Minnesota Timberwolves: All-Star D’Angelo Russell showed up in the preseason opener

D'Angelo Russell could be poised for a big season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
D'Angelo Russell could be poised for a big season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

D’Angelo Russell only played 16 minutes in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ preseason-opening win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night, but he was arguably the best player on the floor.

If the Wolves receive anything close to this version of Russell throughout the season, then look out.

Minnesota Timberwolves’ D’Angelo Russell had a rough last couple of seasons

D’Angelo Russell was an All-Star for the Brooklyn Nets during the 2018-19 season. He averaged 21.1 points per game on a career-best 43.4 percent shooting and 36.9 percent on 3-point attempts, and the Nets surprised everyone and squeaked into the playoffs.

Russell cashed in with a max contract in the offseason as part of a sign-and-trade deal between the Nets and Golden State Warriors. Early in the 2019-20 campaign, however, Stephen Curry hurt his wrist and ultimately only played in five games. Klay Thompson was already out for the season due to a torn ACL suffered in the 2019 Finals.

The Warriors season was off track, and Russell didn’t do much to get them back on the rails. He still put up numbers, scoring at a higher rate and shooting the ball better from deep than he had in Brooklyn. But his defense continued to get worse and his once-lauded passing ability was almost non-existent as he tried to take over games and failed to get teammates involved.

The Wolves acquired Russell prior to the trade deadline, and he played well prior to the pandemic-induced shutdown of the campaign.

Last season, the Wolves endured an early injury to Karl-Anthony Towns. Then, Russell suffered a knee injury that required surgery and missed 27 of 28 games. When he returned, the Wolves went 11-11 with Russell on a minutes limit for a good chunk of that time.

All-Star version of D’Angelo Russell showed up for the Minnesota Timberwolves

Clearly, Wolves fans have not seen Russell at his best. They haven’t seen him entirely healthy very often, and when he’s been healthy, Towns has not been. Finally, the deadly pick-and-roll duo that was promised to fans nearly 18 months ago should come to fruition.

And we saw a glimpse of that on Monday against the New Orleans Pelicans in the preseason opener.

Russell was phenomenal, dropping 19 first-half points on 6-of-10 shooting and 3-of-6 from outside the arc, including a pair of impressive bombs from several feet beyond the arc. He had a couple of fantastic passes as well, bringing back memories of Russell in an Ohio State Buckeyes uniform, slinging no-look bounce passes through the helpless Big Ten defenses.

For good measure, Russell showed a desire to get into the paint and get to the free throw line, which is something he hasn’t done with consistency in his NBA career.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign was Russell’s commitment on the defensive end of the floor. The biggest issue throughout Russell’s career has been his matador-style approach to defense and his unwillingness to fight through screens and stay active on the defensive end of the floor.

Yes, it’s just one game, and yes, it’s the preseason, and yes, it was against a Zion Williamson-less Pelicans squad. But the difference was eye-catching, and it could absolutely be a sign of promising things to come.

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If Russell plays to his 2018-19 level on offense and adds some defensive competitiveness, then he’ll approach All-Star-level again, and combined with a healthy Towns and an improving Edwards, we could be looking at a legitimate playoff contender at Target Center this season.