Minnesota Timberwolves: D’Angelo Russell may not be a bad defender

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 12: Devonte' Graham #4 of the Charlotte Hornets drives to the basket against D'Angelo Russell #0 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 12: Devonte' Graham #4 of the Charlotte Hornets drives to the basket against D'Angelo Russell #0 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /

Many people have been highly critical of D’Angelo Russell‘s defense since he was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. But is he really a bad defender, or is there hope for the 24-year-old point guard?

Much has been made about new Minnesota Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell since the Wolves’ blockbuster trade at the deadline on February 6th.

Russell’s gifts on the offensive end cannot be questioned, but his defensive skillset leaves much to be desired. This problem becomes compounded by the fact that the team’s co-star, Karl-Anthony Towns, lacks the same defensive fortitude. But how bad is D’Angelo Russell’s defense really, and are there blocks in place for Russell to build upon moving forward?

Looking at Russell’s career stats, it is clear why he is considered to be a detriment on the defensive end.

Russell has had a defensive rating of 110 or worse in four of his five seasons, while his teams have consistently been better on the defensive end with him off the court. D’Lo has specifically struggled in transition, giving up over 10 fastbreak points and over 12 points off turnovers per game this season.

He also has a tendency to give up points in the paint to mismatches who are taller and stronger than him. This has especially been a problem in Minnesota when compounded with the team’s lack of a true rim protector.

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Since the trade on Feb. 6, Russell has given up the 10th-most points in the paint of any NBA player. Considering two of Russell’s teammates, Malik Beasley and Karl-Anthony Towns, are both in that top 10 list ahead of him, Minnesota will be hard pressed to find a solution for guarding the paint if they hope to have a respectable defense moving forward.

Since the trade, Minnesota has struggled on the defensive end with a defensive rating of 117.5, good for 29th in the NBA. Prior to the trade, Minnesota had been in the middle of the pack with a 110.1 defensive rating.

However, these numbers do not paint the full picture due to the small sample size of games since the trade deadline and the fact that the new players are attempting to learn Ryan Saunders’ defensive schemes on the fly with little to no practice time during the season.

Russell has struggled defensively in his first few games with Minnesota as opposing guards have repeatedly been able to get to the rim and score at will, especially with the Timberwolves’ lack of a true rim protector as a second line of defense behind Russell. As a result, Minnesota has attempted to hide Russell by matching up Josh Okogie with the opposing team’s primary backcourt scorer.

The results have been less than encouraging as many teams will set a pick to force a switch and then attack Russell on the switch.

Minnesota did show a hint of trust in Russell’s defensive abilities in their recent win against Miami when head coach Ryan Saunders kept D’Lo in on defense over Okogie in the final moments of the game. Saunders was rewarded for his decision when Russell denied Jimmy Butler at the rim to seal the victory.

Interestingly, Russell’s clutch defensive performance in that game may not have been an anomaly. A deeper look at Russell’s clutch time numbers (games that are within 5 points with 5 minutes remaining) presents a surprising trend.

During his time in Golden State earlier this season, Russell had a defensive rating of 106.7 in clutch time, which was the best number on the team by a significant margin. Last year’s numbers with Brooklyn paint an even clearer picture as Russell finished the season with an impressive defensive rating of 102.2 in 36 clutch game situations.

Aside from his impressive clutch time numbers, there is also a strong case to be made that D’Angelo Russell is a better team defender than an individual defender. Russell often excels as a help defender by using active hands to get into passing lanes and force turnovers. Last year he led Brooklyn with 177 deflections and 87 loose balls recovered, showing a willingness to hustle and be aggressive on the defensive end.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic is D’Angelo Russell’s defensive win shares last year in Brooklyn. Russell finished the 2018-19 season with 7.8 defensive win shares, good for top-50 in the NBA and highest among his teammates in Brooklyn. In fact on a per game basis, Russell’s defensive win shares were noticeably better than any Minnesota Timberwolf on last year’s roster except Robert Covington, the team’s unquestioned top defender.

The key moving forward for Minnesota will be discovering whether or not Russell’s 2018-19 campaign in Brooklyn was a fluke. His numbers in Los Angeles prior to his time in Brooklyn were awful and his short stint in Golden State was equally bad. However, those numbers must be taken with a grain of salt considering that Russell was playing on tanking teams during those seasons.

Russell has proven that he can be an important part of a top-half of the league defense, and his numbers in clutch time suggest that he has the potential to be an above-average defender when he’s locked in.

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Now it is up to Ryan Saunders and the rest of the front office to get the most out of D’Angelo Russell on that end of the floor. Doing so may be the key to Timberwolves’ success in the years ahead.