This is the D’Angelo Russell many Timberwolves fans were hoping for when Minnesota acquired the all-star guard in February of 2020. The floor general who, along with Karl-Anthony Towns, could lift the franchise back to at least the playoffs, if not beyond.
That won’t happen this season. Who knows if it might have had Minnesota not suffered a series of injuries throughout the season. What is apparent is, in the here and now, with Towns and Russell on the floor, the Timberwolves look competent, at worst, and maybe even good.
A big reason why: D’Angelo Russell is balling.
Coming off the bench since returning from a two-month absence post knee surgery, Russell is averaging 20 points and 5.3 assists in 25 minutes per game, shooting a scorching 45 percent from deep and 49 percent from the field.
Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch said Russell has done a nice job getting his shots within the flow of the offense, though the guard has the “green light” to break free when needed. He has proven he can take and make difficult shots, which at times can ignite the Wolves’ offense.
“Being able to create your own offense, make tough shots, it’s a great weapon to have,” Finch said. “Scoring, in general, in the league is probably one of the easier things to replace over the course of a game. In some capacity, everybody can score a little more or wants to surely score more. But on-demand scoring and tough shot-making are things that are very hard to replace. And he has that.”
It was Russell’s hot shooting that helped sink the Utah Jazz on Monday at Target Center. He hit five three-pointers in the second quarter alone en route to a 27-point, 12-assist performance. But that wasn’t what stood out to Towns.
“He’s special. I think there’s no question about it. I think we all … know how special he is offensively,” Towns said. “I think what I’m more proud of him is the defensive effort he gave (Monday). Playing really smart. Talking a lot. Just being a leader. Being a great leader, telling people where to go. Telling the young guys where to go. Telling everyone in transition where to go and stuff. He was fantastic all night on both sides of the basketball.”
It’s not that Russell was a bad player to start the season, but he certainly wasn’t impacting winning to the degree he is now. Minnesota is 6-6 since he returned to action. Perhaps a big part of that is that he’s playing alongside Towns, and the each benefits from the presence of the other. But another factor is that Russell is healthy.
“My body feeling the way it feels has a lot to do with my individual success,” Russell said.
Before having that knee surgery to remove a loose body in his knee in February, Russell intermittently missed games with quad soreness. He wasn’t 100 percent. Not even close.
“You’re putting your body through hell every night, so many games. If you’re not 100 percent, one of the games it’s going to catch up to you,” Russell said. “So for myself, I think it was just something that was lingering that I wanted to take care of.”
That wasn’t the original plan. Initially, Russell’s instincts were to play through the injury and take care of it in the summer.
“But your body speaks louder than you, so my body told me I really couldn’t physically be out there helping the team,” he said. “So I think it was the right decision to get it done, and we’ll see where it goes.”
So far, so good. Russell made sure to wait until he felt 100 percent before returning to action. He feels good now, and it’s leading to the type of strong play of which the guard is accustomed. Plus, with the surgery and rehab behind him, he can attack this final stretch of the season full throttle before heading into a healthy offseason when he can continue to add to his game.
“Just taking that small timeout, taking care of it right away, I think that was the smartest thing to do,” Russell said, “versus letting it linger and it getting worse.”
It’s hard to argue with the results.