Minnesota Timberwolves’ preseason ball movement has been encouraging

D'Angelo Russell has led the Minnesota Timberwolves' playmaking improvement. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)
D'Angelo Russell has led the Minnesota Timberwolves' playmaking improvement. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images) /

One of the significant concerns about the Minnesota Timberwolves entering this season has been playmaking.

Perhaps preseason should never be relied upon to indicate what will happen when games matter, but Minnesota has shown enough potential as a passing unit to alleviate some of those concerns.

Minnesota Timberwolves’ preseason ball movement has been encouraging

With Ricky Rubio out the door and few rostered players with proven track records making plays for others, it’s fair to question how well the team will move the ball.

The Timberwolves have been one of the best ball movement teams in the NBA during the preseason, ranking sixth in assists per game (26.8) and assist ratio (18.1) and tied for tenth in assist percentage (62.8) per NBA.com. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Wolves are sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.69, a good sign for a team that had questions about its ball-handling depth.

D’Angelo Russell is the biggest driver of the team’s success sharing the ball and has a case as one of the NBA’s most underrated passers. Russell is the only Wolves player to average more than four assists per game in the preseason; his mark of 6.7 is nearly an assist better than his average last season, which could reflect more buy-in after an inconsistent and injury-plagued 2021-22 campaign.

Russell has shined most in transition, which makes sense given the athletes he has as running mates. Timberwolves fans should be praying for him, Anthony Edwards, and Karl-Anthony Towns to get a full season together to see more of these fastbreak bounce-passes Russell has turned into an art form.

Russell does a great job of using his eyes to manipulate the defense, somewhat like a quarterback.

Because he’s a dangerous scorer, defenses have to respect him when he eyes the rim, which opens up passing lanes such as the one on the below assist to Jaden McDaniels.

Russell doesn’t need much time to load up for his passes and is adept and flicking them right off the dribble, which makes it difficult for the defense to react in time.

Even if his teammates don’t share his vision or passing talent, Russell’s propensity for sharing the rock is mirrored in the rest of the team.

His passing isn’t Magic Johnson or Larry Bird-level infectious, but it’s clear this team likes to move the ball. For proof, I give you Karl-Anthony Towns dropping off a completely unnecessary but delightful between-the-legs pass for a Russell transition three.

Towns has always been a capable passer, but he showed even more with Russell out of the team’s final preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets. Towns hit cutters and spot-up shooters repeatedly, leading the team with six assists on the night.

Towns can add an extra element to this offense just by throwing the ball ahead in transition more frequently. Wolves fans who watched Kevin Love know this can be a lethal tool when used properly.

Towns isn’t the only Minnesota big man who can drop dimes. Naz Reid opened eyes during the preseason with some impressive open-court passes. Playing a big man who can naturally move the ball is a huge boon for an offense (just look at the division foe Nuggets and Nikola Jokic), and it certainly seems as though the Wolves will always have at least one out there who can be trusted to make plays.

The Wolves’ secondary playmakers have also made progress. Anthony Edwards has an unfortunate 2.8-to-3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio, but he’s also flashed some high-level kick-outs and drop-offs off the dribble. Jaylen Nowell has been a fan-favorite, and if he is to turn his momentum into a rotation role, he must continue to make simple plays for others to add to his own scoring.

If Leandro Bolmaro earns minutes, he is the player who could raise the Timberwolves’ ceiling from a ball movement perspective. It’s not going to show itself right away, but he certainly has that passing gene that Russell possesses and is not afraid to go for the flashy play.

Predicting the Timberwolves will be a great passing team based on four preseason games is foolhardy. However, the talent across the roster indicates that they won’t be bereft of playmakers and ball movement as some in Minnesota have feared.

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The team improved from No. 15 in assists pre-All-Star Break to No. 11 post-All-Star break in 2020-21 as Chris Finch took over. With a full offseason to continue to learn from the offensive guru, there’s no reason the Wolves shouldn’t continue to get better at making each other better.