I wrote previously about the opportunity that Rudy Gobert would get to find his rhythm in Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence. In my mind, no one on the team would benefit more from this time sans KAT. Gobert has had the opportunity to find his groove, sure. But I never considered the possibility that D’Angelo Russell would be the player who made the most of Towns’ time away from the team. In six games without Towns, DLo’s numbers have skyrocketed.
No surprise here, really. Russell is a high-quality self-creator who can get to his spots and light up a defense. Before coming to Minnesota, he spent much of his career as the primary scoring option with the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors. The opportunity to return to being “the guy,” so to speak, must feel really familiar to him.
Never before has Russell played with a big with Towns’ skillset. It’s required a level of flexibility and ceding of power that he’s never experienced. Going back to his time at Ohio State, DLo played many of his minutes with Amir Williams* as the man in the middle. Williams is a 6’11” center who never attempted a 3-point shot in his four seasons with the Buckeyes. When Russell was with the Los Angeles Lakers, he played with Roy Hibbert and Timofey Mozgov down low. In Brooklyn, he spent his time dishing to Jarrett Allen.
*Amir Williams was an Iowa Wolf for the 2016-17 season.
It makes sense, seeing as Towns is such an untraditional big man. He has a unique skill set, and his immense ability demands that the offense runs through him as the primary option. Playing with defensive bigs like Hibbert and Mozgov gives Russell much leeway to create shots for himself. A rim-runner like Allen makes it easy for Russell to create offense for him because DLo can throw it up, and Allen can go get it. With Towns, DLo has had to learn to find him in more untraditional spots.
DLo has previously signaled that playing alongside Karl-Anthony Towns has never been the most natural fit. I always think back to this quote he gave at the end of last season about his fit with Towns and Anthony Edwards.
“He makes the game easy. When you’re out there playing against some of these teams, they don’t know how to guard him, they don’t know how to guard myself. And you got Ant and you got multiple guys who are attacking as well. I’ve never really been in that position where I’m going into the game knowing that the team’s probably not worried about me as much. It gives me that lane to look at it from a different perspective and try to attack it a different way. They’re prepared for this guy, that guy, that hit, that punch, so this year it put me in a role of figuring out how I was gonna attack. That allowed our chemistry to be a little up-and-down.”
The playmaking role that DLo has been forced into during his time in Minnesota hasn’t come naturally to him. The root of the issue seems to be that Russell’s mentality and approach to the game don’t match his idea of what a “point guard” should be.
“I had the wrong approach. I was trying to be too focused on being a point guard instead of a basketball player,” Russell said. “Switching it up, so my mentality was that there’s a lot of opportunity out there for me to just be me instead of overthink it and try to point guard the team.”
Playing alongside Kyle Anderson seems to be helping DLo find a more natural role on the basketball court. Anderson rarely looks for his own offense. Therefore, he is an excellent complement to Ant and DLo on the perimeter as he works to put his teammates in advantageous positions. That’s not a critique of Towns, who has developed into a quality playmaker in his own right. Instead, it’s a compliment to Anderson’s understanding of his role.
“Kyle’s a point guard as well, so it takes me off the ball and allows me to be a scorer when we need it,” Russell said. “Coach trusts it. I’m a fan of it.”
There seems to be some cognitive dissonance happening within Russell. On the one hand, he feels like he’s been minimized in the offense, and it’s hard to find his own offense off-ball. At the same time, he feels like he is overanalyzing the game with the ball in his hands. This time with KAT away should give DLo time just to be DLo in whatever way he is most comfortable with. The team will be heavily relying on his offensive production. So far, he’s delivered.