DENVER — When they were nine years old, D’Angelo Russell and Kelan Martin had their first sleepover at Kelan’s house. On Friday night at Target Center, the two played in an NBA game together — on the same team, no less. And on Sunday evening, Russell was losing his mind on the sidelines while Martin dropped 19 first-half points — on his way to leading the Wolves in scoring in Russell’s absence.
Much has been made of the friendship of Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns since the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired Russell at the trade deadline. But don’t get it wrong, Russell’s oldest friend on the team is Martin.
“Once I heard that he got traded, I was like, ‘this is crazy,'” Martin told Zone Coverage. “We grew up in the same neighborhood. He used to always come over and spend the night at my house. All the time.”
When Russell first landed in Minneapolis on the night of the trade, after getting off the plane he was greeted by cameras that left him shaking his head saying: “This is like a movie to me. For real.”
A lot of this is being surreal for Russell, yes, it was about finally linking up with Towns. Since Russell and Towns met their senior year in high school the two became fast friends who dreamed of playing in the league together. Now they do. Russell’s stall in the Timberwolves locker room is one to the left of Towns’. But the most made-for-Hollywood detail may be that Martin’s locker is one more stall to Russell’s left.
Towns and Russell were highly-touted prospects when they became friends, making the odds those two would both wind up in the league anything but a long-shot. But when Russell became friends with Martin, those two were years away from even hitting puberty. They were just friends. The kind of friend you call a brother and mean it.
“There’s a lot of pride with Louisville,” says Jimmy Lafakis, Martin’s roommate in college. “502 (their area code growing up), all that. Kelan has that Louisville tattoo on his arm. They’re like family to each other, they really are. I know KAT and DLo have their bond, but Kelan and DLo go way back.”
For Martin and Russell, when they were kids, playing in the league together couldn’t have been viewed as anything more than a pipedream. And on the same team?
“Once it was in the talks,” Martin recalls, “I was like, ‘he might be coming, that’s gonna be crazy.’ Two Louisville guys on the same team.
“Nobody would have ever thought that. But now he’s here. It’s crazy. And we just bond together (after being apart) so quickly, so easily — because we just know each other like that. We’re tight. You know what I mean?”
After getting off the plane in Minneapolis, where Russell was greeted by Towns and Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, Russell and his crew did what they had to do with the media. But after that, they went to Martin’s hotel room. In that crew is Martin’s cousin, also from Louisville, who has been living with Russell from Brooklyn to San Francisco and now in Minneapolis. The two surprised Martin in his hotel room.
“Who would have ever thought? — that was the first thing he said to me,” said Martin of his first interaction with Russell when recalling that night.
“I was just like, ‘Is this real? What’s going on?'”
Just as basketball has now allowed their paths to again intersect, it has been basketball that has made it difficult for the two to spend time together over the past decade. Initially, Russell and Martin played on the same AAU team in Louisville, but Russell ended up moving to Montverde, Fla. after his freshman year of high school, transferring to a prep school that plays a national schedule in Montverde Academy. Martin stayed in Louisville at Ballard High School.
Russell ended up attending Ohio State University for a year. Martin left Lousiville after high school to play at Butler University in Indiana. While Russell was playing in Los Angeles for the Lakers, Martin was grinding for all four years of his college career at Butler. Last season, when Russell became an All-Star playing for the Brooklyn Nets, Martin’s grind moved to Germany, where he played professionally for MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg.
Even six months ago, the idea that Martin would be in the NBA — let alone on the same team as Russell — was, again, nothing more than a pipedream. When Martin received what was not exactly a prioritized offer to play for the Timberwolves in Summer League, Martin had a plan.
“The goal was just to show everyone in the Summer League who I am and what I’m capable of,” Martin recalls. “I really didn’t even think about what was next.”
