When looking at the 2021-22 season thus far, I think it’s safe to say that D’Angelo Russell’s play this year mirrors the success of the Minnesota Timberwolves as a whole.
There have been games where he’s played great, hitting from deep, picking apart pick-and-roll coverages with no-look assists or midrange jumpers, sinking clutch shots in overtime against the Philadelphia 76ers, etc. But then there have been games where he just can’t get it going, finishing with stat lines like 1-11 or 1-12 from three. All players have cold streaks and off nights, but it feels so much more detrimental to this team when it’s Russell who’s off. Not just in terms of shooting, but distributing.
He’s shooting 43.8% from the field and 39.0% from three in the 20 Wolves wins he’s played in. In the 15 losses he’s played in, he’s shooting 37.1% from the field and 31.2% from three. Clearly, this team goes as Russell goes (2-8 without him).
Because of it’s hot and cold nature, let’s break down Russell’s season by month.
Russell struggled to get his shot rolling to start the season, shooting 30% from deep and 38.1% from the field (keep in mind the Wolves only had five games in October). Although he was inefficient scoring, his passing (or lack thereof) stands out. He had only 24 assists through five games, which works out to 4.8 per game. That could be part of the reason he finished with an offensive rating of 92.0 in October.
- 9 PTS on 3-14 shooting in loss against New Orleans on 10/25.
- 29 PTS and 6 AST in win against Milwaukee on 10/27.
Remember when I said hot and cold? yeah, this was a “hot” month.
Russell averaged 20.1 PTS in 14 games with a 40.9/35.5/83.0 shooting split. Compared to October, he shot higher percentages on nearly three times as many attempts. Along with his scoring, his passing improved greatly. His assist average rose to 6.5, which contributed to his offensive rating jumping to 115.0. The Wolves finished 8-8 in November, winning seven of their last eight games to close the month.
- 35 PTS and 8 AST vs. Philadelphia on 11/27.
And just like that, we’re back to cold (in terms of shooting, at least). In eight games (Russell was out for six of Wolves’ 14), Russell shot 33.8/31.9/77.4 on 17.1 PPG.
December is when Russell really started to distribute at a high level. He averaged 8.4 AST, while having 11 against Brooklyn (12/3), 12 against Dallas (12/21), and 14 against Utah (12/23). Despite his great passing, the Wolves lost all three of those games. Russell shot an average of 28.1% from the field in those three.
- 10 PTS on 3-18 shooting in loss against Washington on 12/1.
- 16 PTS, 7 AST, 8 REB in win against Denver on 12/15.
January (so far)
It’s only been eight games (for Russell, ten for the Wolves), but Russell’s caught fire to start 2022. Well, not against Oklahoma City on 1/5 or Golden State on 1/16, as he was a combined 0-10 from three, scoring less than 10 PTS in each of those two. But in the other six he’s been great.
His pick-and-roll passing has been masterful, leaving teams scratching their heads trying to figure out how to guard it.
Let’s wrap up with Russell’s defense this season.
While he still has his issues when guarding on-ball (not very quick, athletic or strong) he's improved off-ball, becoming a vocal organizer that keeps other players in check. He acts as a quarterback, getting guys in the right spot and calling out the other team’s moves. Off the ball is clearly the place for Russell. He’s a cerebral player, which helps with his “quarterbacking.” His long arms and good hands also help to disrupt passes/passing lanes.
The biggest surprise from this season hasn't been Russell’s streaky shooting.
It’s been his improvement on defense and his passing. His career assist average in 5.5, but this year it's up to 7.0. Without much secondary creation, Russell’s distribution becomes that much more important to the Wolves’ success.
Consistent, efficient scoring might not be something we can expect from Russell going forward. But if he can continue to distribute like he has been recently, as well as quarterback the defense, I’d say that’s a big step towards becoming a more well-rounded player.