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What is D’Angelo Russell’s Future Role?

How does Anthony Edwards recent rise impacts D’Angelo Russell’s future with the Minnesota Timberwolves?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Minnesota Timberwolves David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

D’Angelo Russell was supposed to find a home with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The once-heralded rookie suffered through terrible Lakers teams, was traded to the Nets as part of the Timofey Mozgov salary dump, resurrected his career in Brooklyn before signing with the Warriors, then was traded to the Wolves to play with his friend, Karl-Anthony Towns. After spurning the Wolves for more money with the Warriors and the opportunity to be part of a dynasty, Russell came to Minnesota to build a future in Minnesota.

But the Russell and Towns partnership may be over before it even begins. Russell was Gersson Rosas’ big gambit, the second star to pair with KAT to build a perennial contender. Instead, the pair have infamously failed to share the court as the woebegone franchise has been beset by injuries and unfortunate circumstances beyond their control. The constant mantra has been “wait and see,” hoping that a stretch of games would provide a complete analysis of the two, finally offering a lens to view the trade for Russell and the potential loss of a high draft pick.

Detroit Pistons v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

This purgatory has not been without change. Ryan Saunders was let go, Chris Finch has been brought on board, and Anthony Edwards has continued his ascension in Russell and Malik Beasley’s absence. In the last eight games, Ant has been averaging over twenty shot attempts per game, playing more like Bradley Beal who is leading the league with 24.3 shot attempts per game.

More problematically for Russell, when he was in a holding pattern playing without Towns, the Timberwolves were by far the worst team in the league. That was not all on Russell, as the entire team and coaching staff’s performance was bereft of hope, but it is clear that Russell is unable to lead the team to competency.

Whenever Russell does return, he will be thrown into a new system playing alongside a rising Ant and a reinvigorated Ricky Rubio. The Wolves' new offensive system is heavily reliant on Towns operating from the elbows, distributing when the double-teams come or in curl actions. The team runs far fewer pick-and-rolls, but the Ant and Towns combo is beginning to highlight how Ant puts pressure on a defense at all three levels, and his attacks to the rim are leaving easy putback opportunities for the Wolves’ centers.

It’s unclear how Russell fits into these schemes. The Russell and Towns pick-and-roll is theoretically unstoppable with shooters surrounding the two, but this imagined dynamic duo ignores the realities of both player’s warts. Towns is not a particularly effective screen-setter and vastly prefers to pop or slip a screen for an open three. Russell dances around a solid pick, working for a mid-range jumper, a three, or threading the needle to the roller. Both players rely on the pick-and-roll partner to pressure the rim rather, lacking the capacity to do so themselves. Towns has never been a rim-runner nor does Russell have the athleticism to attack the rim. It is not hard to imagine how a two-man game with Ant and Towns becomes a more effective offense base soon.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

If Russell is not a fulcrum of the offense, it shifts the spotlight to his well-documented defensive liabilities, which overlap with the deficiencies of the rest of this roster with Towns, Edwards, and Malik Beasley.

Now, this is not to imply that Russell has no value for the Wolves. While he was unable to lift the Wolves by himself, he is an incredible shooter and isolation scorer, with very good passing vision. While Russell may not be necessarily “worth” his contract, few NBA players on maximum deals are. The Wolves believe that Russell can elevate his play to an All-Star level, but the more likely option is he flirts with the tier just below that level. It is not as if the Nuggets are hamstrung by Jamal Murray nor the Pelicans by Brandon Ingram. Russell is on the same timeline and contract as both those players and it is certainly plausible that he could provide the same type of offensive performance to lift a more competitive Wolves team.

But it no longer clear how Russell fits into the Wolves’ future. Looking forward, if the Wolves retain their draft pick, two of the top three prospects in the draft would theoretically replace Russell in the short and long-term. Russell’s status in the team’s pecking order has greatly diminished, as Ant’s ascension has already started the conversation of building a team and timeline around his career. Being Towns’ sidekick is losing its luster if Towns decides that he could find greener pastures elsewhere.

Across any sport, once the genie is out of the bottle, it doesn’t go back. In the first few months of Karl-Anthony Towns career, it became rapidly apparent that not only was he much better than Gorgui Dieng, who was coming off a solid season as the Wolves’ starter, but that he was also taking control of the team from Andrew Wiggins, who had just won Rookie of the Year. Anthony Edwards’ play is demanding a similar starring role.

The theoretical slow growth trajectory modeling Jaylen Brown in Boston has been tossed out the window in this disaster of a season. The roster and future plans will shift as a result and Russell will catch the shockwaves of that change. We will find out very quickly how amenable he is to the new reality or if he can shift the ground back, but the foundation of his new home has been renovated in his absence.