Within the dog-pound fraternity of the Minnesota Timberwolves 2021-22 roster, the disposition of D’Angelo Russell is a noticeably feline outlier.
The other stars that comprise the Wolves’ Big 3, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, are naturally gregarious, effusive to the cusp of sloppiness, expressing their sentiments. Most of the rest of the crew — culture-creator Patrick Beverley, dervishes Jarred Vanderbilt and Josh Okogie, sharpshooter Malik Beasley, rookie Leandro Bolmaro — find their natural rhythm in a barking, cavorting environment.
DLo is different. By nature he is dismissive of the canned back-and-forth of media public relations. He is prim and exacting in his habits, lithe and silky in his movements, and professorial in mien, as if auditioning for the Lawrence Fishburne role in “Higher Learning.” In the tumult of NBA hoops, he is constantly surveying the court with a serene dispatch, gliding from station to station, his expert dribble attaching the ball to his hand like a yo-yo. Ideally it wouldn’t make a sound.
Thus far this season, DLo has been an unlikely difference-maker during one of the most enjoyable stints of basketball in recent Wolves memory. Toiling for a perpetually beleaguered franchise in the seventh year of his checkered career, the ways and means by which he has elevated the Wolves is a feel-good story of maturation, synchronization and told-ya-so redemption. The path to his blooming has been as idiosyncratic as his personality.
A polarizing figure
Outliers become more notorious, and suspect, on a losing team. At this point in the NBA season a year ago, DLo seemed like the most blatantly dysfunctional component for a typically pathetic Wolves outfit, one that posted just five wins in its first 21 games. The hoped-for chemistry with incoming fellow point guard Ricky Rubio was inert and perhaps besmirched by an underlying tinge of rivalry. DLo’s shot selection was haphazard, with a sheen of selfishness. And his disregard for coach Ryan Saunders became increasingly apparent.
Worst of all, his defense, never a strong suit, often played out like a passive-aggressive protest for better working conditions. In the system deployed by defensive coordinator David Vanderpool, players were meant to be in certain places at certain times, as pre-structured deterrents — its motto was “solid is enough.” DLo was vapor. When he was on the court for those first 21 games of the 2020-21 season, the Wolves allowed 118.5 points per 100 possessions. No player averaging over 30 minutes per game in that span had his team surrender that many points. And because the Wolves were only scoring 102.7 points per 100 possessions when DLo played, no NBA player getting 30 minutes a night had a worse net rating (offensive production minus defensive production) than DLo’s minus-15.8. Nikola Vucevic, then with Orlando, was a distant second-worst at minus-10.4.
Sure, there were mitigating circumstances. DLo’s friend and alpha-partner KAT was variously hurt, grieving and mostly consigned to the sidelines. Edwards was a teenaged rookie tossed into the deep end of the NBA talent pool with an abbreviated training camp and no Summer League for indoctrination. Rubio was physically out of shape and mentally unable to accept being a backup. Saunders was still callow, his authority diminished by so clearly being under the yoke of then-president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas. It was the latest rendition of the Timberwolves shitshow.
But DLo was toting some reputational baggage and thus already vulnerable to criticism. Taken right after KAT as the second overall pick in 2015 NBA Draft, he was traded three times within his first five seasons. His tenure with the Lakers was dogged by a video he took, later leaked, of a teammate admitting to cheating on his girlfriend. He lasted less than a year in Golden State in part because of his obvious lack of commitment to defense. His acquisition enabled the Wolves to rid themselves of Andrew Wiggins but also cost them a lightly-protected first round draft pick last season, a particularly glaring contingency as the team sank in the standings with DLo as the primary floor general.
Suffice to say that DLo has been a polarizing figure for most of his NBA career. His refined flair on and off the court is variously regarded as charismatic or performative; his cerebral approach lauded as profound or derided as a cover for laziness. His lone All-Star game appearance (as a last-minute substitute for an injured player) and maximum contract are cited as credentials of his value or used to degrade him as overrated and overpaid.
