It’s no question that D’Angelo Russell is one of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ most polarizing and controversial players right now. His silky game mixed with creativity can make it appear like he is in control. To others, Russell is not exerting himself and taking plays off. Not to mention that he has had injury issues ever since coming to Minnesota.
Whatever you think of him, though, one thing is becoming undeniable: he has to be on the court if the Wolves want to win.
Whether he has a good game or not, he has impacted play when he has been on the floor. This year, he has embraced a leadership role, boosting the team’s confidence. He’s a quarterback on the court, calling out defensive coverages. Regardless of his performance, Russell has a massive impact on the Wolves’ success.
Creativity and Opening Up the Defense
It’s interesting to see other teams’ defensive assignments when they play the Wolves. We have seen significantly smaller defenders on Karl-Anthony Towns, weaker defenders on Anthony Edwards, and excessive help-side defense behind them. Opposing coaches are forcing Ant to more perimeter looks or difficult drives to the rim against a big. KAT has been forced into the post touches against an easy matchup. But this brings the quick double team from the big and has led to many turnovers.
Enter DLo. If the defense will take advantage of the Wolves’ limitations and force them to play uncomfortably, DLo has to step up and take advantage. He needs to find ways to be crafty and probe the defense to get everyone else running without superior bounce or quickness.
A vital development has been his ability to find Jarred Vanderbilt, an excellent cutter, more frequently in the pick-and-roll. KAT can draw his matchup away from the paint by standing on the perimeter, opening things up for Vanderbilt. Vando is one of the most limited offensive players on the team, but DLo has turned him into an offensive weapon, making opposing defenses think twice about leaning off him.
Russell’s creativity and ability to raise the floor of others around him allow him to have an inconsistent shot and still have a positive impact. Last week, he was 6-for-22 from the field against the Brooklyn Nets, and he was 3-for-18 against the Washington Wizards, but he isn’t why the Wolves lost either game.
The Wolves were at a disadvantage going into Brooklyn. KAT had injured his tailbone and caught the illness floating around the locker room and as out. Throughout the game, the Wolves held their own and lost by single digits against a team with two elite scorers. The Washington game was sloppy in general, but the lack of interior defense against Montrezl Harrell was the keynote to that loss.
It can be seen in his on-off stats alone. The Wolves are plus-7.2 in offensive rating with him on the court and minus-10.3 without him. His skillset is vital to the team’s success, and he needs to stay healthy to stay on the floor and play big minutes if required.
Playmaking and A Clutch Gene
The Wolves lack self-created playmaking. Ant thrives off kick-outs, and KAT can find the open man, but that has to happen within the flow of the offense. DLo is the only one who can consistently find a cutter, set up another player with skip passes, or dynamically find another player as the screener in the PnR or pick-and-pop. When he is off the court, it’s evident that the creativity offensively slows down incredibly. The ball gets stagnant, and players throw up bad shots.
Patrick Beverley brings a lot to the team as a willing passer, but his playmaking is average from a point guard. With Leandro Bolmaro, Malik Beasley, and Ant on the floor, secondary ball-handlers will struggle to make an impact with creative passing.
Getting the second unit going has been an emphasis for DLo as well. Bench players typically excel in a specific role: Naz as the PnR big, Beasley as a shooter, Okogie in the corner, etc. Russell has to meticulously maximize each player’s strengths and make the most of his matchup to get buckets for himself.
Even if it hasn’t been going in for him for the beginning of the game, DLo will always have the confidence to look for his shot down the stretch. A perfect example is the Philadelphia 76ers game. He started slow, but he got into his zone as the game progressed. He scored 27 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter and the two overtime periods. This is simply the man the Wolves went out to get when they acquired him: a closer. The game would have easily been a loss without his heroics.
He can become the glue that will hold the team together throughout the season. But he has to figure out his chemistry and flow with Ant, continue to get deflections defensively and not be a black hole, and always have the impact on lousy shooting nights that we often come with his lack of consistency. If that happens, the Wolves have a playoff future this season.