D'Angelo Russell Is Evolving As A Leader

Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez (USA TODAY Sports)

People have a way of adapting to their environments. For those environments that we are most comfortable with, the adaptation happens instantaneously. It’s as if we reach into our subconscious toward a wardrobe deep within our psyche.

In this wardrobe of the imagination lies a menagerie of hats. We all know these different hats. Maybe you work in customer service and have to put on your “happy to be here” hat. Or perhaps, you’re a parent with your “mom hat” ready to be donned at any moment. We’ve all got a hat drawer that we reach into daily as we move through the world, fulfilling our different roles.

This season D’Angelo Russell is trying a new hat on for size, as he works to provide veteran leadership to one of the youngest rosters in the NBA.

Leadership hasn’t always been in DLo’s bag, at least not that we could see. I won’t rehash the details, but the Los Angeles Lakers ultimately traded him because he broke the sacred bro code and outed Nick Young’s infidelity. The bro code is an antiquated term that further perpetuates the idea that men are allowed to do anything they please so long as this code is upheld and other men protect them.

It is bad.

But, we won’t pretend that Russell outed Young in an attempt to send a radical message decrying toxic male culture in the NBA. I would speculate that he outed Young because he thought it was funny at the time.

Maybe he still thinks it’s funny. Either way, he was shipped off to the Brooklyn Nets. Today, Minnesota Timberwolves fans are experiencing a whole new version of DLo — or at least a new hat. He is stepping up as a leader for the Wolves in a big way.

Russell’s season got off to a rocky start. He began the year in a shooting slump. But Russell appears to have broken out of it since returning from his two-game absence after spraining his ankle. His shooting accuracy, scoring, assists, and turnover frequency improved over the eight-game stretch ending with a dramatic 43-point victory against Memphis Saturday night.

After the win against the Grizzlies, DLo took the podium and gave thoughtful and insightful responses. What stood out to me was his stated dedication to being the best point guard he can be.

“I study guys like [Rajon] Rondo and Chris Paul,” Russell said. “Those guys dominated the league for a long time, so I picked their brains off the court.” He reflected on playing early in the pandemic, saying, “When fans weren’t allowed in the arena, you could hear everything.” He went on to mention another all-time great, Kevin Garnett adding, “If KG was playing today, you’d hear him the whole game, and it would be almost annoying. … I want to be that guy that you can depend on vocally, and I’m trying to do that defensively as well.”

Monday night against the New Orleans Pelicans, Russell was not able to keep the scoring magic going. He finished 3-of-16 from the field. But Russell showed an increased level of engagement on the defensive end, as he has for much of the season. Although it was not his night shooting the ball, he was able to dish out eight assists. His trouble scoring the ball did not hold the Wolves back from an impressive 110-96 win over New Orleans. So long as he can stay engaged in the game and keep the offense humming, the Wolves can afford the off shooting night here and there.

I have been very critical of Russell in the past. With so much riding on his success, it can be hard not to find every wart in his game and blow it out of proportion. Granted, some of the warts in his game are pretty large in their own right. Take, for example, his maddening commitment to taking pull-up threes in transition, especially in a disadvantaged situation.

Russell’s performance is critical to the present and future of the Timberwolves organization. He is the second-highest-paid player on the team behind Towns. As it stands, the Timberwolves are walking a tightrope with the luxury tax. No team that isn’t immediately competitive wants to be pressed up against the tax. It massively hampers the ability for an organization to pivot directions or add meaningful talent. If Russell doesn’t perform up to the level of a max player, then his $117 million contract is a financial handcuff for the Wolves.

However, maximum deals are a product of an NBA economy that isn’t exactly fair. There is no competitive advantage more significant in basketball than having the best player on the court. There is a reason why LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry are consistently in the playoffs. In reality, there are only a handful of players who can make that sort of impact. Unfortunately, 30 teams have to try to compete in the NBA. Since the NBA exists under the rule of the salary cap, there is no proper way to compensate those truly game-changing players fairly relative to their other max-contract comrades.

Sometimes being a max player is a matter of right-place-right-time. Every team is incentivized to pay their best players the most money. Russell happened to be the best player on a Brooklyn Nets team that surprised the league with a 42-40 record in the 2018-19 season. The Nets had visions of adding Durant to their roster, so signing Russell to a maximum deal was easy calculus for the franchise, setting the table for a sign-and-trade with the Warriors.

I don’t say this to imply that Russell doesn’t deserve his money — he earned it. I intend to highlight that every max contract isn’t created equal, even if the amount of money looks the same. The $30 million the Wolves owe him this season is an easier pill to swallow as long as Russell can perform at the level he did with the Nets. His performance over the last eight games is a step in the right direction.

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