Long before it was actually held, pundits deemed the 2013 NBA Draft one of the worst in recent memory. Since then, the top 10 has done absolutely nothing to dispel that notion. Aside from second pick Victor Oladipo and ninth pick Trey Burke, every rookie in the top 10 has been disappointing, injured, or both.
Do these rookies’ struggles bear ill portent for their fanbases, or can they turn it around? I talked to several scouts and executives, then went to the film and the stats to determine what to make of five rookies’ bad starts.
One key point to remember is the context for each of these players. As one Western Conference executive pointed out to me, the rookies who have struggled the most are generally on teams that are at least trying (if not succeeding) at winning this year. Unlike a lot of years, rookies Anthony Bennett, Otto Porter, Cody Zeller, Alex Len and Ben McLemore are on teams that are contending for the playoffs or at least attempting to make a playoff push this year. Rookies naturally make mistakes, which the coaches of these teams feel like they cannot afford. These mistakes often lead to the rookie sitting on the bench, which leads to a vicious cycle as the player loses confidence.
»In Related: 2014 NBA Mock Draft
On the other hand, the executive said, “Look which rookies are doing great. The top four rookies are Oladipo, MCW [Michael Carter-Williams], Burke and Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. They play for the four worst teams in the league. None of them care about winning right now.” These players have been given the minutes and freedom to make mistakes. The guards are even playing relatively similar roles to what they did in college, while Antetokounmpo has started most of the year on a Bucks team whose wing rotation has been devastated by injuries, ineffectiveness and lassitude.
Another obvious but easily forgotten piece of context was provided by multiple scouts, who noted that drafts should not be judged until three years after they occur. One Western Conference scout lamented that by that point people have often already been fired and that there is “way more pressure now” for draft picks. “Look at James Harden and Tyreke Evans. How many times has that script been re-written?”
With that context in mind, let’s turn to five struggling rookies.
Last June, I believed Bennett was a top-three pick based on the fact that he had the highest offensive ceiling in the draft. After putting on at least 20 pounds over the summer while he recuperated from shoulder surgery, Bennett’s stats have been bad enough to make him jealous of LaRue Martin. His PER is 4.1, about five points lower than replacement level, and his NBA.com shot chart would make Vladimir Ilych Lenin proud.
But those I talked to said that it was too early to write him off. One scout who watched him a lot at UNLV said he thought he was “Jamal Mashburn meets Larry Johnson” coming out of school, and still had that kind of potential. A few also intimated that whether he recovers to become an effective NBA player depends on his makeup, especially because he has “something hanging over his head” after being the number one pick. Another noted that he still is not in great shape. Undersized power forwards who are successful play with great energy and outwork their opponents, and Bennett has not been able to do that so far in his NBA career.
On film, Bennett shows great potential, but very poor overall results. On rare occasions he looks outstanding isolating and going to the basket, almost always to his left.
He also shows great potential as a pick-and-pop threat with his quick-release three-pointer.
Overall, however, these positive instances are few. What struck me most about Bennett is that he just does not play like a big man despite his heft. His moves inside are almost always of the finesse variety. He tries to go around or over defenders rather than carving out space with his shoulders (which could be because he is a little gun shy due to the shoulder surgery). Bennett also really needs to work on his left hand (especially as often as he drives left), as a lot of his missed finishes at the rim occur when he uses his right hand on the left side. What made Bennett so intriguing as a prospect was his outstanding shooting, dribbling and jumping ability for someone so big and strong. He is going to need to learn to use that strength to maximize his potential. This would help his free throw rate, which ranks below the league average at about one free throw for every four field goals. Bennett also needs to throw his weight around on the offensive glass. His 7.7 percent offensive rebound rate is in the bottom half of power forwards, which is disappointing considering his college statistics.
