Minnesota Timberwolves: The off-ball growth of D’Angelo Russell

D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
D'Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

For most lottery teams, the end of the season is about hope and optimism for what’s to come in the NBA Draft. But even with the ownership of their first-round pick in question, the Minnesota Timberwolves should be one of the most optimistic teams heading into the off-season.

Throughout the second half, there was growth within new head coach Chris Finch’s offense and individual improvements from key young players, with Anthony Edwards being the obvious example.

There was even growth and improvement from some of the Wolves’ more veteran players.

Minnesota Timberwolves: The off-ball growth of D’Angelo Russell

In total, D’Angelo Russell missed 30 games this season, including 26 consecutively.

That stretch overlapped with the hiring of Finch.

Upon Russell’s return to the lineup, many wondered how he’d fit in with a team that had shown a ton of improvement. After all, Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns had developed great chemistry, and the rest of the roster found their roles around them.

As it turned out, Russell fit back in perfectly and thrived in his new offense. Compared to his numbers prior to the All-Star break, Russell’s usage went down from 30.0 to 28.6, but his scoring dipped by less than a point.

His 56.5 percent true shooting percentage in the 22 games after his return is higher than any year of his career. The 25-year-old’s assist rate also jumped from 29.6 percent (93rd percentile) in the first half to 34.5 (100th percentile) after his return (per Cleaning the Glass).

But what could have changed so dramatically for Russell? Let’s take a look!

The On/Off-Ball Conundrum

Early in the season, yours truly wrote about how Russell was struggling with playing alongside Ricky Rubio and sharing point guard responsibilities. Yes, it was a small sample size, but Russell was better with Rubio off the floor.

Since Russell’s return, however, things were a bit different.

His True Shooting Percentage was nearly identical (56.5 to 56.6) with or without Rubio, his Effective Field Goal percentage asw actually better with Rubio (53.3 to 52.7), and their net rating together (plus-0.8) was better than when Rubio is off the floor (minus-0.1).

Russell’s usage drops by about two percent when he shares the floor with Rubio and his assist rate plummets from nearly 38 percent to around 29 percent.

But overall, the results are very positive. So, what’s different?

First of all, and this is no disrespect to Ryan Saunders, but Chris Finch has done an infinitely better job using Russell off the ball.

This is one of their favorite sets with Russell and Towns.

This is a variant of what they ran against the Utah Jazz for Russell’s game winner, but it’s just a simple wedge screen which can lead to either a post up or a pick-and-pop 3-point attempt.

In this one, Towns also picks De’Aaron Fox and then Fox is forced to go around a second screen from Jaden McDaniels.

Using Russell as an off-ball shooter is fantastic, as comes off of screens and fires jumpers from all over the floor.

In his time with the Warriors, a team known for their off-ball screens to free up shooters, Russell posted 1.11 points per play off screens. He’s also shot over 39 percent on catch-and-shoot threes over the last three seasons, so it’s simply about getting him the looks like they did in Golden State.

The Warriors used Russell a ton as an off-ball shooter and letting Draymond Green find him for open looks. They have a lot of the same two-man stuff as Russell and Towns, but obviously the threat of Towns as a scorer unlocks so much more.

But we did start to see the Wolves use him more in this role once he came back. and as another way to get he and Rubio to complement each other.

It’s something that can benefit the Wolves if they want to have two guards on the floor or just want Edwards to handle the ball more. Getting Russell back to what he did with the Warriors as an off ball mover and shooter would open up a lot more playmaking looks for Edwards.

Even without Towns on the floor to occupy the defense’s attention, I like how Russell made it work with Rubio within the new offense.

The initial dribble handoff then skip over to Rubio gets the defense scrambling and then a little fake by Russell as if he’s going back to the 3 point line only to cut backdoor.

It’s just a very nice chemistry that the two built in Finch’s offense.

Beyond just playing off of Rubio, the progression Russell showed in working off ball has been a welcome development.

He routinely found open pockets of space when working off of Edwards on-ball and with the star rookie’s developing as a playmaker, Russell giving him easier reads is so important.

If the Wolves are able to secure a top-three pick, the most likely outcome would be picking one of the many guards/wings available. Save for Evan Mobley, the big out of USC, Russell would be ceding more on-ball responsibilities pending the Wolves’ selection.

Even as it stands, Russell played nearly half of his minutes at the 2 this season (per Cleaning the Glass) and if they can get him those off-ball reps and use him like they did in the above clips? That bodes well for he and the Wolves in general.

D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns: Best friends forever

It really cannot be overstated just how important having Towns has been for not only Russell, but the Wolves as a whole.

Finch giving Towns all the passing freedom has unlocked so much for their offense.

For the most part, folks immediately envisioned Russell as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls with Towns as soon as the trade happened last season. But, seeing the reverse, with Towns finding Russell, has almost been more fun.

It’s something they didn’t utilize enough when Russell was with the Warriors, but having Russell cut off ball and letting an elite passing big find him for open shots at the rim.

Russell has blossomed into a nice finisher at the rim, shooting over 60 percent in his 53 games with Minnesota. But getting him even easier looks is always better.

This is a bit of a miscommunication by the Celtics, as Marcus Smart tries to tell Jaylen Brown to pick-up Russell, knowing he’s going to cut. But that’s what good offenses do, they cause confusion and cause even great defenders like Smart and Brown to make mistakes.

Late in the shot clock, Russell has a bigger defender on him? No problem when you have a big as skilled as Towns. Then about a minute later…

Harrison Barnes recognizes it, denies Russell the chance to beat him the same way, and it doesn’t matter.

Although he does it relatively infrequently, Russell has yet to have a season under 1.00 points per possession on cuts. It’s something I expect to see a bit more from him under Finch next season.

While many would have wanted the Wolves to tank, there is real value in getting these reps with Russell and Towns together.

The fun pick-and-roll/pop stuff is easy; that can always be a part of the offense. But getting them other ways to play off of each other is huge.

In Golden State, Green was used to playing with guards who could come off screens but it’s not something Towns has really had in his career as much. It’s been a learning experience for both, but they look more than comfortable.

Plus, it gets even more fun though when they add Edwards into the offense.

The trio of Russell, Towns, and Edwards were plus-4.9 after Russell’s return. Fans should be excited to see this group run sets like this more next season.

A simple horns set into a dribble handoff for Towns, who comes up after Russell sets a down screen. Zach LaVine switches to contest the shot, and Edwards cuts to the basket, forcing Troy Brown Jr. to tag. Daniel Theis switches back to Towns but it’s too late, no one accounted for Russell, and he has an open 3-point attempt.

Russell always had this kind of off-ball play in him, but he didn’t have a coach who could fully take advantage of what he can bring as an off-ball shooter and creator.

Early in the season, Russell talked about having to re-acclimate himself to working on and off the ball. The solution at the time was letting Russell run more pick-and-roll. While you see good stuff from Towns and Russell in the pick-and-roll, it doesn’t allow for Towns (or Edwards, for that matter) to use their strengths.

Finch being able to seamlessly use all three of his cornerstone players within the offense, getting them all touches and playing to their strengths was a welcome sight for fans.

It should be noted that Saunders didn’t have the benefit of playing those three together for any extended period of time, but it’s fair to wonder if he would have used the trio in the same way.

There’s always going to be an opportunity for Russell to run the offense like he’s more accustomed to, especially when Towns is off the floor. That’s when you’ll see the more high-usage, high-assist rate Russell. But getting buy-in from a core piece to adapt to a new style is even more important.

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Whether the Wolves able to land a top-three pick in the upcoming draft or not, developments like this from even the more veteran players on the team is very encouraging to see under Finch.