clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

D’Angelo Russell is perfectly cast in Minnesota, and contributing to winning basketball in a variety of ways

The former Buckeye and No. 2 overall pick entered the league with high expectations, and has generally delivered.

Russell helped lead Minnesota to just its second playoff appearance in nearly two decades
Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

D’Angelo Russell was a one-and-done star for the Ohio State Buckeyes before being selected second overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. His decision to leave was a no-brainer, after the smooth lefty averaged 19/6/5 for OSU and was named a consensus first-team All-American. DLo played with a style that few could replicate so easily, and many projected him as a walking double-double at the next level. With Karl-Anthony Towns off the board first, the Los Angeles Lakers chose Russell to potentially take the reins of the franchise from Kobe Bryant, and help navigate the team into a new and successful era.

The former OSU star was viewed as a can’t miss prospect for the Lakers

Unfortunately for the former Buckeye, his rookie season coincided with Bryant’s last — and a whole lot of losing for the Lakers. Russell actually turned out to be the first of their three consecutive No. 2 picks, which is generally not indicative of success. The franchise was a mess, Bryant’s retirement created a void in leadership, and it all led to one of the crown jewels of the 2015 draft being traded before his third season.

For reasons unbeknownst to most of the basketball-watching world, the Lakers traded Russell to the Brooklyn Nets prior to the 2017-18 season. In theory, I guess you could talk me into the trade, because the team was high on Lonzo Ball, and he and DLo could never co-exist. But Brook Lopez, Kyle Kuzma, and the 27th pick seemed like a poor return for a 20-year old who had just averaged 16 points and five assists per game. If you try to tell me otherwise, I would ask you how long Lopez and Kuzma both lasted as cornerstones of the LAL.

Regardless of the motive(s), Russell was dealt to Brooklyn and promptly injured his knee. He did return during the season, and played in 48 games overall, producing on roughly the same level as his time in Los Angeles. The following season would up being his breakout campaign, and the beginning of a solid run in Brooklyn (or so we thought). In 2018-19, Russell put up 21/7/4, en route to his first All-Star selection. He played in and started 81 out of 82 games, helped lead the Nets to the playoffs, and showed flashes of Second or Third Team All-NBA potential. And then Kevin Durant happened...

Russell was traded again prior to the 2019-20 season, this time as part of a package the Nets put together for Durant. Through no real fault of his own, DLo found himself on his third team in five seasons. There might be a handful of players in the league who aren’t being traded for Durant is the situation arises, but it still made Russell look like a player who nobody wanted. Nearly 17 points per game over four seasons, NBA All-Rookie Second Team, one All-Star nod... and two trades!

Fortunately (finally!) for Russell, he was traded to a rock-solid franchise. Coached by Steve Kerr, and playing alongside Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, DLo was going to flourish with the Golden State Warriors. And he did, for 33 games, for a team in flux. After averaging 24 points and six assists in The Bay, he was shipped to Minnesota for Andrew Wiggins. Despite playing fairly well, the Warriors always viewed Russell as a trade asset — and an awkward fit next to Curry and Thompson. At the height of his trade value (for them), he was traded for a third time. At this point, you would have thought he was an NBA pariah.

In reality, Russell was often miscast, and his efficiency/style of play was not always endearing to coaches and teammates. The same could be said for tons (and tons) of basketball players in their early twenties. Very few of those players could get you 30 points or 10 assists – or both – on a given night. And that was D’Angelo Russell during the first 4+ years of his career. He was part of a dumpster fire in Los Angeles, helped put an end to a total rebuild in Brooklyn, and was forced into an awkward transition phase for Golden State. With the Minnesota Timberwolves, it appears that DLo has finally found the right fit.

At his best, Russell can play the role of lethal score-first point guard, while simultaneously elevating the players around him with his creative passing skills. At his worst, when forced to try and carry a bad team by himself, he can be an inefficient ball stopper and iso-heavy gunner. In Minnesota, he is surrounded by other young talents and not asked to shoulder the entire burden. As a result, he just finished the regular season with a career high in assists per game. He can still play at or near his ceiling, without being forced into bad habits and/or shooting the Wolves out of a game. Russell might lead the team in scoring one night, then play facilitator the next.

But this is not a Jekyll and Hyde scenario. DLo has grown as a player and a person — one who is willing to play the role that is asked of him. The Wolves should be elated. Russell is capable of playing top dog or high-end role player for the team, which is perfect when playing alongside Towns and Anthony Edwards. Towns is an offensively-dominant big man, but teams can choose to double and/or triple-team him for long stretches, limiting his effectiveness. Edwards appears to be a future superstar, but he is still just 20 years old and in his second season. Russell’s flexibility and importance to the T-Wolves were both on full display Tuesday night.

With a playoff berth on the line, Minnesota hosted the LA Clippers. Despite missing Kawhi Leonard (#evergreentweet) and being the lower seed, the Clips entered the game with a significant playoff experience advantage over the younger Wolves. However, Towns was hounded by the defense of the Clippers, saddled with foul trouble, and became increasingly frustrated throughout the game. He totaled just 11 points and five rebounds, before fouling out after 24 minutes.

With KAT off his game, Russell stepped up in a major way. He tied for the team lead with 37 minutes played, and put up 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting. He added six assists, five rebounds, and three steals while only committing one turnover. A lesser version of DLo in that game would have forced Minnesota into a do-or-die situation. Instead, they are preparing for a first-round series.

Russell may never be a favorite of the analytics community, but he is still just 26 years old! Efficiency can improve over time, and DLo has plenty of that left. I believe he can make a return to the All-Star Game, and do it many times over. But if he doesn’t, he seems to have figured out how to be most-effective, and more importantly, how to consistently contribute to winning basketball. He has done so in Brooklyn and Minnesota – when the odds were not stacked against him – which should put the good stats/bad team narrative to rest. DLo is a good player on a good team, with a “great” ceiling applicable to both.