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Could D’Angelo Russell’s Pick-and-Roll Frequency Swing the Wolves’ Offense?

The addition of Rudy Gobert affords the Wolves’ PG1 the potential to play more frequently in his best play type.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Two Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves have undergone massive changes in the 2022 offseason, and it’s worth wondering how exactly it will all come together for Minnesota in 2022-23 as they look to build on a promising year. Each week from now until the start of preseason in October, I will be writing about one specific thing for each potential rotation player that I am most intrigued to see in terms of how the team ultimately fits. For last week’s story on Anthony Edwards, click here.

One of the many difficult tasks for NBA coaches is balancing one’s basketball philosophy with the talents of the players on the roster. If an important player’s strengths clash with the playbook, how much does the coach adjust to accommodate the player?

Here’s an example: Chris Finch is not a pick-and-roll coach. His team doesn’t run it that much, and therefore none of his players run it with much frequency, even those who have shown difference-making ability in the play type.

The Minnesota Timberwolves ran 16 PNR possessions per game in 2021-22, 24th in the league. This resulted in the lowest PNR frequency of D’Angelo Russell’s career, as he only ran 6.6 such possessions per game as the ball handler per

The pick-and-roll is what put Russell on the map as an impactful player in this league. His highest PNR frequency came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets — 11.4 possessions per game, second in the entire NBA. Not so coincidentally, it was also the year he took a leap from averaging 15.5 points and 5.2 assists to 21.1 points and seven assists per game while improving his efficiency. He was named to his only All-Star team and led the Nets in scoring on a surprise playoff team.

Russell made sweet music with Jarrett Allen, a big man with the athleticism to be a dynamic rolling threat.

Now, Russell will once again play with an elite rolling big in Rudy Gobert. Gobert is a different rim-runner from Allen — Allen thrives on explosive movement and has enough ball skills to take a dribble out of the short roll and finish, while Gobert gets it done right at the basket with his indomitable length. But the numbers indicate Russell couldn’t ask for a more efficient partner for his best play type.

Gobert played the 12th-most roll man possessions (3.4) in the NBA on a per game basis in 2021-22 and averaged the second-highest points per possession among players who averaged at least three such possessions with 1.32 PPP per Gobert’s combination of volume and efficiency in the play should encourage Finch to increase the number of pick-and-rolls his team runs, and Russell is first in line to receive those reps.

The above clips make it easy to visualize how this partnership will look. Mike Conley is a crafty, lefty guard who lacks the explosion to pressure the rim and so must thrive in the intermediate area of the court. Sound like the best version of anyone we know?

After a few seasons in a system that doesn’t prioritize the play type, though, will Russell be effective on an increased diet of PNRs?

Back in May, before the Gobert trade and when Russell was a popular trade candidate, Nekias Duncan wrote for Basketball News about potential destinations for the guard. Pick-and-roll capability was the first skill Duncan referenced for what Russell brings to the table.

Russell was one of 31 players to receive at least 1,500 on-ball picks this season, per Second Spectrum. Russell-led ball screens were good for nearly 1.03 points per possession (PPP), a top-10ish mark in NBA among high volume ball-handlers.

You can thank the jumper for that — Russell converted 37% of the pull-up 3s he attempted out of pick-and-roll, per InStat tracking. For comparison, that put him in line with high volume pull-up artists like Stephen Curry (38.9%) and Trae Young (37.0%).

- Nekias Duncan

These numbers indicate that Russell is still highly effective as a pick-and-roll maestro and that increased usage will only build on what some are forgetting was a successful season. More such opportunities may help him improve the 3-point shot that dipped down to 34% last season. Perhaps Russell wouldn’t have struggled so mightily against the Grizzlies in the playoffs if he had more chances in the play style he’s comfortable with.

Putting Russell in advantageous positions could also help ensure his commitment during a crucial season for the Wolves. Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt are gone; it’s more important than ever that Russell maintains last season’s commitment to defense so that Gobert isn’t left on an island as he so often was in Utah. There’s nothing to indicate that Russell will let his effort fall flat, but ensuring he feels good about his offense will only help his dedication on the other end.

The question remains if Finch will allow that to happen. Coaches don’t typically completely change an aspect of their coaching style, but Finch has shown the willingness to be flexible while steering the Wolves’ ship. He has switched things up in order to maximize his players’ strengths before, and throwing Russell a bone with increased PNR usage would be a way to continue that trend.