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How can the Wolves get the most from D’Angelo Russell?

The Wolves made a splash at the trade deadline when they acquired D’Angelo Russell but will that translate to on-court success?

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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The need for a fresh start for Andrew Wiggins was clear well before he was traded to Golden State on February 6. With a five-year sample, continuing to wonder if yet another coach would unlock Wiggins for more than a couple of weeks had outgrown its usefulness as a team building exercise for the Minnesota Timberwolves. There’s no denying both the team and Wiggins were better off going in separate directions.

However, there are still questions over D’Angelo Russell and his overall fit with his new team. There’s no denying Russell is the superior facilitator of the two players — Russell accounted for nearly 32 percent of his teams’ assists while he was on the floor through his first five seasons while Wiggins accounted for 9.9 percent. Other than this form of playmaking, the two players’ have had similar impacts on their teams. That isn’t necessarily a good thing since the consensus on Wiggins’ time in Minnesota is that he vastly underachieved.

Let’s be honest — teams don’t just hand over 23-year-old players on a max player in exchange for another team’s reclamation project. There is a reason that Russell was even available and why the Wolves got him for the price they did.

The Striking Similarities

Fans who disliked Wiggins shooting the Wolves out of games probably experienced flashbacks watching Russell shoot 5-for-16 against Boston on February 21 or 6-for-18 in two separate games in March or 2-of-14 against Orlando on March 6. Sure, Russell had some good games for Minnesota but we also saw how low the floor could be with him.

The problem is that Russell hasn’t proven himself more efficient than Wiggins throughout his career. Nearly every metric shows that Wiggins and Russell are two of the least efficient players in the game. Consider the following:

  • Wiggins and Russell have nearly identical career true shooting percentage (52.2 percent versus 52.6 percent).
  • Both players have a below average effective field goal percentage through their first five seasons, though Russell edges Wiggins 49.7 percent to 47.3 percent.
  • While Wiggins’ 33.3 three-point percentage through his first five years is bad, Russell’s isn’t much better (35.6 percent) but is more tolerable since he shoots twice as many 3’s per game.
  • Offensive rating shows both Russell (102) and Wiggins (103) as slightly above average offensive players through their first five seasons. Yet, both players are paid like high and positive impact players, not-average-at-best offensive impact players.
  • Russell has taken 28.4 percent of his career shots from 10-to-23 feet, or the midrange, while Wiggins has taken 29.9 percent of his shots from the same locations. At least Russell makes a tolerable percent of these less-desired shots.
  • Neither player is great when it comes to contested shots, but this was especially true for Russell this season. Russell took 43.3 percent of his shots tightly defended with a defender within 2-to-4 feet of him and made an underwhelming 42.3 percent of these shots. When it comes to tightly-contested 3’s, Russell’s efficiency falls to just 30.7 percent. For comparison, Wiggins made 52 percent of these shots and 44 percent of his shots were tightly contested.

Don’t just take my word for it. After the trade, the Athletic’s Seth Partnow wrote:

The Athletic’s Danny Leroux added:

We’ve now seen both the reservations from impartial observers at the time of the trade and from the early returns on Russell’s early games with the Timberwolves. Russell’s 23.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game last season look good, but it’s evident there is still room for him to grow.

Figuring It Out

Yet, it does little good to say Russell won’t work in Minnesota after 12 games because of the sample size and because he’s not going anywhere as long as Karl-Anthony Towns is here. Keeping Towns happy is almost worth it alone. Almost.

Instead, the better exercise is in how the Wolves can maximize Russell’s strengths while maximizing his weaknesses.

Russell attempted 27 percent of his 3-pointers with 4-6 feet of separation and nailed just over 38 percent of them. The Wolves should be encouraged by that. Can the Wolves use dribble handoffs and screens to consistently give Russell the separation he needs? Russell and Towns in the pick ‘n’ roll could be especially useful because Towns takes attention from Russell, reducing his penchant for bad shots, and also leaves Towns in single coverage. Even if the opposing defense doubles, there’s an open shot somewhere on the floor.

Having another player on the roster who can do the dirty work, like setting screens or mopping up for defensive lapses, could also go a long way. Of course, those players aren’t readily available and acquiring this player may require some savvy drafting.

With all of that said, the most convenient way to no longer worry about Russell’s weaknesses is for him to simply get better. Russell just completed his fifth year and played over 300 NBA games, but he just turned 24 years old in late February. It’s not unfathomable he could iron out those kinks in his game and becoming a more positive contributor.

Playing with a healthy Towns could go a long way to take the ball out of Russell’s hands and make him more selective with his shots, too. It’s not that Russell is a bad player but like every player, he needs a team to deploy him properly. And the Wolves probably don’t want (nor can they afford) another $30-million under-producing player.