Part of that is because he is very often on the perimeter shooting (and missing) jumpers.* Most of these come out of pick-and-pops. His quick release could be a huge weapon on these in time, but is currently a detriment because he does not adequately set his feet on a lot of his shots after he pops out. He must better his footwork in this aspect of the game. While there is no way of knowing whether his jump shot will ever come around, he made them in college and presumably makes enough in practice that he is allowed to take them in games. This is another area in which getting in better shape will help, as less fatigued legs should better his jumper.
Another adjustment Bennett could make in the pick-and-roll is trying to set harder screens. One of the key differentiators of his successful pick-and-rolls is making solid contact with the ballhandler’s man. Another is when he rolls to the basket instead of immediately popping. He does the latter about 80 percent of the time, and usually barely makes contact Carlos Boozer style on these plays.* By contrast, rolling to the basket is one of his very few effective play types.
Defensively, Bennett has not been horrendous for a rookie who was not expected to shine on that end. The Cavs’ bad defense isn’t significantly worse with him on the court, and the only area in which he has particularly struggled is in closing out on shooters, which again may be the result of his conditioning.
»In Related: Cleveland Cavaliers Salary Information
The good news for Bennett is that his issues are things that he could plausibly improve, including getting in better shape, using his body better inside and actually hitting some jumpers. Nevertheless, the best predictor of future performance is past performance, and it must be noted that the list of rookies who have played as badly as he has and gone on to great things is nonexistent. Equally troubling, he really hasn’t started playing any better yet; his numbers since January 1 are nearly on par with his season-long statistics. Plus, he is a year older than most who come out after their freshman year, turning 21 in March. Given his performance to date, it is very difficult to imagine him becoming a star, and unlikely that he even becomes a solid starter. But we cannot yet entirely foreclose the possibility if he is willing to put in the work. With the Cavs out of the playoff race, they need to see what he can do the rest of the year. Despite his struggles, I still think he has the best chance for stardom of this group.
Charlotte Bobcats fans were none too happy about the drafting of Zeller with the number four pick in the draft, and thus far they have proved more prescient than Bobcats management. Zeller has been unable to beat out Josh McRoberts for the starting power forward job, a disappointment on a Charlotte team that basically had no good big men last year. The scouts and executives largely agreed that Zeller was a reach with the number four pick. Said one, “If you were Charlotte you might look down the road and wish you had done a little better.” Said another, “I think he can have value in the league, but I’d probably lean toward him being more of a backup. He’s kind of like Tyler Hansbrough. Does he have value, sure? But a star? No. Zeller is a longer version of that type of energy player.”
Zeller wowed scouts with his “athleticism” at the combine, but he is an example of the dangers of such testing. While I normally put great stock in the numbers, this testing is a different animal. Athleticism is far better evaluated on film and through actual game performance. Zeller’s 35-inch vertical and agility testing were considered outstanding at the combine, but it is hard to call the seven-footer athletic when he doesn’t block shots, dunk on anyone or even finish inside well. That last is the most concerning part of his game. He shoots 48 percent in the restricted area. Even worse, he shoots only 44 percent* on non-post ups around basket, a miserable number considering most of those attempts occur after receiving the ball inside with an advantage on the defense.
Another disappointing aspect of Zeller’s play is his outside shooting. Zeller shot few jumpers when he played center in college at Indiana, but his camp successfully painted him as a stretch four leading up to the draft. His jumper looks pure, but the results have been Bennett-like. Overall, his 37.7 percent shooting is horrendous for a big man with a usage rate of 18.5 percent.
One executive commented that “his skill set seems a little undefined right now,” and the numbers bear that out. Zeller is below-average offensively in every category but transition, where he can showcase his ability to run the floor like a deer.*
Unfortunately, the Bobcats’ slow pace has provided few chances for Zeller to get out in transition, as he uses a slightly below average six percent of his possessions this way. By contrast, the league leaders (many of whom use far more possessions overall than Zeller) are up around nine or ten percent.
