Timberwolves

D'Angelo Russell Is A Leader On and Off the Court

Photo Credit: Kiyoshi Mio (USA TODAY Sports)

When D’Angelo Russell walked into the Minnehaha Academy gym for the Twin Cities Pro Am last week, he exuded the same type of energy that has become emblematic of the man he has become in Minnesota. He was calm, cerebral, and sure of himself. Russell found contentment within the moment. To use his own words, he was where his feet were, and that is exactly where he wants to be.

Russell’s time in Minnesota hasn’t been easy. What was initially hailed as a welcome change of pace turned sour, and DLo was made into a scapegoat for many of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ flaws. He was supposed to be the player that dragged the lowly Wolves out of the doldrums in the wake of the Andrew Wiggins era. Instead, more losing followed his arrival in the 2019-20 season, and Russell’s lax demeanor was interpreted as lackadaisical and apathetic. DLo became another target for fans that, while supporting the losing-est franchise in all American professional sports, could not grasp why the team kept losing amidst severe organizational dysfunction.

Russell’s role on the Timberwolves as a steadying presence and leader has been lost in the nonsensical trade takes and virulence. It cannot be understated how much DLo has grown as an individual since first arriving in Minnesota. As the internet is unfortunately an eternal hellscape, his reputation from his early days with the Los Angeles Lakers have haunted him throughout his career. However, Russell has matured into a guiding hand and communicator for a team full of young talent in desperate need of steadying presences.

As a player, DLo’s impact is unquestioned. Unfortunately, he had a poor series against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs because that has become the entire story surrounding his offseason and prospective departure. His impact could be overanalyzed from an advanced stats perspective, sure. But team-building comes down to the simple notion that more talented players on a roster make that team better. Russell’s expertise can’t be questioned as an elite pick-and-roll point guard, and he’s also demonstrated the ability to get hot and take over games as a shooter.

The truth is, DLo’s on-court fit with Karl-Anthony Towns was dramatically overblown. That would explain why Tim Connelly was intentional in his quest to acquire Rudy Gobert, a more traditional big and roll man who could work far better with Russell’s strengths. Dane Moore recently featured Russell on his podcast, and DLo discussed this move briefly. He relished that this is the first time in his career he’s felt like he was “needed.” The Wolves traded for Gobert to make Russell a better player and give him someone to work with that matches his play style. There will surely be an uptick in Russell’s offensive performance and assist numbers this season, which will trickle down and help ease the burden for everyone else on the team.

As DLo’s production increases, so too will the respect for him off the court. Within the locker room, he is undoubtedly valued as an analytical thinker who exhibits a different leadership style than Anthony Edwards or Towns. What Gobert will bring to the leadership table remains to be seen, but a cooler demeanor like Russell is necessary to steady the ship when times get turbulent. While the Timberwolves work to put a cohesive winning environment around young franchise cornerstones Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, Russell’s approach will be a valued piece of their development.

Leadership isn’t always what someone is directly saying to people, either. Often, it is the actions of those role models that help shape the perspectives of the ones who look up to them. Russell has spent a great deal of time in Minneapolis this offseason, working out with the young players and directly involving himself in the Twin Cities community. As a multimillionaire, Russell could be anywhere else in the world doing whatever he wants with his time off. Instead, he is in Minnesota, attending Lynx and Pro Am games and doing podcasts with fans. To Minnesotans, this means a lot. It speaks volumes about his character to stick around, especially while contract talks are swirling.

Nobody knows whether or not Russell will re-sign with the Timberwolves, but the franchise would be silly not to offer him an extension. It is unclear whether or not Russell will value monetary compensation over stability, which likely influenced his decision to join the Golden State Warriors in 2019 after initially spurning the Wolves. All involved have been tight-lipped on whether or not an extension should be expected, with many speculations abound contributing to the surprisingly quiet chaos of Minnesota’s offseason.

Extending Russell will surely maximize the window of opportunity for the Towns-Gobert pairing from a competitive standpoint. From a pure playmaking perspective, there are few point guards more suited to command the offense than Russell. His playstyle matches his demeanor, and a methodical approach will be necessary as the team looks to work out any early knots with the dual-center fit.

Connelly made a drastic trade to get the best out of Russell, so his extension should be a priority. He will assuredly be a better player this season than last, and his role and personality are things that every NBA team should strive to have in a starting guard. Russell has developed into a leader who has shown capable signs of leading this team deep into the playoffs. At the absolute least, he is teaching the young players about their capabilities to grow from any immaturities into true professionals. Russell’s commitment to this team and this city is unquestioned as of now. It’s a value that many should be able to take from.

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