Quarterbacking the Timberwolves’ improved defense is … D’Angelo Russell?
Russell, the man who has been, fairly, viewed as a defensive sieve for most of his NBA career is now the man conducting a top-5 NBA defense.
It was a signature move of sorts for Patrick Beverley early this season. As the Minnesota Timberwolves set their half-court defense, the veteran guard would make a chirping motion with both hands.
The message behind the hand signal was clear: communicate defensively.
Talking on the defensive end is everything. NBA defense is a group project. If you’re not on the same page as a unit, one of the league’s many elite scorers will scorch you with ease.
Beverley was brought in to help shore up so much of what ailed Minnesota defensively, from intensity to communication. And it worked early in the season, with the Timberwolves playing at an elite level on that end for the first time in years.
But what would happen when the veteran guard went down with a groin injury? Who would step up in Beverley’s place defensively, maybe not in terms of locking down one of the opponent’s top perimeter scorers, but who would serve as the quarterback of the defense?
The answer has been the man who also quarterbacks the offense: D’Angelo Russell.
Yes, that D’Angelo Russell, the man who has been, fairly, viewed as a defensive sieve for most of his NBA career is now the man conducting a top-5 NBA defense.
He was the one chirping with his hands on the defensive end early in Monday’s win over Indiana. Russell is the one calling out opposing plays and directing traffic defensively, telling teammates when to help and where to be.
Those are tactics Russell picked up during his half-season tenure with Golden State during the 2019-20 season. He said he “got to be a sponge” while working alongside the likes of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and D’Angelo Russell.
“I seen how they carry themselves,” Russell said. “There’s a reason that they’re winning, just from them being them.”
Defensively, it was Green being himself. Russell watched as one of the league’s best defenders consistently captained the Warriors’ efforts on that end.
“He was vocal. He was always helping one another. If he was guarding the best player on the floor, he still helped elsewhere,” Russell said. “You hear his voice, (and that) gives guys that are on the ball confidence. He gives guys that are low their next rotation.”
Russell has now evolved into that player in Minnesota, at least early this season. He has been vocal both on the floor and the bench, saying what needs to be said in any given situation.
“He’s pretty experienced now in the league. He’s seen a lot. He understands what we’re trying to do out there,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said. “So he’s got a good feel for it all, and he’s able to quarterback it from different places on the floor.”
But there is a big caveat when it comes to leadership, particularly on the defensive end.
“You’ve got to be credible,” Russell noted. “I don’t know if I’m credible, but it works.”
He has been credible this season. That may not have always been the case, but it has been largely this season. Russell may never be asked to defend the opponent’s best player — even Karl-Anthony Towns has poked fun at Russell’s lack of elite athleticism — and the 25-year-old guard still has the occasional lapse, but he’s been much improved on the defensive end.
Russell uses his length to disrupt at key times — such as the end of the Philadelphia game Saturday, when he came up with the steal that led to the game-winning bucket in the closing seconds of the second overtime — and is in the right spot far more times than not.
“Nobody wants to be that guy that gets scored (on). I’m taking pride in it,” Russell said. “I watched in the playoffs, teams bring the worst defender up and attack them all night. Bring me up if you want to, see how that goes. I’m confident in my defensive abilities.”
Over Minnesota’s past eight games — of which the Wolves won seven — Russell is averaging a block, a steal and 4.4 rebounds per game.
“He’s playing at a super high level, all aspects of the game,” Finch said. “He’s even in there boxing out.”
The Timberwolves currently sport the NBA’s seventh best defense, allowing 105 points per 100 possessions. That number dips to a gaudy 96.8 points when Russell is on the floor. When it comes to Russell, the term “floor general” may no longer apply to just offense.
“Not a lot of people voice stuff on the court during the games. … I watch a lot of basketball, so I try to make things easier when I’m the guy that’s low and I see things happening, maybe a stack action or if we’re doubling in the post, or things like that,” Russell said. “I just try to keep guys alert. They hear my voice, and it’s working.”