D’Angelo Russell is playing for his fourth team in five seasons, looking for an opportunity to finally establish himself as a championship building block.
It’s not unusual for NBA players to hop around the league a lot. Most players are expendable, archetypes slotted in and out of line-ups in the hopes that they can provide something the team is lacking or complement a star’s skillset as they chase a title. What is unusual is for a high draft pick, one who has performed quite well on the whole and been named to an All-Star team to find themselves on their fourth team in less than six seasons.
None of the teams jettisoning Russell did so because of anything he did wrong himself, but because their priorities changed. The Lakers got new front office leadership who decided Lonzo Ball was their point guard of the future, not Russell; the Nets had a chance to sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving; the Warriors opted for the mystery box of the Timberwolves 2021 draft pick instead of the known entity that was Russell.
Russell is, in part because of this constant shuffling of teams along with his max contract, one of the more unfairly maligned players in the league. Though it is admittedly easy to notice the areas where he is lacking, especially considering how he often seems to be either very hot or very cold depending on the night. He is a lackluster defender and his shot selection is not always the best, frequently settling for an easy three or a floater rather than fighting for something closer to the rim. His shot profile makes him look more like a catch-and-shoot specialist than the primary ball-handler he is; last season, more than half of his shots were 3’s while less than ten percent came at the rim.
But focusing on those elements too quickly dismisses just how much innate talent he possesses and the ways he has grown since entering the league. He is a solid 3-point shooter, but more importantly, he is a truly great shot-creator meaning that he is not forced to rely on others for open looks. He also showed a lot of progress in minor ways last season that may indicate greater growth moving forward. Last year, he averaged a career-high in free throws per game and shot better at the rim than ever before. The question now is whether he will actually shoot there more frequently and prioritize those looks while also continuing to develop his already impressive ability to run an offense and find the open man.
Apart from the actual quality of his play, Russell can be a delight to watch. Everything about him is unhurried and smooth, making the most difficult shot appear casual, effortless. While he is not a pass-first guard, Russell has a generally good feel for the game as a playmaker, sending in bounce passes to big men down low and swinging the ball around the perimeter in order to generate open looks. The skills are there and now Timberwolves fans are hoping he can find the best way to make the most of them.
None of the teams he has played for has really prioritized his development in the way one would expect or hope. On the Lakers, it was overshadowed by the Kobe retirement tour and Brooklyn simply decided to buy low on a promising asset though, the whole time he was there, their eyes were on a bigger prize. In Golden State, he was just a consolation prize and a placeholder.
What can D’Angelo Russell do for the Minnesota Timberwolves this year?
Minnesota seems to actually want him. He is a longtime friend of Karl-Anthony Towns, the team’s franchise center and keeping Towns happy is a major priority for the long-suffering team that can hardly afford to lose a third All-NBA big man in less than two decades. It’s certainly possible that the duo of Russell and Towns can be what the team had initially hoped Wiggins and Towns would be. If nothing else, Russell certainly has a higher ceiling than Wiggins and is a more versatile player meaning there is room for optimism for Wolves fans, however cautious it may be.
Due to injuries to Towns and the shortened season, Towns and Russell only played a single game together last year: a loss to the Toronto Raptors. Together they combined for 45 points on an efficient 25 shots as they collectively went 7-of-11 from deep. While that kind of sharp-shooting is not to be expected from them moving forward, their ability to score and co-exist in the pick and roll was evident, as they stretched the Raptors’ defense thin in the process. At one point late in the game, they even ran a pick and with Towns as the ball-handler and Russell as the screener! Of course, that isolated game did nothing to quiet concerns about their defensive issues as the Raptors shot 57 percent from the field and over 50 percent from 3 on their way to 137 points. If they can find a way to defend adequately, the Wolves may surprise quite a few people this year. Scoring certainly won’t be a problem.
D’Angelo Russell may not be the best player Towns has ever played with, but he’s a better player than anyone the Wolves have had since trading away Jimmy Butler in 2018 and he promises to be a more complementary sidekick for Towns than Butler ever could have been, to say nothing of Wiggins. Russell’s talents, while not as outsized as Towns’, will force defenses to adjust and to make difficult decisions about where to be and who to guard that they did not have to face when playing the Wolves last season. It may not be enough to propel Minnesota into the playoffs, but it will be enough to make them a more competitive team than they have been since Butler’s departure. If nothing else, it will be good to see both players in a less desultory situation than they were in last season.
Russell did have a chance to showcase his talents freely in both Brooklyn and the Bay, but this is the first time in his career that he will have stability in addition to freedom. Perhaps this season — emboldened by the knowledge that he is no longer on a team just biding their time until an appealing deal comes along as well as by his friendship with Towns — will be his chance to truly break out, to fulfill the promise he has shown in the earlier stops of his NBA journey. The question regarding D’Angelo Russell has never been whether or not he was talented enough to consistently be an All-Star caliber player, but whether or not he could actualize his potential and make the most of his promising skillset. By the time this season ends, we may very well have an answer.