»In Related: Bobcats Are Buyers at Deadline
With his inefficient scoring, Zeller’s future is likely, as one executive said, “more as an energy guy off the bench.” However, the “one caveat is if he develops a three-point shot.” Considering Zeller’s solid form and the fact that he apparently hits jumpers well enough in workouts to impress people, this is not out of the realm of possibility. But right now, he has taken only one three all year. Without adding that shot, it is unlikely he becomes a starting caliber player.
McLemore was the player the insiders and I most disagreed on.
Said one, “I think he’ll be alright. The biggest thing he’s getting used to is the speed of the game and making decisions at the speed of the game. He’s still their fifth leading scorer at seven points per game. He’s got some promise, and has two things going for him. If you’re an athletic player who can shoot, you have a future in the league. He’s got good size, he’s very athletic and he can shoot. Just getting the feel to wait on screens comes with experience, he’ll be alright.”
Another was less sanguine, “He doesn’t have great size and has few intangibles. He seems to be another athletic 6’5 guy that can’t do any one thing exceptionally well. If he were good enough he would get noticed in [Sacramento]. They are getting better but were searching for help early on and McLemore was unable to separate himself. He’s getting decent minutes and has shown shooting ability, but needs to find out who he is.”
My projection is much worse for him than either insider’s. The fact McLemore has played 23 minutes per game masks just how bad he as been. He shoots 36.4 percent overall with a .470 True Shooting Percentage.
McLemore’s usage rate is a relatively low 17 percent, but he may need to reduce it even further to become anything other than a massive detriment on offense, at least in the short-term. Of particular note is the fact that McLemore shoots in the 71st percentile on jumpers when unguarded (36 percent of his jumpers), but in the 19th percentile when guarded (64 percent of his jumpers). On film, many of these guarded jumpers are taken coming off screens—the Kings would be wise to junk these plays for now and just let McLemore spot up, cut to the rim and get out in transition. With two high-usage stars in Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins, they have plenty of sources of offense.
Probably the most disturbing aspect of McLemore’s game is his poor shooting at the rim, even in transition where he ranks in the 24th percentile. He shoots only 45 percent on layups and is 70 percent (21 of 30) on dunks. Despite his outstanding leaping ability, it is clear that McLemore simply does not have the feel that great, or even average, finishers have for defenders around the basket.
It is very rare to see any NBA two get stopped at the rim like this by other smalls, not to mention one with a 40-inch vertical. This problem is exacerbated by his complete lack of an in-between game, as he has shot only 21.7 percent in the lane away from the rim. Even worse, McLemore has shown no ability to break down his man off the dribble, operate in the pick-and-roll or create for others. One scout’s take that “he’ll need to work on improving his skills with the ball” is a massive (and perhaps diplomatic) understatement. Thus, his only offensive skill right now is making wide open jumpers.
Defensively, things are even worse. While he has decent tools on that end, the Kings’ 29th-ranked defense gives up 5.4 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. He does poorly in nearly every defensive play type, rating particularly badly in pick-and-rolls, isolations and spot-ups where he loses track of his man. Overall, the Kings actually outscore their opponents by 0.9 points/100 when McLemore sits. With him in the game, they are minus 5.9 points/100. This is not a product of having played only with the bench, as McLemore started much of the year.
»In Related: Sacramento Kings Salary Information
Reports on McLemore’s work ethic are positive. But his lack of feel is the most worrying part of his performance right now. While more research needs to be done on which skills can be improved and which cannot, the areas in which he is lacking seem more nature than nurture. i.e., they are less likely to improve with mere time in the gym. It also must be noted that he too is a year older than the typical freshman due to his redshirt year at Kansas, which further lowers his ceiling a bit.
The fifth overall pick has played only 185 minutes due to offseason surgery on both ankles and the fact that he is clearly the fifth big man on a good Phoenix team. He is shooting 44 percent on the year, with a 9.03 PER.
