DLo's Cleveland Performance Was A Blueprint

Photo Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The D’Angelo Russell saga in Minnesota has had its fair share of twists and turns. From his early injuries that limited the time he and Karl-Anthony Towns saw the floor together early to becoming vital to the team last year, he’s been through a lot already. However, his play tailed off in the playoffs, and now he’s struggling to begin the season and has career-low statistics. Russell’s play is still vital to Minnesota’s success, and they’ve struggled when he’s played poorly as they attempt to get their footing.

However, DLo had his best game this year against the Cleveland Cavaliers, which showed what he is capable of on the floor.

What was the key to his success? Taking advantage of mismatches, shooters knocking down their shots, and screens that set Russell up to run an effective half-court offense for either his shot or to facilitate. When DLo can be effective, it only makes life easier for the rest of the team.

Russell was supposed to be an effective pairing with Rudy Gobert when the Wolves traded for the Frenchman. That would create an offensive role for Rudy while offering separation for DLo, giving him a chance to be more of a three-level scorer. That hasn’t quite come to fruition. However, the pick-and-roll frequency has not been as high as it should be. Anthony Edwards has struggled to be active off the ball. KAT still needs to get the ball on the perimeter for shots and drives. And DLo deserves to get his fair share of shot attempts through games, too, of course. As a result, there have been a lot of stagnant possessions and poor shot selection.

The difference was evident in the first quarter against Cleveland when the Wolves were actively either running DLo off the ball to get him the chance at an open shot, a handoff, or a screen to find his open look.

D’Angelo only sees 5.5 plays as the pick-and-roll ball handler per game, which makes him 39th in the league in attempts per game. In comparison, Edwards gets 7.5 possessions a game. The difference here is that DLo is averaging 0.97 points per possession, placing him in the 72nd percentile. Ant is averaging 0.72 points per possession, ranking him at the 26th percentile.

There is a clear difference here, and DLo needs to see more on-ball reps in the halfcourt with a ball screen. Other teams like the Portland Trail Blazers have a similar equation, with Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons splitting ball-handling duties. Both are in the top 25 in frequency as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and it’s effective. Lillard averages 0.95 points per possession, and Simons averages 0.78.

Portland’s backcourt is similar to Minnesota’s backcourt: Two guards who need the ball in their hands to be the most effective succeeding together. So why does DLo get more of these touches? Because of his much higher skill level when it comes to his playmaking. Russell is much more likely to find the roller, open corner 3, or a skip-pass to a shooter than Ant is. That was evident in the Cavs game, and DLo was effective because he was decisive.

DLo will not always make every one of his shots in the first quarter; he will never be perfect from the field. Still, it doesn’t hurt to put him in better situations to succeed. It is not as if he needs to take all the on-ball reps. The Wolves can still find plenty of ways to give plenty of possessions to both, as they did last season perfectly fine. Ant averaged 5.7 possessions a game to DLo’s 6.6. The results were similar, too, with DLo getting 0.93 PPP and Ant 0.85 PPP. Gobert’s attempts per game as the roll man has dropped a possession from last season.

For the Wolves to succeed with their current core, unlocking the ball movement and fluidity comes through Russell’s play. We have seen how much it can spark this team when Jordan McLaughlin has stepped in as the backup and used his ability to set up others. DLo can easily replicate that and offer more shot-making potential. However, the Wolves must put him in better situations to succeed because that’s vital if Russell is going to stick in the starting lineup and with this team.

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Photo Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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