D’Angelo Russell and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ stagnant offense

D'Angelo Russell has had his issues leading the Minnesota Timberwolves' offense. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
D'Angelo Russell has had his issues leading the Minnesota Timberwolves' offense. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves should have a potent offense, but it’s struggled mightily without Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s time for D’Angelo Russell to step up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves offense should easily be a top-10 unit.

It’s understandable to assume that the Wolves would take a step back offensively without Karl-Anthony Towns, but the past two games have been even rougher than expected on that end of the floor.

There are three Wolves players who should be counted on to carry the majority of the offensive production in Towns’ absence: D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Anthony Edwards.

This is the first part in a series looking at each of these players and what they’ve done over the course of the first four games of the season. Let’s start with Russell.

D’Angelo Russell’s shot selection has left something to be desired

D’Angelo Russell is a score-first point guard. We know it, he knows it, his teammates know it. Put simply, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s going to get his shots up.

But without Towns on the floor, Russell’s aggressiveness feels more like a simple propensity to chuck and not at all like a secondary star truly stepping up in the absence of his team’s superstar leader.

In the two games since Towns’ injury, Russell has shot 11-for-26 from the field (42.3 percent) and  4-for-12 from 3-point range (33.3 percent). Those aren’t terrible marks, and especially not as the primary creator and offensive threat for a Towns-less team.

At the same time, he’s attempted zero free throws in 41 minutes of play and dished out seven assists compared to 10 turnovers. Yikes.

The crazy thing is that the negative assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t the worst thing about Russell’s performance. The lack of free throw attempts is part of the story, but it’s more a function of the approach than the issue in and of itself. After all, Russell has never been one to attack the paint and get to the free throw line. But he’s taken it to a new level over the past couple of games.

Against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, Russell had one shot attempt inside 14 feet. It was a solid post-up against the much smaller Dennis Schroeder, and he scored easily. Otherwise, he shot 1-of-6 on the night.

On Tuesday against the LA Clippers, Russell shot 9-of-19 from the field. Among those 19 shot attempts, he shot the ball just one time from a location closer than 11 feet, and it came on a beautiful baseline cut and pass from Rubio.

He didn’t score at the rim in transition. He didn’t get to the rim off the dribble. In related news, he didn’t get to the free throw line, either.

In fact, other than the one layup, Russell didn’t even attempt any shots below the break. No corner three attempts among his 11 launches from beyond the arc, this coming from a player who is a 41.8 percent career shooter on corner threes.

The story of Russell’s shot selection is best told by watching all of his attempts in a row. But here’s just one example.

Russell has Nicolas Batum guarding him, but instead of getting past Batum and finding an open teammate or getting all the way to the rim, D’Lo settles for a difficult jumper against a long defender.

The funny thing is, many of Russell’s makes in this game were tough shots that were somewhat ill-advised, but most of his misses weren’t necessarily bad shots. He missed multiple wide-open 3-point attempts within the flow of the offense and just so happened to make the crazy shots, which is probably the worst thing that could have occurred.

What’s next for D’Angelo Russell and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offense?

As mentioned, the only major issue with Russell’s offensive game over the past few years is that he simply doesn’t get to the free throw line with any frequency. His modest athleticism and lack of strength have mostly left him content to linger on the perimeter and shoot jumpers whenever possible.

Russell is a good enough shooter that he can get away with it and still be a strong offensive contributor. But he would be quite a bit more effective if he would foray into the paint more often to draw fouls and open up the defense. (Somewhat ironically, this is one of the things that Ricky Rubio is quite good at doing despite his own issues finishing at the rim.)

Thus far this season, Russell has attempted 4.8 percent of his shot attempts within three feet of the rim. No other Wolves player is below 20 percent.

None of this is to suggest that Russell should shoot fewer threes, or even shoot fewer mid-range jumpers. He’s a good enough shooter from both of those places that the number of attempts aren’t a big deal.

The issue is that he isn’t creating opportunities for teammates with quick shots that don’t come in the flow of the offense and a refusal to break down the defense and kick to shooters.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to what Rubio had to say.

Clearly, Russell isn’t the only player getting shade here. We’ll talk more about Beasley and Edwards later, but Russell is the veteran charged with being the Timberwolves’ floor general, and he hasn’t brought it the last two times out.

Of course, things can reverse course quickly in the NBA, and the Wolves have a great opportunity to get right against the Washington Wizards.

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Here’s hoping that Russell can operate within the confines of the offense and get his teammates involved. He should certainly be able to do that and still get 15-plus shots up per game as a multi-faceted scorer and distributor — and that’s exactly what the Wolves need in order to win.