D’Angelo Russell may be the most polarizing player on the Minnesota Timberwolves. In many ways, there is a duality to his game. At his best, he provides order and structure for the offense as he plays the maestro in the pick-and-roll. He can also bring a needed element of chaos and unpredictability, whether he’s pulling from 30 feet, dishing a no-look pass, or using his herky-jerky dribble moves to put this defender off-balance. At his worst, he is a disengaged defender who opponents can easily take advantage of. His deep shots can look less appealing when he pulls up with 17 seconds left on the shot clock, and, as flashy as some of his passes can be, his decision-making can be equally as puzzling.
Like every player, Russell has strengths and weaknesses. However, this year, many fans seem to be focused on what he can’t do. Although the Wolves are in the midst of a four-game winning streak, for much of the early season, Russell has faced heavy criticism for his performance on the court. But is that fair?
First, it’s important to remember how and why DLo came to Minnesota. He was Gersson Rosas’s “big fish.” In the summer of 2019, Rosas pulled out all the stops to convince Russell to join the Timberwolves in free agency. That failed attempt turned to near desperation as Rosas then traded Andrew Wiggins and a 2021 top-three protected first-round pick to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for Russell’s services. On the one hand, Rosas managed to move Wiggins, whose inconsistent and underwhelming play in Minnesota had grown tiresome for many fans. But what Rosas bet at the time would be a pick outside the lottery turned into the No. 7-overall pick, and Andrew Wiggins turned into an All-Star.*
*Wiggins’ 0.4 BPM was the lowest mark of any All-Star last season. Khris Middleton’s BPM of 1.6 was the next lowest. For context, D’Angelo Russell’s BPM in his lone All-Star appearance in 2018-19 was 3.4.
None of this is Russell’s fault, of course. The Wolves struggled in the 2020-21 season mostly due to injuries he and Karl-Anthony Towns suffered. But whether Russell is to blame is no shield against the pressure he inherently faces. Rosas brought him in to be the second fiddle to KAT. Rosas traded Wiggins for him, and Wiggins was the face of the franchise’s failure with Kevin Love and the face of the franchise’s original sin — failing to surround Kevin Garnett with adequate talent to contend for a title. The Timberwolves had been in near-constant free fall since they traded KG, and Russell was another emblem meant to represent a rise from that descent.
So here we are in 2022, and Russell is facing pressure as an underperforming Wolves team is struggling to start perhaps the most anticipated season since they traded Garnett. Though his 13.8 points are the lowest per-game average since his rookie year, has Russell’s performance this season really dipped below his standard? Let’s look at it by the numbers. I’ve collected some relevant stats from Russell over the last five seasons. Since we’re so early in the year, I decided to look at the first 17 games he played in each season.
Russell has never been a terribly efficient offensive player; he is prone to taking difficult shots. Russell is also a mediocre 78% free-throw shooter throughout his career. Thus, his true shooting percentage has never been above average. For example, last season, the NBA average true shooting percentage was 56.6%. Russell underperformed that mark by 5.1%. But within the context of his career, his 52.3% true shooting to begin the year is actually on the higher end of his performances.
The most notable drop-off for Russell is that he is down to 12.1 shot attempts per game. Again, this is his lowest average since his rookie season. Russell’s scoring efficiency is decent, though. He’s scoring 1.14 points per field goal attempt, which is a higher rate than the start of his 2018-19 All-Star campaign. What’s really happening here is that we are watching Russell adapt to a new role in real time.
It’s no coincidence that just like his shot attempts this season, Russell’s usage rate of 22.2% is lower than it’s ever been over this five-year period. Before this year, his usage of 27.5% during the first 16 games last season had been his lowest. DLo is continuing to adapt to a new role, and he knows it. He opened up about the learning curve at the end of last season. Russell has never played with players like Towns and Anthony Edwards. They are taking the ball out of Russell’s hands, and he has to figure out where he fits in.
Rudy Gobert has added another complicated dynamic as Russell works to build chemistry with the best roll man he’s played with since Jarrett Allen. Additionally, Gobert and Jaden McDaniels take more shots per game than Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt did last season. The Wolves have a talented collection of players offensively, so it makes sense that DLo sees increasingly fewer opportunities to dominate the ball.
Russell’s next step is to determine how to increase his efficiency. As his volume and usage continue to decrease, his efficiency must increase. He’s playing at the rate he always has, but for the Wolves offense to really sing, he’ll have to work to find his flow amongst this group. It’s important to remember that for every 1 for 5 night, like we saw against the Miami Heat, Russell will match with some late-game heroics or some important steadying energy down the stretch. He is figuring out how to exist in this ecosystem just like everybody else.