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D’Angelo Russell is Finding Simplicity in a KAT-less Offense

Russell has caught fire offensively since Karl-Anthony Towns went down with a calf strain, why? How long will it last?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

Over the last six games he’s played, D’Angelo Russell is averaging 24.5 points and 5.5 assists on 44.5% shooting from 3-point range. In his previous 21 games, he averaged 14.4 points on 32% shooting from deep.

He’s stepped into the scoring void left behind by Karl-Anthony Towns’ calf strain, becoming an instrumental piece in an offense playing without its best player.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

Had the Ohio State standout continued his mediocre shooting from beyond the arc, the spacing of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offense would’ve been sent (further) into shambles. Even though Towns was shooting a career-low 33% from 3-point land before he went down, he’s still the team’s biggest threat from 3. Before Towns’ injury against Washington on Nov. 28, Minnesota ranked No. 26 in 3-point percentage. Take the reigning 3-point champ out of the equation and things were looking grim.

In a contract year it was important not only for the Wolves, but for also Russell, to play at a $20+ million per season level.

It’s clear the former No. 2 overall pick knew he needed to step up, as he’s averaging four more shot attempts per game since Towns went down. It’s always impressive when a player shoots more and also shoots more efficiently, but Russell doing that when the Wolves needed it the most has been a godsend.

It seems as if things Russell has simplified things with Towns out of the lineup. Instead of operating as a full-time distributor and part-time scorer, it’s become somewhat the inverse recently.

It certainly helps that Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch has simplified the whole offense without KAT, going back to a traditional one-big lineup instead of the complex two-center lineup of the first 21 games.

Russell has been vocal about being a “basketball player” and not just a point guard or shooting guard. There’s plenty of truth to that, despite him taking the role of lead ball-handler and orchestrator for much of his time in Minnesota. With an opportunity for him to focus more on scoring and less on being the maestro of a funky offense, Russell has found success.

In his lone All-Star season, when he was the primary scoring option for the Nets, he shot 37% from 3. When he was the primary scoring option for Golden State for 33 games, he shot 37.4%. His highest season percentage was with the Wolves in 2020-21 when he shot 38.7%.

D-Lo is a terrific passer and the point is not to diminish that; but when he’s tasked with carrying the scoring burden, it looks as if he scores more efficiently than when he’s also told to distribute.

It’s a tall order for any “guard” to orchestrate the Towns-Gobert pairing (especially without much work in training camp or the preseason), but to attempt to navigate that while also finding pockets within the game to create for yourself is difficult. Surely there have been times where he takes an isolation shot or contested jumper that raises eyebrows, but realizing (consciously or unconsciously) that you might be more efficient if you look to score more often — even though others need their touches — makes it hard to find a balance.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images

History tells us that Russell’s shooting percentages will regress back down to the mean as the season rolls on. It feels as if he’s good for about two or three hot streaks throughout the season during which he catches fire and shoots much higher than his usual percentage.

But perhaps his inconsistent, up-and-down past is related to a role that’s asked a lot of him. Would the Wolves be able to replicate the simplicity that’s recently been discovered if he’s placed in a lineup with Jordan McLaughlin? But then are there too many scoring mouths to feed on this roster (when fully healthy)?

To be clear: it’s clear that Russell is not — and will not be — a long-term, above-average shooter in terms of efficiency. That’s not the expectation. It’s also not expected — or encouraged — to limit his orchestration. He’s proved to be a tremendous passer (although volatile), and robbing him of that opportunity isn’t wise.

But if Russell continues his recent scoring burst in KAT-less outings, it might be worth trying to simplify his role when the team is back to full strength. Jaden McDaniels is the only starter that could be moved to the bench, which in turn eliminates the miniscule amount of perimeter defense the Wolves have, so I’m not sure how Finch finds a scoring role for DLo. But if the team struggles at full strength again, it’s kind of “desperate times desperate measures” time, isn’t it?