Put Some Respect On D’Angelo Russell’s Name (12/4/22)

Once a well-loved player in the NBA community, opinions on D’Angelo Russell have changed for the worse.

Russell made his first and only All-Star appearance in 2019 for the fan-favorite Brooklyn Nets squad known for their epic bench dance routines. Since then, the former second-overall pick made a quick pit stop in Golden State before ending up in Minnesota with the Timberwolves. Even though he moved north, the league-wide perception of him went south since his arrival. Russell has gained a reputation as an inefficient chucker and his stock has plummeted because of it. Unreliability as a scorer has plagued him— he either can’t miss or can’t fill his spot in the scoring column. His true shooting percentage falls in just the 42nd percentile in the league this season (via BBall index).

While concerns relating to Russell’s unpredictability are valid, it’s important to recognize that bucket-getting is not his primary role. He’s the third option on the Wolves behind multiple-time All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns and young stud Anthony Edwards. He makes his mark as a floor general.

Russell is the engine that keeps his team going. He quarterbacks the offense at a truly elite level and he’s up there with the ten to fifteen best playmakers in basketball. Minnesota has won three of four contests this season in which Russell dished out 10+ dimes, reflecting how impactful he is when he’s creating for others. 

A large part of what makes Russell such a standout passer is his patience. He’s never in a hurry and is rarely fazed by pressure, allowing him to scan the floor and make the right read. 

Here he displays that poise in transition. Buddy Hield is on his hip the whole way up the court but he doesn’t get flustered. Instead of giving it up early to Edwards on the wing, he pushes the pace and gets downhill all the way inside the free-throw line. That paint touch draws the attention of menacing rim protector Myles Turner (as well as Bennedict Mathurin who doesn’t know where his man is). With all eyes on him, Russell dumps off a well-timed pass to Jaden McDaniels for a slam. 

In the half-court, Russell is a pick-and-roll maestro. He ranks in the 92nd percentile in P&R ball handler points per possession (via BBall Index). 

He often uses hostage dribbles as a tool to open things up for his roll man. Take this possession for example. The Pacers run drop coverage against the Russell-Gobert pairing because Gobert is not a threat from behind the arc. Russell uses a hostage dribble to get Hield on his back, giving him the advantage and forcing Jalen Smith to keep an eye on him in order to prevent an easy pull-up. This leaves Gobert open on the dive and Russel finds him with a quick bounce pass.

Russell has been able to set Gobert up for lots of easy looks in the NBA’s most common action. Gobert’s big-body screens and roll gravity combined with Russell’s ability to weasel through the defense and command attention make for a lethal duo. 

Beyond inconsistent scoring, the other knock on Russell has always been his defense. Lacking effort on that end has put his name in the worst defender in the league conversations in recent years. This season, as the Wolves are looking to compete to make a deep playoff run, Russell has elevated his defensive performance. He’s trying a lot harder on the side of the ball that wins championships and he’s made legitimate improvement because of it. 

Here he comes up with a huge stop in clutch time. He hounds Max Strus, sliding his feet well and preventing the knockdown shooter from using a screen to create separation. He forces Strus into a tough stepback, getting a hand up and causing the airball. 

Russell ranks in the top fifteen in total steals and top ten in total blocks among guards this season, a result of his increased activity. Even though he still isn’t the best on-ball defender he finds ways to contribute to the defensive effort.

So, say what you want about the numbers, but D’Angelo Russell has become a player whose impact and importance go deeper than the box score. Don’t get it twisted, he can still get buckets, but his offensive coordination makes him an invaluable player even when his shot isn’t falling. That’s why even if he isn’t the All-Star he once was Russell is still a great player. Give the man the respect he deserves. 

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