For the first six weeks of the 2020-21 season, the detractors held sway. DLo performed less like a catalyst than a poser.
Coming into the 2021-22 season, the prognosis for DLo and the Wolves was one and the same: Unless the focus and execution on the defensive end was dramatically improved to a level approaching mediocrity, the dazzling array of offensive skills would be wasted.
Coming into Wednesday night’s game against the Wizards in Washington, the Wolves have won 7 of their past 8 games to push over .500 (at 11-10) through their first 21 contests. While the team’s offensive rating has marginally improved from 25th to 20th, it has been the leap in defensive efficiency, from 28th last season up to 6th this year, that has carried this team. And a crucially important component of that stingy defense has been D’Angelo Russell.
The comparison to last season couldn’t be more dramatic. Remember, after 21 games of the 2020-21 season, the Wolves with DLo in the lineup had a worse defensive rating than any other team had with any player who averaged more than 30 minutes per game. Through 21 games this season, using the same criteria, only Steph Curry with the 18-3 Golden State Warriors has been on the floor for better defense than what the Wolves have played with DLo in the lineup.
What’s more, DLo accelerated the trend in both directions. While the Wolves had a terrible defensive rating overall during that early stretch of 2020-21— 112.3 points allowed per 100 possessions — that mushroomed to 118.5 with DLo. This season, the team’s impressive reduction to 105 points allowed per 100 possessions has been catalyzed by an average of 96.8 points allowed when DLo joins the fray.
Even if you factor in the rest of the 2020-21 season, when DLo’s defensive numbers improved even as the team defense declined under Finch, the Wolves with DLo are allowing a phenomenal 20 fewer points per 100 possessions (96.8 versus 116.8) thus far this season compared to the Wolves with DLo in 2020-21. You can’t do that without comprehensive improvement at both the individual and team level.
All for naught without buy-in
Begin with attitude. When Finch took over in late February, DLo was down in Miami recuperating from the removal of a “loose body” in his left knee. But as a frequently avowed basketball junkie and student of the game, he poured over the Wolves game films and began a steady text relationship with Finch, picking his brain on what motivated the coach to do certain things. Bottom line, DLo became as enamored with Finch’s coaching methods as he was put off by Saunders’.
Just before the preseason, the Wolves acquired Patrick Beverley, who by accounts radically changed the culture, challenging players to step up and be accountable to themselves and each other. During the preseason, Finch unveiled a bold new defensive scheme that leaned hard into the team’s athletic wings and ability to fly around being disruptive, even at the risk of getting manhandled on the boards due to a lack of brawn in the frontcourt.
“It was all a process,” DLo said after a gritty win Monday against Indiana without three of the team’s four energy defenders (PatBev, Vanderbilt, and Jaden McDaniels) and a game in which once again the Wolves allowed fewer points per possession with him on the floor than any other starter. “New coach, new system, new players. Defensively we had no identity, so when Pat came he was vocal, demanded the best out of guys. Demanded energy.”
But the process goes for naught without buy-in from DLo. Just as he was deservedly ripped for his lackadaisical attitude on defense last season (I did my share of it), he merits praise for the tremendous strides he has taken this season. He still isn’t, and won’t be, the guy matched up with the opponents’ premiere perimeter scorer. As Finch has noted, he’s better as an off-ball defender, utilizing his film study and court IQ to anticipate and plug seams in the scheme.
A play that occurred near the end of the first quarter Monday night is emblematic of the new, improved DLo defense. Naz Reid had just entered the game and unwisely doubled guard TJ McConnell on the perimeter, allowing 6-11 center Domantas Sabonis to set up unfettered in the paint. DLo quickly flowed from the weakside to guard him, a precept of the Wolves new scheme, but done rigorously enough to stand up the 240-pound Sabonis from behind. As Naz wheeled around to take his rightful assignment on Sabonis, McConnell zipped a skip pass to DLo’s original man, Torrey Craig, in the corner. As Craig was setting up to launch a trey, DLo’s hustle-dash caused him to take a step to the left. But DLo paused and veered as he saw it happening; waited for Craig to pick up his dribble and then lunged at him for a credible contest of a shot that clanked off to the side. In a single possession, he had thwarted as easy bucket by a big man in the paint and contested a three-pointer in the corner, two of the most efficient shots in basketball.
