Chris Finch Has Unlocked DLo As A Defender

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

We’re halfway through the season, and D’Angelo Russell’s defense is still at an all-time career high. Sitting at a 102.7 defensive rating or DRTG, DLo is ranked 25th in the league in DRTG and first on this Minnesota Timberwolves roster.

Russell had struggled with defense his entire career. This season would likely be no different.

Up until two months ago, that was the common assumption. Russell had never been a plus defender in his career. But now, all of a sudden, his DRTG drops to a career-best. How did this happen?

Enter Chris Finch. Although he’s widely known as an offensive guru, Finch and his coaching staff have shown their prowess on the defensive end this year.

Finch seems to have recognized Russell’s defensive shortcomings and decided to try to hide them as much as possible. He does this in a unique way, though. He usually allows DLo to roam around the paint while using his lanky, athletic, and better defensive wings like Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt to guard the opposing team’s point guard on the perimeter.

I broke down a still-frame of the recent Timberwolves-New Orleans Pelicans game to help illustrate this concept.

Vanderbilt (circled in yellow) is an athletic wing guarding the ball handler, Brandon Ingram. I circled McDaniels in orange, and you can see him defending Devonte’ Graham, New Orleans’ best point guard. This isn’t a result of a switch the Pelicans made; the Wolves are doing this intentionally. In blue, you can see Russell assuming his position around the paint. In this context, he’s most likely pointing for Anthony Edwards to move to the help side on Karl-Anthony Towns.

The clip above is an excellent example of this scheme. You can see DLo, who’s playing in a zone, leads as Vando, Ant, and Naz Reid defend the primary ball handlers. On the surface, you see no defensive contribution from Russell. He stands at the paint, grabs the defensive rebound, and runs up the court. But you have to listen to the clip to understand what’s happening.

When you turn your volume up all the way, you can hear someone yelling at Naz and Vando. Now I know what you’re thinking, Oh my goodness, did Draymond Green sneak on the court? You’re only kind of half right, though. It’s clear DLo picked up a thing or two from Green in his time spent with him in a Golden State Warriors uniform.

You can hear DLo yelling at Naz, “I’m low, I’m low,” implying he has help defense on a pick-and-roll between Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jonas Valančiūnas. After successfully discouraging Jonas’s entry pass, he yells to Edwards, letting him know to get to the corner to contest Garrett Temple‘s three-point attempt. You can hear him say, “Ant, go out, go out.”

While you can attribute some of DLo’s defensive contributions to Finch’s clever scheming, it’s important to note that DLo is also playing better defense 1-on-1 this year. Although you can’t see it in his stats, anyone who watches Russell every night will tell you he’s undoubtedly playing the best defense of his career.

Defense relies heavily on effort, which DLo has been giving 10 times over. It’s challenging to have a top-three usage rate for your team on offense, then turn around and have the lowest defensive rating on your team. Russell is buying into Finch’s scheme and is all-in on Minnesota’s potential playoff push. 

This jump in defensive production is also a testament to Russell’s basketball IQ, one of DLo’s highest-touted intangibles. His high IQ is more prevalent than ever this season, especially on the defensive end. Finch has trusted Russell to become a leader in this defensive system, and it’s worked well so far.

Russell has also always been an underrated pick-and-roll defender, and he’s taken another leap in that department this year. He’s also become a better help defender this season. The clip above shows a little bit of the ability to do both. He assesses the PnR between Graham and Jaxson Hayes, realizes McDaniels will be stuck behind the screen and steps up into the lane to provide help defense. As a result, he forces the pass to a 34% three-point shooter in Josh Hart.

The Timberwolves coaching staff has done a fantastic job with this team’s defense, turning a team that was bottom-3 defensive rating last year to a top-10 defensive rating this year. This coaching staff’s job shines no brighter than when you look at the improvements DLo has made on the defensive side of the ball. His high IQ has allowed him to adapt to the leadership role Finch has placed him in.

Russell’s defense has been essential to the Wolves surviving this year. So far, he and Finch have been a match made in heaven.

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