Timberwolves

DLo Could Benefit From the VanVleet Effect Of Fatherhood

Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Congratulations to D’Angelo Russell, who just became a father this weekend.

As someone who has recently adopted a cat, I can tell you that becoming a parent is a big deal — your entire perspective on life changes. The frivolity of previous time-killers becomes more apparent as you settle into routine and responsibility. Priorities shift, as one must put their best self forward at all times to maximize opportunities for themselves and their dependents in the future. You see yourself going to bed earlier, eating healthier, and submitting your articles on time. It’s crazy how much can change.

Russell is slated to go through these same changes. If the past is any indication, the Minnesota Timberwolves could see a more committed and dedicated Russell this season. A few NBA players in recent memory have seen an uptick in on-court production after becoming a parent. Fred VanVleet is the most apparent example of this.

VanVleet’s Toronto Raptors were down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals when his son was born in May 2019. After that, his production and efficiency soared to over 15 points per game as he helped propel the Raptors to an eventual NBA title over the Golden State Warriors. Without this extra boost, VanVleet had a rather pedestrian series, and Toronto appeared doomed.

However, this was not the first time fatherhood played a role in VanVleet’s production. For all of the publicity that the birth of his son got during those Conference Finals, VanVleet became a father in January 2018, before the start of Toronto’s eventual championship season. The day before his daughter was born, he scored a season-high 25 points in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. That momentum kept rolling into the following season, where the eventual birth of his son pushed him over the hump. VanVleet averaged over 6 points per game in the season following that championship run (17.6 PPG in 2019-20 vs. 11 PPG in 2018-19), and he has not looked back since.

Of course, other players have had success stories upon becoming parents. Andrew Wiggins learned how to rebound and piggy-backed his way into an NBA title after spending an offseason with his second daughter, born in April 2021. Ricky Rubio scored a whopping 25 points and had 13 assists in a win over the New York Knicks after the birth of his son in 2020 while in Phoenix. Sometimes the effects are immediate, sometimes they are latent, and sometimes they don’t happen at all. (Malik Beasley‘s son’s birth in the 2018-19 season had no tangible effect on his career).

It’s unknown what this will mean for Russell. He’s entering a make-or-break year in which his skills are being questioned more than at any point in his career. A poor playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies has tanked his already-declining reputation, and Russell knows he has to be almost entirely mistake-free to rehab his image in the eyes of the public. With this year also being a contract year, he will have plenty of motivators that will play significant roles in his eventual success story.

That last memory of Russell in 2021-22 showcases a max-contract player that scored a paltry 12 points per game in the 6-game series against Memphis, down from his season average of 18.1. During the regular season, he’d averaged 31 points per game in 4 games against the Grizzlies, adequate sample size to say that he should have cooked them in the playoffs. Call it a lack of focus, call it a coaching mishap, call it whatever — it’s a mystery that Russell will be eager to put behind him this year.

It is no guarantee that the birth of his child will make him better or even improve upon last season. It could also be one of the best things that happened to him. There is no analytically savvy correlation or causation with parenthood making players take the next step. It is intangible, one of the many factors of sports that make the games beautiful. Motivation and heart are some of the only things that spreadsheets cannot track. Say DLo steps up to become a 20 PPG player this year, though. It will be hard to dismiss the notion of being a parent not having anything to do with it.

If Russell responds well to his fatherhood, that could mean great things for him and the Timberwolves. He will be motivated to play as well as possible to earn a large contract and provide for his family. These factors are all connected, so expect a focused and motivated DLo on the court for the Wolves this season, eager to prove his doubters wrong.

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