D’Angelo Russell is playing winning basketball for Timberwolves. Can he sustain it?
Russell is averaging 27.3 points over his past 4 games while shooting 62% from the field and 55% from deep.
ST. PAUL -- This is the D’Angelo Russell that Minnesota Timberwolves fans hoped they traded Andrew Wiggins and a first-round draft pick for in 2020. The point guard who can score and create at will to help ignite the offensive end and lead a team to victories.
That’s what Russell has done in recent games on a consistent basis. That’s showing up in the scoring column, with Russell averaging 27.3 points over his past four games while shooting 62% from the field and 55% from deep.
That scintillating stretch would seem to align well with Karl-Anthony Towns’ departure from the lineup with a calf strain, an injury that will sideline him for several weeks, though Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said Russell’s spurt of offense dates back to his 30-point showing in mid-November against Cleveland.
Regardless of the start date, the strong play is related to a shift in mentality. At the season’s outset, with a starting lineup flush with scorers, Minnesota asked Russell to take on a distributor’s mindset. The hope was that Russell could play the position in the purest sense to help maximize his teammates.
But in the pursuit of that, he lost his own offensive game. In a 15-game stretch from Oct. 23 through Nov. 21, Russell averaged just 12.8 points per game while shooting 41% from the floor and 31% from 3-point range.
“We asked him in the beginning of the season to set the table more and get off of it early, and he did that,” Finch said. “Unfortunately, I think it hurt rhythm-wise a bit.”
Russell confirmed as much. He’s a rhythm player who likes to feel out and “manipulate” games depending on the situation. For example, if Minnesota is in the bonus, Russell likes to make a point to draw a foul to get to the free-throw line.
“Throughout the game, I try to see what’s working or what’s not working, and I’m a high risk taker, so it might lead to a turnover like I said, or it might not lead to what we’re looking for sometimes,” Russell said. “Once I figure it out and get it going, it usually seems to open up in the fourth (quarter). Just mental notes throughout the game that allow it to open up in the fourth.”
That doesn’t always jive with an offense that the coach would prefer be predicated on movement and flow. Russell understands that. Hence why he tried to shift his approach at the start of the season.
“Whatever coach is asking for, I’m trying to do a little bit of that just to stay on the floor,” Russell said. “Even if it’s not really my personnel, just trying to do everything, give it my all just to be on the floor.”
But he noted that he overdid it. Instead of being a basketball player, he was hyper focused on playing point guard. That caused him to overthink situations, which has never been his modus operandi.
“I kind of just play basketball freely and have fun,” he said. “I pass the ball, so I’m labeled as a point guard. But just being a full, all-around basketball player, switching my approach to that versus what it was has been helpful.”
Russell is shot-ready in every instance, many times catching and firing on a moment’s notice. That has led to finding his jumper and, in the same vein, further spacing the Timberwolves’ offense for others. Perhaps that mindset occurred a month ago, as Finch suggested. Perhaps it was motivated by the departure of Towns from the lineup, which freed up shots and touches for others.
Whatever the reason, it freed up Russell to play more like himself. That has led to stronger offensive play from the 26-year-old point guard. And the offensive boost seems to have inspired an uptick in his defensive effort. Russell is making a more noticeable effort to get back in transition and make things more difficult for whomever he’s defending in the half-court game.
In general, he’s playing a more engaged, inspired brand of basketball.
That’s exactly what the Wolves (13-13) need if they’re to continue to succeed and grow in Towns’ absence. This isn’t the first time in his Wolves tenure that Russell has flashed a stretch of strong play — but this needs to sustain.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Finch said, “and it’s really good to see.”
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