What was next was Rosas intentionally building out a roster that maximized its financial flexibility. The end of the Wolves roster being rounded out with players on minimum and two-way contracts was part of Rosas’ plan to land Russell at the trade deadline. Had Rosas opted to use more salary to go out and sign a shooter in the summer, it would be very likely that Martin would again be playing overseas this season. The Wolves also may not have been able to fit Russell’s maximum salary onto the team’s financial ledger if Martin’s role on the team was filled by a full-NBA contract.
“In Summer League, he came in and completely took advantage of a window,” says Timberwolves assistant coach Bryan Gates. “Both of our draft picks (Jarrett Culver and Jaylen Nowell) weren’t able to play, and here comes this window.”
“When James got here, and Kelan walked in, I was like, ‘this is one of your dogs, man.’ This is a dog now,” said Gates.
Johnson agrees. Playing very small lineups in Towns’ absence, Martin and Johnson functionally play the same small-ball power forward position.
“We’re kind of interchangeable,” says Martin. “Me and James we talk all the time on the court and on the bench, just about different things we see out there. Whoever we’re guarding, we can guard like-positions.”
What exactly Martin’s role on this team is going forward is ambiguous. Martin is running out of the 45 days his two-way contract permits him to be with the team for, and when the season ends he will become a free agent. It’s worth noting though, that the Minnesota organization has bent over backward to cater to their other star player, Towns. Might they do that for Russell by keeping Martin around?
Signing Martin wouldn’t be any charity act. More noteworthy than his relationship with Russell is what the coaching staff thinks of Martin. They love him. Both Gates and Ryan Saunders say the entire vibe of the team changes when Martin is up from Iowa.
“He exemplifies what a two-way guy is,” says Gates. “When he comes back, you feel it. You feel them in the locker room. You feel it at breakfast. I dunno what it is, but it’s 100 percent Kelan.”
Just looking at simple counting stats, it’s easy to make a purely analytical argument that says the Wolves should move on from Martin when his contract expires. But if Rosas wants to keep the end of the roster filled with contracts that allow for maximum flexibility, Martin could be extended a relatively inexpensive deal — similar to what Rosas signed Naz Reid and Nowell to this past summer.
If they signed Martin long-term, he would fit. His numbers might not pop, but Martin is improving. He has a clear understanding of the pace-and-space system Saunders is implementing on offense. It’s his defense, though, that Gates and Johnson love.
“He don’t like to get scored on,” said Johnson. “I don’t take the dog part as an offensive end thing. I take that as more of a defensive challenge. Rebounding, being scrappy. That.”
“Here’s the thing for me with Kelan,” says Gates. “When he’s in, you know one thing: He is going to give you everything he’s got. Is he gonna come out and get 40 and 20? No. He’s gonna make open shots. He’s gonna know his defensive help assignments. He’s gonna know when he’s supposed to screen. All that kind of stuff.”
On Sunday night, Martin’s defensive assignment was Paul Millsap. On Friday night, he checked Jayson Tatum. He’s guarded every type of player. Gates’ favorite game of Martin’s came back in January when they started Martin against the Milwaukee Bucks, tasking him with defending Khris Middleton — who went on to shoot 5-of-18 from the field that night.
“I wanna say this in a very positive way: he gets frustrated sometimes,” said Gates of Martin. “But that kind of makes him who he is. We all don’t need to be A-students. I mean that in a good way.”
This Timberwolves season is about a lot of things. But as the losses pile up, the silver lining has to be creating a worthwhile vibe that carries over to the summer and into the next season. Martin’s work ethic and persona would epitomize that. His understanding of the style of play is also critical. The Wolves need players who know what to do and will commit to the system. Martin, like Reid and Jordan McLaughlin, both of whom have also spent substantial time with the G-League team in Iowa, bring that in spades. Martin helps.
It also helps that Martin and Russell are boys. As a star player, sometimes you need someone to hold you accountable. Someone who can tell you, ‘no, this is how we do things’. Who better to do that for Russell than one of his oldest friends?