After months of waiting and speculating and waiting some more and punching every different player variation you can find into the Trade Machine and then waiting a little bit longer, D’Angelo Russell is finally a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Since the Woj Bomb plummeted and sent Wolves World into a frenzy, there has been enough content to consume to keep your belly full and your heart warm for weeks. From hype videos and graphics to Karl-Anthony Towns and Gersson Rosas greeting their new star at the airport to the introductory press conference. While all the off-court stuff has been wholesome and fun, there is plenty to parse in respect to the on-court changes the 23-year-old will bring.
Much has been made of his ability to knock down spot-up or on-the-move 3-pointers, which will be a major boost to a Timberwolves team that currently sits third in long-range attempts per game but dead last in percentage of those shots converted. There has also been plenty of chatter and eagerness around Russell’s table-setting aptitude and knack for pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop diming.
While all of those things are undoubtedly going to help this team, perhaps the biggest part of Russell’s ever-growing offensive game is his mid-range shooting frequency and effectiveness — something that isn’t currently written into the Timberwolves’ offensive system. The Wolves have made it abundantly clear that they don’t want to live in the mid-range, getting to the rim and free throw line as much as possible while launching triples at a high-volume is clearly the current status quo. Thus far, only the Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets have attempted less mid-range field goals than the Timberwolves.
So will they allow their shiny new toy to buck the system, even if it doesn’t conform to Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders’ rigid game plan? To fully maximize his potential, it would be wise to give Russell some extra leeway and allow him to get to his spots. That’s what head coach Kenny Atkinson and offensive coordinator Pablo Prigioni, who now runs the offense for Minnesota, did when Russell broke out in Brooklyn.
According to NBA.com, the Nets shot just 8.2 mid-range jumpers per game in 2018-19 which ranked as the third-lowest league-wide. Russell accounted for 3.8 of those himself. Golden State runs a more mid-range heavy scheme (17.2 per game), and D-Lo has still been able to get up 3.9 a night; Only 16 players have attempted more. Over the previous two high-volume seasons, the Ohio State product has connected on a very respectable 46.7 percent of those shots. For a reference point, that is a higher clip than silky in-between scorers like Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker and DeMar DeRozan, to name a few.
It’s not news that this season’s Golden State Warriors haven’t been world-beaters. But in Brooklyn, Russell was the architect that helped the Nets clinch their first playoff berth since 2015. Before that 2018-19 campaign, Bleacher Report predicted the Nets to win 29 games. 247 Sports and ESPN had them winning 32. By season’s end, they had finished victorious in 42 games and claimed the sixth seed. That’s the kind of impact Russell can have on a team when he is surrounded by the right pieces. That’s the kind of impact he can have when he is in the right system — even if he breaks its mold occasionally.
There are multiple aspects of the mid-range game that Russell has mastered. He is extremely crafty when navigating pick-and-rolls and well-versed at cutting his defender off and getting them on his back. It’s a move that Chris Paul — a pick-and-roll master in a league of his own — has perfected and made famous over the years.
The move seals off the defender and limits their ability to get a hand in a face on the shot attempt. In the example above, Russell fades on his jumper and uses the off-kilter defender to draw an easy hoop and harm. He isn’t going to wow you with a burst of speed or a bouncy vertical, but Russell’s meandering isn’t in vain. He knows where he wants to be and lulls the defender to sleep before knocking down his jimmy, much like he does to multiple Grizzlies on these step-back baseline moves.
He doesn’t always need a screen to free him up, either. Russell is perfectly capable of wheeling and dealing in isolation scenarios. Again, that isn’t the way the Nets, Warriors or Timberwolves prefer to operate, but the point guard has shown he is adept at taking matters into his own hands if need be.
The looks he ends up with don’t always seem like the highest caliber efficiency-wise, but they tickle the twine more often than not. In 76 isolation possessions this season, Russell has scored 1.03 points per possession. That ranks him in the 81st percentile. Not only are Russell’s marvelous mid-range antics a great way to get himself a bucket, but it also opens up scoring opportunities for his teammates, in particular, his big men.
When his point-of-attack defender has been bamboozled, the defending big needs to step out of the paint and attempt to stymie D-Lo’s jumper. This allows someone like Karl-Anthony Towns, Naz Reid or Omari Spellman to sneak in behind the defense for an easy lob or drop-off pass. This kind of play will become a regular if the tallest trees in Minnesota’s forest barrel to the rim consistently.
It’s not completely compatible with the uber-modern scheme Rosas and Saunders have worked hard to install over the past eight months, but Russell’s ability to open up paths to effective scoring is too valuable an asset to completely overlook. The coaching staff need to toe the line between enabling their newest star to rule the offense with an iron fist and completely ignoring one of the most important parts of his skill set.
It will be a tough gig, but finding that happy medium for D’Angelo Russell and the rest of the Timberwolves’ offense might be one of the chief reasons this core brings winning ways back to the Twin Cities.