Minnesota Timberwolves: 3 early-season Wolves takeaways

D'Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves has had a rough start to the season. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
D'Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves has had a rough start to the season. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /
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Minnesota Timberwolves, D'Angelo Russell
D’Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves has had a rough start to the season. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /

It would be hard to look at the first 10 days of the Minnesota Timberwolves season with anything but optimism.

The Wolves are 3-2 with a road victory over the defending champions under their belt. But both losses have come with a strange outage on the offensive end of the floor, and head coach Chris Finch is obviously still feeling out his optimal rotation.

Let’s take a look at three overarching takeaways and things that still require adjustment from the Wolves’ first five games of the season.

Minnesota Timberwolves Early-Season Takeaway No. 1: D’Angelo Russell hasn’t found his role

The Timberwolves acquired D’Angelo Russell in February 2020, just prior to the COVID-19-induced shutdown of the 2019-20 campaign. He is the Wolves’ second max-contract player, along with Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s also the only player who has made an All-Star team other than Towns.

Russell only appeared in 12 games in a Wolves uniform after the trade, and due to injuries to both he and Towns, only one of those games saw him partner with his good friend and fellow All-Star.

Last season, Russell was injured early on, shortly after Towns was hurt, and ultimately played in just 42 of the Wolves’ 72 games. Late in the year, Russell and Towns were able to team up with more frequency and Minnesota ended up with a 9-8 record in games when both players suited up.

Still, Russell has struggled to find consistency with the Wolves. First, it was a lack of reps with both Russell and Towns together. Then it was injuries and an ineffective offense run by former head coach Ryan Saunders.

Now, with Anthony Edwards in the picture and requiring more and more possessions, Russell is in something of a weird limbo.

After coming off the bench for stretches late last year due to a minutes restriction following his return from injury, Russell is back in the starting lineup. Finch has often subbed Russell out first this season, opting to bring him back as the first starter to re-enter the game, running with fellow guard Patrick Beverley and a unit largely comprised of reserves.

Russell struggled shooting the ball early in the opener against the Houston Rockets before getting hot, hitting four 3-pointers in a span of just a couple of minutes in the third quarter of what turned into a blowout victory. Since then, however, Russell has simply been unable to shoot himself out of a prolonged slump. For the season, he’s making only 38 percent of his shots from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range.

Much of this seems to do with an undefined role. Russell is used to a fire-at-will role. Now, he’s been asked to orchestrate an offense centered around Towns and Edwards. That is, except for when he leads the unit that includes lower-usage players such as Beverley, Josh Okogie, Taurean Prince, and Naz Reid.

Russell needs to adapt to both roles, understanding when to take a back seat and simply make himself available as a catch-and-shoot sharpshooter. Finch talked before the season about playing Russell off the ball more often, but we haven’t seen that come to fruition much to this point.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Finch on the offensive side of the ball moving forward will be trying to figure out how to best use Russell as a complementary piece to Towns and Edwards instead of as a featured cog in the offense.