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All-Star D'Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor trying to move onward and upward with new teams

All-Star D'Angelo Russell and Jahlil Okafor trying to move onward and upward with new teams
Nets point guard D'Angelo Russell reacts after a score against the Bulls during a game on Feb. 8. (Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

Cameras started to find him. Tears filled his father’s eyes. The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, walked to the podium.

In a moment, D’Angelo Russell was going to be a Laker — the next star for one of the NBA’s marquee franchises.

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You could close your eyes and imagine Russell running the show, finding Kobe Bryant off curls and cuts, pushing the pace in transition, launching soft, floating jumpers. The No. 2 selection in the 2015 NBA draft, Russell was ready to be the man.

“I'm here and I'm ready to make an impact right away,” the 6-foot-5 point guard out of Ohio State told reporters after being picked.

Turns out, neither would be true.

The immediate impact didn’t happen — the Lakers went 17-65 in Russell’s rookie season and 26-56 in his second. After the Lakers used him as a sweetener in a deal to send center Timofey Mozgov and his bloated contract to Brooklyn, he wasn’t “here” anymore.

In his second season with the Nets, Russell is making an impact. He’s headed to his first All-Star game Sunday in Charlotte, N.C., selected as the injury replacement for Indiana guard Victor Oladipo.

“Never had this much fun in my life,” Russell tweeted after the Nets wrapped up the first half of the season with a win in Cleveland, putting them a game over .500 and keeping them in the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

He had 36 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in that win — the 10th time this season Russell scored at least 30.

He has rebuilt a reputation that quickly got damaged in Los Angeles, where whispers about attitude and work ethic weren’t whispers for very long. He (in)famously videotaped teammate Nick Young boasting about cheating on his then-fianceé in a prank gone wrong when the video went public.

All of that seems like ancient history, with Russell finding his stride in his fourth season.

The All-Star selection, only the third from his draft class to earn one after No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns and No. 4 Kristaps Porzingis, is a reminder that vindication — both for the Lakers taking him No. 2 overall and for Russell — can take some time.

While Russell seemingly has gotten on the right track, the player the Lakers’ selected him over, former Duke center Jahlil Okafor, is still trying to find his.

Considered the “safe” pick at No. 2, the 6-11, 275-pound center ended up being picked third by Philadelphia in 2015. He has seen his production nosedive since a solid rookie season with the 76ers,

He too was shipped to Brooklyn — with Philadelphia settling for a veteran bench player, Trevor Booker, in return. With the Nets, Okafor couldn’t get on the court, fueling concerns about his body and his work ethic.

He found himself almost out of the league this summer before finding a spot on with New Orleans, where he was glued to the bench for the good part of the season’s first half. But injuries and the Anthony Davis drama created court time, and Okafor made the most of it.

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His best production came during a stretch of nine consecutive starts that began in late January. In those games, Okafor, 23, averaged 18.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots while shooting better than 67% from the field.

“I was just hoping that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel,” Okafor said. “There were times where it was very frustrating, driving to the arena knowing I wasn't playing. And if I do play, I was going to be garbage minutes. I just tried to stay grateful that I was in the NBA and I was playing the game I love. To say it was easy, that'd be a lie.”

Just like Russell tried to undo perceptions about him, Okafor is trying to change the narrative surrounding him.

A “throwback” center isn’t exactly at the top of an NBA coach’s wish list in 2019. Even Okafor’s own coach, Alvin Gentry, said he thinks teams prefer big men who can space the court instead of ones who grow roots on the block.

Players like Okafor aren’t extinct. Bulk is still valuable in the NBA — centers like Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams and Jusuf Nurkic simply can’t be defended by smaller players.

Easy baskets at the rim are still in demand and, at his best, Okafor has the skill to finish in the paint.

“There's a collection of bigs playing well right now,” Okafor said. “But I've always thought that if you can play, you can play. If you're a good player, whatever your strengths are, if you're on the right team, they'll find the best way to use you.”

The right team for Russell wasn’t the Lakers. It probably wouldn’t have been the right team for Okafor either. Russell found his place in Brooklyn. Thanks to injuries and roster drama, Okafor might havee unexpectedly found his in New Orleans.

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