D’Angelo Russell crawled through the early stages of the 2020-21 season like a caterpillar through mud, and how quickly the narrative around him twisted. From the player that Minnesota Timberwolves fans clambered for heading into the 2019 free agency period and the 2020 trade deadline to the player that was scorned throughout the fan base for his inability to pull the MASH unit Wolves out of the early-season hole they dug for themselves.
Then, just as Karl-Anthony Towns was returning from a fractured wrist and a bout with COVID-19, Russell was sidelined with a knee injury, one that would see him undergo arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies that had been the root of the problem.
While he was out, the team’s landscape evolved around him. Ryan Saunders was ousted from his head coaching role and was immediately replaced by Toronto Raptors assistant Chris Finch. Joining in on the weirdness was shooting guard Malik Beasley, who saw his offseason transgressions punished with a hefty 12-game suspension.
When Russell returned, it was to a whole different organizational vibe. For 26 games he watched all of this unfurl, all the while gestating in his injury-riddled cocoon. In the four games since he returned, he has emerged as an eye-catching butterfly. Despite ramping up his workload from a bench role, the 25-year-old has averaged 23.8 points and 5.0 assists in just under 26 minutes a night, connecting on 47.7 percent of his total field goals and 41.4 percent of the 7.3 3-pointers he is hoisting per game. The Wolves are 2-2 over that four-game span, and Russell has been the driving force in the wins over the Sacramento Kings and the Chicago Bulls.
So, where has the divergence from his aforementioned early-season struggles come from? Two things, in particular, stand out, so let’s step into the Timberwolves Film Room™ to break it down.
Need For Speed
Russell has never been a breakneck pace kind of player. He has different gears, sure, but he just isn’t the explosive athlete that can play at full throttle the way an Anthony Edwards or Josh Okogie do. However, even for his low-bar standards, Russell seemed more lethargic than methodical in his movements. Perhaps he was dragging that knee for longer than was publicly known, or clashing tactically with the much-maligned Saunders, or, more likely, a blend of the two.
D’Angelo Russell looks like a completely different player since returning from his knee surgery.— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) April 12, 2021
Whatever it was, Russell’s playstyle seems to have sped up since his return. Russell looks more spry on the hardwood than he has throughout his entire Minnesota tenure, a development that has resulted in the point guard hurrying the ball up the floor more often and launching into offensive sets with more pizzazz. Thus far, the numbers back up the eye test. On the season, Russell’s average time of possession has dropped from 5.7 seconds to 4.2 seconds. He is also taking fewer dribbles per touch (4.0 to 3.6), according to NBA.com’s tracking data.
The uptick in speed starts with Russell’s willingness to get out and use broken floor situations to his advantage after Minnesota secures a defensive rebound. Instead of sauntering up the court, Russell is exhibiting his version of pedal-to-the-medal basketball. Here, he takes the ball from Towns and scuttles to the timeline before whipping a cross-court laser to Edwards, who has spotted up in the right slot while the Boston Celtics players are still trying to form their defensive shell.
Here is the same concept delivering similar results. This time he gets it up early to Jarrett Culver and follows up by dipping over to set a ball screen for the sophomore. The early dish allows Culver to attack a bent defense, and the screen gives him the step he needs to get his defender on his hip and get to the front of the rim.
Making a concerted attempt to play fast has been a motto of the Timberwolves’ front office and coaching staff for some time, but the last iteration of Russell ran — or jogged — against that grain, but the ability to set up his teammates quickly is the ideal way to create offensive advantages for a team that has underwhelmed on that end of the floor for much of the season.
Another advantageous area for Minnesota’s offense is actions that result in Towns in single coverage, and the one thing Wolves fans have been desperate to see since Russell was traded for back in February of 2020 was he and his big man operating in a pick-and-roll setting. Injuries have robbed the pair of playing meaningful stretches together, but they are starting to string some minutes together of late and Russell’s eagerness to get the ball in and out of his hands has yielded positive results for his running mate.
In full cry, the point man is a master manipulator in screen play, but his effectiveness wanes the longer he meanders with the ball. Lately, there has been more of this. Russell is up the floor and dancing his way into the action just five seconds into the shot clock, dropping it off for a KAT stuff just a few seconds later.
And again, this time late-game pick-and-pop action with his sweet-shooting buddy. Despite being up by three points and time running down, Russell still wants to get up the floor quicker than we are used to seeing. The key here is playing with pace but not playing recklessly, Russell gets into the action expeditiously, but he still exhibits the right amount of patience in bumping off his defender and drawing the big before scooping it over for Towns, who ices the game with the triple.
Of course, Russell’s game will always be predicated on his ability to tickle the twine on his lonesome. That’s what made him an All-Star in 2019 and that’s why he is raking in $30 million annually. However, the shine wears off that scoring ability when shot clock’s have dwindled at the expense of his shot-hunting.
Russell is much more impactful as a scorer when he is in early attack mode; especially in the form of drives to the rim. According to NBA.com, Russell has increased his shots from within eight feet (layup and floater range) significantly since his return (2.9 to 4.3), while seeing similar growth in the amount of those looks that are falling (56.1% to 64.7%). So, it’s not a surprise to see his overall efficiency numbers looking as sumptuous as they have since he put on a Timberwolves jersey.
