The time has come that I once again write about D’Angelo Russell. I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a single Minnesota Timberwolf that I’ve written more words about. I find him to be a fascinating character. In front of the mic, he is most often soft-spoken and thoughtful, but he has a presence that can feel distant and aloof at times. Then, out of nowhere, there will be moments where he seemingly lets his guard down, opening up to the media and providing deeply insightful discourse. He is the opposite of reserved on the court. He is loud, talks endless trash, and has the confidence to be the best player on the court on any given night.
It seems like it’s been an eternity since Russell landed in Minnesota. Gersson Rosas was adamant in his desire to acquire him and made a franchise-altering move, sending Andrew Wiggins to the Golden State Warriors. In the previous offseason, he had met DLo in Los Angeles for a helicopter ride over the city in a futile attempt to court him in free agency. Here we are almost three years later, and DLo has not only arrived in Minnesota, but he was also a crucial part of their journey to the playoffs this season.
When he stepped off the plane, he repeatedly said, “This a movie to me.” Well, until this year, the DLo Timberwolves movie was a montage of him and Karl-Anthony Towns — star-crossed lovers in this metaphor — who tried desperately to cross paths but could never make it work. The COVID shutdown and injuries kept them from playing significant minutes together for the first season and a half. Now the pair have a season’s worth of tape to review, and the question is: Did it work?
An initial review tells me that it worked great. The Wolves had a 46-36 record, were three points per 100 possessions better when DLo was on the court, and their starting lineup was one of the most dominant in the league. The Wolves’ starters had the fourth-best net rating of any five-player lineup that played at least 250 minutes this season. So, the initial assumption has to be that the DLo and Towns pairing is worth investing in. Even during Russell’s horrible playoff performance, the Wolves were better with him on the court.
Because of all this team success, many have lauded Russell. They proclaim that he had one of the best seasons of his career, rivaling even his All-Star year in 2018-19. But when analyzing his entire tenure in the league, it’s important to remember that this is only the third year he’s played more than 60 games in a season. Much of what DLo can be is lost in half- or quarter-seasons derailed by injury. Team success is important, but looking at Russell’s individual statistics, there’s not much argument that this season was anything special. He shot 34% from 3-point range, well below his career average. He posted his worst BPM since 2017-18. All in all, his statistical resumé doesn’t scream “career year.”
I’ve written about DLo’s All-Star season and his irreplicable shooting that year. His numbers were insane. We shouldn’t expect him to produce at that level again. But we saw Russell start to change his game this season. It’s the first time in his career that he’s been a third option. He gave a lengthy response when asked about his chemistry with Towns after the season. I’ll share the whole thing because I think it’s incredibly informative:
“I think it was rocky, to be honest. We were figuring it out and then we had either COVID or something happen. It caused him to be out or me to be out…that kind of stunted our growth. We’re such fans of each other that we found a way to make it work in moments where we obviously probably didn’t have the chemistry because we didn’t play together as much as we would’ve thought. I think over the time of us playing, our chemistry is continuing to grow.
“He makes the game easy. When you’re out there playing against some of these teams. They don’t know how to guard him, they don’t know how to guard myself. And you got Ant and you got multiple guys who are attacking as well. I’ve never really been in that position where I’m going into the game knowing that the team’s probably not worried about me as much. It gives me that lane to look at it from a different perspective and try to attack it a different way. They’re prepared for this guy, that guy, that hit, that punch, so this year it put me in a role of figuring out how I was gonna attack. That allowed our chemistry to be a little up-and-down.”
Here Russell acknowledges that this year was a whole new experience for him. He was the No. 1 option most of the time in Brooklyn. Using Synergy, I found that Russell ran pick-and-roll 50% of the time he had the ball in his hands in 2018-19. That’s a ton of pick-and-roll. Considering he had a usage rate of nearly 32% that season, much of the offensive load was on his shoulders. However, his usage rate dipped to 25% this year, the lowest since his rookie season. His most common play type is still as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, but his spot-up frequency has increased from 11.7% to 18.4% of his plays.
As his game transitions away from being a high-usage pick-and-roll operator, he is also adapting to the way that Towns plays. Russell had Jarrett Allen with the Nets, who rolled to the basket almost every time. Towns has a much more diverse offensive game, giving DLo more options in the pick-and-roll. With more options comes a greater opportunity for success. More routes to the basket mean less traffic. But with more options, there are also more decisions to be made. We saw DLo’s decision-making waver this season. He had his best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career. He also got benched in Game 6 in no small part due because he kept throwing the ball away.
The bottom line is that DLo’s game has been up-and-down for as long as he’s been in the league. When his mid-range is really going, he looks like an All-Star. When he is on target with his passing, he looks like one of the best complementary guys in the league. But these things come and go too often with DLo. Of course, all this doesn’t really matter. Russell is good enough for the Wolves to likely feel comfortable investing in for the long term because he is KAT’s guy. When Towns was asked about chemistry with Russell, he shared an answer that was much more positive than DLo’s response.
“We found ourselves causing a lot of havoc on people,” he said. “Just with our pick-and-roll ability, scoring ability, chemistry, everything. It was super fun just to get a chance to play with him. … It was a blessing to actually be out there and give him 100% of myself, unlike the other years where I was playing with a cast on.”
It seems like Towns enjoyed having Russell as his running mate. As long as that is the case, DLo’s seat at the Wolves’ table is likely reserved. Still, it will be important to continue to monitor the front-office changes this offseason. Russell was Gersson Rosas’ big fish, not necessarily Sachin Gupta’s. Gupta has shown to be much more conservative than Rosas in his year as the interim leader in the front office. It would seem out of character for him to make such a big move given what we’ve seen from him so far, especially when the Towns-and-Russell pairing was so successful during the regular season.
Russell and Towns have been excited to play with each other since the moment DLo’s plane touched down. Now that they have, it was good enough for Towns and the Wolves to make the playoffs. Wolves fans shouldn’t expect to see D’Angelo Russell anywhere besides Minnesota next season.