffs are going to feel like, I’m excited.”

In many ways, point guards are like quarterbacks. Fair or not, they’re judged by a different standard than other players.

It’s not just about making passes, but making the playoffs.

“For sure,” Jared Dudley said. “Especially in this league because the ball is in their hands 80 percent of the time. The point guard is like the quarterback. You’re involved in pick-and-roll, decision-making, you decide who has the good game, 10 assists, when to be aggressive. You get a lot of the blame, too, when you don’t. That’s why they’re usually one of the highest-paid players on the team.

“They have to deal with that. But D’Lo has done a great job, from the benching early in the year to finding his groove to making it to the All-Star team to taking over games for us to having critical errors and responding. He’s had a phenomenal year. Now this is the final stage of it: Playoffs, how well he can deal with this and — in the summertime — build on it.”

Russell can use the experience to build on a career year. At 23, he’s still working on ball security and controlling the game, both vital in the playoffs.

But he won’t be the most-watched Net just in the postseason, but in the offseason as well. A restricted free agent, retaining Russell will likely be a high priority — and a costly endeavor.

“D’Angelo has shown that he’s a Net, and what he’s done out there for this whole year, he bought in completely. His leadership skills have continued to grow,” Marks said on WFAN on Monday. “D’Angelo will have decisions to make. Obviously we as an organization will have decisions to make.

“But there’s something to be said for keeping your own guys, developing your own guys and continuity. … This is one of those businesses that things change quickly. But again, I give D’Angelo a heck of a lot of credit. All the guys, they’ve all bought in to being something bigger than themselves, cheering each other and rooting each other on. D’Angelo is definitely the head of that snake.”


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