Perhaps the highlight of his return was a result of Russell’s newfangled mentality, where he showed an unseen zip from end-to-end and finished strong after a nifty Jamal Crawford-esque dribble move freed up space.
Sprinkling an increased urgency into Russell’s usual off-the-dribble acumen is a recipe for success. Instead of over-dribbling on this size-up of Celtics big man Grant Williams, Russell burns his man the instant he sees a shift in balance and positioning. He is never going to be an elite burst guy, but the former All-Star can get to the cup like this much more often when he has this go-go mindset.
We know Russell can hit jump shots, be it from long-range or in the in-between area, be it in transition or late in the clock, be it wide open or with a defender draped all over him. Russell is a shot-maker. The problem is that he often relies far too heavily on those jumpers to drive offense. Most of the time, that’s just not going to lead to offensive efficiency in the aggregate.
However, when Russell is injecting a good dose of spritely drives into his offensive repertoire, he becomes much tougher to cover for defenders and lends himself to winning basketball at a higher degree. When he gets two feet inside the paint, Russell opens far more avenues than the jump-shooting method allows. Not only can he finish himself or find a shooter when the defense collapses, but, most importantly, he can get to the free throw line and get easy points.
It’s an admittedly tiny sample size, but Russell has upped his free throws per game from 3.2 pre-injury to 6.0 since coming back, despite playing almost four fewer minutes a night. It’s amazing what an attacking mindset, better teammates, and a healthy body can do. This zig-zagging foray to the cup is something we have rarely glimpsed before his knee procedure, an element to his game that increases his offensive versatility tenfold.
Here, he hastens the offense and goes solo, serving Justin Holiday a steaming hot in-and-out burger before hooking the Pacer’s arm and finishing like a fresh snowflake falling onto a pile of snow.
Whether or not this is the newer, faster and better version of D’Angelo Russell remains to be seen. In an entirely lost season, it’s easy for any player to slip back into old familiarities. But, if this is Russell’s plan of attack going forward, there are going to be plenty of offensive outbursts to savor.
Scintillating Shooting Guard
The other adjustment that has been made to Russell’s game since coming back has been the way he has been used. Positional labels are becoming more and more dated by the day, it’s more topical to call describe Russell’s new role as that of an off-ball scorer, but traditionalists would call it a shooting guard. Russell has been stationed next to Ricky Rubio or Jordan McLaughlin almost exclusively since returning, allowing him to score in different and more effective ways than when he was the sole ball-handler on the floor under Saunders.
To be fair, much of this credit needs to go to Finch, who has scarcely put a foot wrong offensively since he took over as head coach. But, Russell needs to receive his share of the praise, too, as he has welcomed a different role with open arms. He has allowed Rubio and/or McLaughlin to do get their touches and advanced the ball up the court while becoming more dangerous and active as a scorer and facilitator off the catch or on second-side actions.
It’s fair to assume that Chris Finch’s smile nearly burst through his mask on the sidelines after this play, which is perhaps the perfect example of Russell facilitating great offense as a passer off-the-catch. He curls tightly around a good Towns screen, catches on the ball reversal from McLaughlin, and fires it straight back after J-Mac made an excellent dive to the cup.
Russell’s adroitness with the pass is undoubtedly a huge boon for this offense, but playing him off-ball is more likely designed to get him better looks as a scorer. Instead of hammering isolations or pick-and-roll sets, Russell can vary his looks when the ball isn’t starting in his hands. Russell made his return against the Kings, and from the jump, he exhibited his willingness to move without the ball and get easy looks at the rim.
First, it was the back cut from the corner:
Then it was the straight-line dive to create a look from a Towns post-up:
We’ve already discussed how important it is for Russell and for the Timberwolves to have their franchise pillar getting looks in the paint, but Finch employing Russell as effectively a shooting guard has allowed him to do exactly that ... shoot. Instead of relying on a steady diet of contested pull-up triples, running smart action for the 25-year-old to catch and fire has brought immediate positive results.
Primarily, Russell has thrived in the three-pronged ‘Horns’ actions that have become a staple of Coach Finch’s late-game offense. If you want a deeper Film Room dive into the Horns set you can go here, but the bottom line is D’Angelo Russell has thrived in it. With Karl-Anthony Towns positioned at the elbow and drawing attention from all angles, Russell has been free to pop out beyond the arc and nail multiple looks in this fashion.
Russell has also quickly synergized with Towns on hand-off actions. This allows Russell to use his smarts to shrug off defenders and curl around Towns, who is happy to play helper to his good friend.
Since his return, Russell is shooting a scorching hot 41.2 percent of 4.3 catch-and-shoot jumpers per game. Before he went down, when Minnesota’s offense was stuck in an isolation-heavy sludge, he was shooting just 2.8 triples off the catch and converting on 36.8 percent. Again, you can almost hear Chris Finch cracking a smile in the distance.
Russell has all the skills to be a successful lead guard in the league, he has shown that through multiple different stops on his NBA journey. However, striking the right balance between on and off-ball scoring punch might be the best way to extract every last drop of talent from his body.
Simply put, this is a different version of D’Angelo Russell. This is a caterpillar turned butterfly, a point guard turned off-guard, a reimagined fan favorite.