On film, he has shown flashes of a very high skill level in the post despite his relative inefficiency from there. The problem is that he over-relies on that skill level instead of his pure size. He shoots (and misses) a lot of face-up jumpers. When he gets closer to the basket he pump fakes half the time, which is way too much. While these look pretty when they work, a pump fake is a gambit because it makes a successful shot very difficult if the defender does not jump. Len almost never just backs his man down for a jump hook or drop step, and he travels a lot while attempting his fancy footwork. His style in the post evokes Chris Kaman, a very skilled pivotman who nonetheless has been relatively inefficient.
On a positive note, Len has hit the offensive glass so far. He pulls down 14 percent of offensive rebounds, a rate that would rank in the league’s top five if he had played enough minutes to qualify. On defense he is blocking a respectable 2.8 percent of opponents’ twos, and the Suns are only slightly worse defensively with him on the court.
»In Related: Suns Are Set to be Players at Deadline
The key for Len will be getting stronger and improving his shooting inside. With a 13 percent usage rate and only nine points per 36 minutes, he needs to get his shooting percentage well north of 50 percent to be useful on offense.
The number three pick elicited little feedback, as he has played only 207 minutes due to a hip injury. One scout noted that Porter is “very long and has shooting ability that would allow him to stick around.” I am not in agreement on the shooting ability. Porter is shooting only 29 percent on the year. On a Washington team with John Wall and Bradley Beal, his offensive role will be as a shooter and cutter. Unfortunately, he has shot only nine threes (missing them all) compared to 29 midrange shots. When he spots up, it’s generally in the 20-foot range, which kills the Wizards’ spacing. They score a mere 88 points/100 in his limited minutes.
While Porter had excellent statistical translations, I worried that he would prove unable to score in the league. He increased his three-point shooting significantly in his second year at Georgetown, but it was not on a large number of attempts. He also does not have the most versatile jumper and has rather ugly form. Porter is also hamstrung by a lack of elite quickness to get to the basket.
The good news is that Porter has played solid defense in this small sample size. The Wizards give up only 95 points/100 with him in the game. Most of the shots he’s faced have been jumpers, but he has done well closing out due to his length and opponents have hit only 25 percent of their jumpers with him guarding them.
»In Related: NBA Rookie Rankings
Porter isn’t going to play much this year with the Wizards making a playoff push and Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster all playing well in the wing rotation. But Ariza is a free agent next year, so it seems likely Porter could at least become a rotation player if he can extend his range. The key question is whether he will ever develop the offense to merit a starting job. The (very) early returns are not positive in that regard.
Nerlens Noel Should Have Been the Pick
One would imagine the teams that let Nerlens Noel slide to the sixth pick did so at least in part because he could not help them this year and they are looking to win now. Ironically, drafting Noel and playing some other replacement level player all year would have helped these teams more than the rookies they actually drafted. Although Noel has yet to play, he certainly looks much better by comparison due to the poor performances from the competition.
»In Related: 76ers Ready to Trade Evan Turner?
It should be noted that Noel is very unlikely to ever be much of a scorer away from the basket. Sixers coaches have been rebuilding his shot, but based on the shooting drills I saw him doing in Denver last month the rebuild has not particularly taken. Despite shooting all one-handed jumpers in an effort to fix his form, Noel’s shot was still flat and his right elbow flew way out even while shooting one-handed. Some big men simply do not have an aptitude for shooting, and I fear he may be one of them. Nevertheless, Noel has the potential to be a top five defensive player in the league and an acceptable offensive threat with his finishing at the rim. These skills could have really helped the Cavs, Wizards, Bobcats or Suns down the road. Each of them may rue the day they passed on him.
NBA Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors
Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.
The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.
Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.
Steph Curry edges out Bradley Beal to win the 2020-21 scoring title. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/GmiTD26aJK
— theScore (@theScore) May 17, 2021
With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.
After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.
Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.
The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.
Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.
After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.
One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.
While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.
Andrew Wiggins is gonna end the regular season averaging ~19 & 5 on 48/38/72 shooting.
Missed only 1 game, and that was for rest. Was tremendous defensively, night in and night out.
He’s had a great year.
— Brian Witt (@Wittnessed) May 16, 2021
As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.
Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.
As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.
Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.
Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.
Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.
Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.