Today’s NBA is full of heavy metal lead guards. There’s the scintillating guitar solo shooters like Stephen Curry, Trae Young and Damian Lillard, the rhythm-keeping bassists like Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, and the weird, funky and dazzling percussion experts like James Harden and Luka Doncic. The league is full of heavy metal guards, but Minnesota Timberwolves lead man D’Angelo Russell is jazz. He isn’t one thing or another, he isn’t even the same genre, he’s a quirky blend of instruments and sounds that probably shouldn’t work, but somehow do.
In a vacuum, Russell’s herky-jerky game has worked in his favor. For most, an All-Star appearance and a lustrous max contract would be considered a successful career output. However, now that he has joined Karl-Anthony Towns as a franchise centerpiece for the ever-underachieving Wolves, Russell needs to take his game to the next level, the level that President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas envisioned for him when he chased him through last year’s free agency and trade deadline periods. Russell, for all his wonderful jazzy undertones, needs to infuse some heavy metal into his offensive package.
One thing that the aforementioned top-tier ball-handlers have is the ability to get downhill and put pressure on the rim consistently. Even when they possess the juice to shoot the lights out or set the table for others, beating a defender and getting a high-percentage look in the paint is what makes their music the head-banging variety. Russell has never been known for thrusting himself upon opposing rim protectors, as his limited straight-line burst and smooth shot-creation skills lend themselves more to a jump shot-heavy scoring diet, but at the beginning of this season he had taken that play style to a whole new, and team-hurting, level.
In the first eight games of the season, six (all losses) coming without Towns by his side, Russell had taken only 9 percent of his shots at the rim, including shots he was fouled on. That ranks in the 6th percentile for all players that split their time between point guard and shooting guard, according to Cleaning The Glass. For reference, Russell shot a career-low 11.5 percent at the rim last season, and 17 percent in his All-Star season with the Brooklyn Nets.
The reason only the first eight games of the season is worth highlighting is because something has switched for Russell over the last two outings. While he’ll always take his opportunity to dabble in some Jazz, Russell mindset seems to have had some direct, hard-driving heavy metal tones seep in. In those previous two outings, a win-loss back-to-back against the San Antonio Spurs, Russell has upped his at-rim frequency to a whopping 27 percent. That’s the same frequency as a player like De’Aaron Fox, and in the same ballpark as Young (30%), Lillard (29%) and Lowry (24%).
Russell’s athletic capabilities haven’t changed, but his psyche has. The clip below is what we have come to expect from D’Angelo Russell is semi-transition broken floor situations. When he comes around a step-up screen with a head of steam, his first response is to take the space that the pick creates between his man and the help defender and use it to set his feet and launch a long-range jumper.
Now, Russell is knocking down a scorching 45.2 percent of his pull-up triples so far this season, so coach Ryan Saunders probably isn’t pulling his hair out when Russell strides into that shot. Although, Saunders and his cohorts want this team wants to put pressure on the rim, and they need Russell to take buy into that ethos. Lately, he has been.
This time, in what is pretty much the exact same scenario, Russell doesn’t even consider the jumper. Instead, he uses his craft to balance out the lack of wiggle and burst, hitting Keldon Johnson with a sumptuous little in-and-out move, keeping his hands low, and driving his arms through multiple Spurs to draw the foul and convert at an unprotected rim.
Whether it was passed down from the coaching staff, Russell took it upon himself, or a mixture of both, there has been a clear motivation for Russell to punish defenses that are still jogging back into their shell. In both outings against the Spurs, Russell was quick to attack as he crossed the timeline. Already being at a canter makes up for some of D’Lo’s speed scantiness, and as long as the screen is set adequately, Russell is suddenly at downhill advantage. Here, LaMarcus Aldridge is no chance, as he gets blown by and left clawing at thin air as Russell finishes an easy layup.
Even when the result isn’t a made field goal, you can see the difference in Russell’s mid-play body language. The two clips below show a striking difference. In the first, Russell has the generously-listed 5-foot-11 Facundo Campazzo on his hip, but when he gets to the optimal spot to put his foot down and drop the Argentinian off under the rim, he pulls the ball back and lets fly on that comfortable jumper. But just a few games later, against an otherworldly defender in Dejounte Murray, Russell tries to get his shoulder past and find a more efficient shot.
That look didn’t go down, and the Wolves point guard is only shooting 52 percent at the rim this season, but it still beats a wonky mid-range jumper in which he’s only hitting at a 43 percent clip, one which completely bucks Minnesota’s analytically-minded offensive game plan to boot. Obviously, it would be ideal if every shot could drop, but that’s wishful thinking. However, apart from just being closer to the cylinder, drawing a big man away his direct opponent to come at protect the rim is another reason that these close-in shots are smiled upon by that same analytic department.
When that happens, misses become dropped treasure, and all it takes is a wide open big man — in this case Ed Davis — to pick it up and cash it in. More often than not, this doesn’t happen with mid-range and 3-point field goal attempts.
Finding the perfect shot profile balance is a tight rope to walk for Rosas, Saunders and the rest of the coaching staff — they want D’Angelo Russell’s jazz. They want him to continue to flash that choppy, stop-start player who can pull up in front of anyone and hit any shot, but they also need some heavy metal. They need some plays that get straight to the point and raise the team’s overall efficiency.
It seems like that message is getting through. This is it. This is that message personified. Technically, this little 10-footer is too far away from the hoop to be statistically considered at-rim, but it’s exactly the kind of compromise that works. To Saunders and Rosas’ pleasure, Russell foregoes pulling up for his patented deep two after splitting Patty Mills down the middle with a vicious right-to-left crossover, opting instead to touch the paint with both feet before rising up and flashing his soft floater touch.
Again, the model of the shot-making guard that we’ve come to know takes the sliver of space he gets coming of the screen here to rise up into a smooth-looking, but ultimately off-kilter jump shot. But now, it’s head down, fighting through contact and getting right into the teeth of the defense. Russell has underrated touch on these runners, but he needs to showcase plays like this way more often.
We must remember that it has only been two games of this refreshed shot selection outlook. We know how easy it is for players to fall back into bad habits, especially ones who are liable to hoist up bad shots. While the signs have been encouraging of late, it’s still far too early to tell if this was an aberration or a new normal. Those waters get even muddier when you consider both games were against the same team. There is a very real chance that a different defensive scheme and defensive personnel make life more difficult for Russell and he reverts back to his old ways.
We will have to wait it out to see some more comprehensive results, but Russell’s improved shot selection and attacking mindset is certainly something to keep an eye on. If it proves to be a genuine trend, it can only mean good things for a Timberwolves team looking to find their feet in the Western Conference.