Later, in the fourth quarter, his court surveillance anticipated and disrupted a pass to a cutter toward the rim, resulting in a turnover. He has been more alert and more talkative in that regard this season and more willing to do the dirty work of boxing out for rebounds.
A vital camaraderie
Meanwhile, on offense, DLo has been the opposite of an “empty stats” guy. His shooting stroke has been consistently awry — his field goal percentage is the worst of the career and his three-point accuracy the second-worst of his seven years — yet he has delivered when it matters most. Nobody has more points in clutch situations (defined as teams within five points of each other in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtimes) than DLo, who has racked up 43 in just 42 clutch minutes, shooting 48.1% from the field, 41.7% from long range and 85.7% from the free throw line, all well above both this season and his career averages.
The marquee game in that respect was the Wolves thrilling win over the Sixers last weekend, when DLo scored 27 points from the onset of the fourth quarter through two overtimes. But the deciding basket occurred when he stole the pass by anticipating a high pick-and-roll maneuver then hit streaking teammate Taurean Prince in stride for a contested layup. The DLo of old may have caught fire in crunchtime, but was far less likely to pull off the steal, or to trust a teammate making his second start of the season and posting a true shooting percentage of 45.4 with the ball instead of relying on his own hot hand with a pull up jumper.
Again, the Finch-DLo camaraderie seems vital to the rising fortunes of both player and team. In the sideline interview immediately after his overtime heroics in Philadelphia, DLo eschewed any personal talk and deflected the glory to Finch and his staff for the way they had prepared the team. And after Monday’s crunchtime win against Indiana, DLo didn’t raise the subject of his nifty pass to Beasley in the corner to put the Wolves up three in the final minute, or of his two made free throws to seal the victory. Instead, asked what it was like to work through those situation with Finch, he lauded the coach for being “super poised” in those situations, adding: “He’s a player’s coach. If one of us says something we’re feeling or whatnot, he’ll feel it out and give us a chance. I mean, you can’t ask for nothing better than that.”
For his part, Finch has said on more than one occasion lately that DLo, “calms the team down” in pressure situations, both times adding, “he calms me down.” This was almost certainly music to the ears of someone like DLo, whose self-perception is anchored in preternatural poise and dispassionate execution, and likely revels in the notion that his intellectual acuity is so impervious to pressure that even the coach is reassured.
‘See how that goes’
Bottom line, the blooming of DLo is one of the coolest, and least predictable boons in what is shaping up to be a memorable season of hoops in Minnesota. It is no exaggeration to say that the future composition of this roster, and the make-or-break pivot on this rebuild, was dependent most of all on the added value its two max-salary stars could bring to the table, especially on the defensive end.
Meanwhile, don’t let DLo’s natural reserve fool you. He understood the treachery of the terrain in his career heading into this year, and surely has his own ideas about how the balance between personal accountability and circumstances beyond his control should be meted out. Asked after Monday’s game if his calling out of the other team’s plays was a recent phenomenon, he gently chided, “Y’all wasn’t listening. I was doing it before.” Then he gave praise for the example he saw from Draymond Green and others in Golden State before concluding his answer with, “Like I said, I’m just a fan of the game so I try to allow our people a voice when we step on the court during the games. And I appreciate y’all recognizing that now.”
A minute later, he offered a rare glimpse behind the stoic, cerebral orchestrator, revealing some latent fears and wounds that have been addressed so effectively thus far this season.
“You know, you don’t want to be that guy who gets scored on and I’m taking pride in it. [Not becoming that guy.] I watch the playoffs and teams bring the worst defender out and attack them all night. Bring me out if you want to, and see how that goes.” The feline bares his teeth.