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NBA Sunday: Kemba Walker’s Inspiring Journey

Moke Hamilton sits down with Kemba Walker, New York City’s torch-bearing point guard.

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Al-Farouq Aminu bent his knees and exploded skyward after summoning all the strength his 17-year-old legs could muster. He corralled one of his four rebounds on the day in what began as a routine-enough play and instinctively spun around, looking for a teammate to pass the ball off to.

Instead, Aminu saw his smallest teammate—some kid hailing from New York City’s Soundview Projects in the Bronx—already sprinting down toward the other end of the floor.

Aminu channeled his inner Peyton Manning and lofted a perfect pass to the streaking guard who received it at half court, in-stride.

Less than four seconds later, on March 26, 2008, at the McDonald’s All-American game, the world learned exactly who Kemba Walker was.

Breathing heavily, the wide-open Walker caught the pass as his red, sweat-soaked jersey clung to his frame. He took two steps toward what seemed like an easy basket, but out of the corner of his left eye, saw a defender, Jrue Holiday, quickly gaining ground on him.

At that moment, the words of his junior high school coach, Carl Nickerson, echoed in his head. Nickerson taught Walker to be tough. Coach taught Walker to never let his size be a deterrent, and above all, he taught Walker to leap over any hurdle that appeared before him.

Without hesitation, the tiny point guard decided to go for it all.

He accelerated and with two dribbles and a two-step, took flight. Walker rose up through the air and soared, defying gravity and odds, and threw down a vicious tomahawk dunk over the outstretched Holiday. The crowd of 11,000 erupted after Walker pulled off the feat that was as surprising to occur as it was inspiring to witness.

Even seven years later, he remembers both the play and the game vividly. It was, after all, the night he walked away feeling as though he was truly capable of not only running with, but taking flight with the stars of tomorrow.

***

It’s a fairly brisk January 2015 afternoon in Charlotte. Seven years later, Walker has come a long, long way since being a McDonald’s High School All American. After enrolling at UConn prior to its 2008-09 season, Walker’s pre-professional basketball career was a resounding success, ultimately culminating in him leading his UConn Huskies to a national title in 2011.

Fulfilling a promise to his parents to always keep his education at the forefront of his priorities, Walker completed the requirements for his degree in Sociology in three years and declared himself eligible for the 2011 NBA Draft.

After months of training, private team workouts and a hectic travel schedule, Walker made it to the date he had circled on his calendar: June 23, 2011. Despite mostly excelling in the pre-draft process, some draft-day projections had him sliding due to a combination of concerns over a mostly phantom knee ailment and his reputation for being a streaky jump shooter.

Despite the concerns, the Charlotte Hornets selected Walker with the ninth overall pick of the draft. The hope was that he could provide youth, stability and All-Star upside at the point guard position—qualities that the franchise believed his predecessors Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin lacked.

After hearing his named called and shaking hands with Commissioner David Stern, Walker was relieved and excited to head to Charlotte, and his youthful exuberance was on full display when we met for the first time a few hours later.

“This has been such a long process for me and for everyone,” Walker said at the time. “But I’m excited, man.

“And now, Michael Jordan’s given me a great opportunity, so I’m just gonna come in with a great attitude, respect everyone, and try to do everything possible to get that team to the playoffs. I’m so excited.”

That night, Walker spoke a bit about his personal journey. He spoke about wanting to take care of his parents and loved ones and wanting to fulfill the potential that the world saw during his years at UConn.

Above all else, on that night, Walker spoke to me about what was ahead. For many youngsters, being drafted into the NBA and hearing their name called is the highlight of their NBA career. Most simply don’t make it long-term.

Way back in 2011, though, it was evident that Walker understood that this was not the end of his journey—it was a new beginning.

***

The practice court is bustling with energy. Brian Roberts and Gary Neal are competing in shooting drills while Lance Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist participate in their own workout.

Walker, now 24 years old, has mostly fulfilled the promise that the Hornets believed he had when they drafted him four years ago. He led the franchise to its second playoff berth since 2004 and is now playing out the final season of his rookie contract. After signing a four-year, $48 million extension with the Hornets about three months prior, though, there is no question that he will continue to be a fixture for the franchise.

When we sat shoulder to shoulder for the first time since 2011, my first question to Walker seemed simple enough.

“What’s life been like since you came into the league?”

Walker seemed startled by the question, perhaps even confused. He looked at me and then looked away, chuckling and raising his eyebrows, shaking his head. For a moment, I felt a bit self-conscious, wondering if my question struck him as silly for some reason.

But finally, after a few uneasy moments, the words came.

“It’s been everything I expected,” he said, simply. “Life has been great. Just being able to live my dream, play basketball for a living, being able to take care of my family; it’s been everything I expected.”

And in that moment immediately preceding his pensive gaze and broken silence, Walker looked much more like the college kid I first met in 2011—one who was just caught off guard by a professor posing a tough question.

Indeed, for Walker, life in the NBA has been everything he expected—except for the constant traveling.

“Yeah, the biggest thing that surprised me was the travel,” Walker said. No doubt, he was recalling a recent stretch that saw his Hornets play five games in eight days in Orlando, Boston, Charlotte, Toronto and New York.

“That was one of the tougher things to adjust to when I got here,” Walker said. “Just going to all these different cities, getting in super late and sometimes having to play the next day.”

Still, for him, the long NBA road trips are a cakewalk compared to the arduous journey he had already endured. Madison Square Garden may be just 10 miles from the Sack-Wern courts in the Soundview projects in the Bronx, but the route between the two is littered with dashed hopes and crushing pressure that many of Walker’s predecessors couldn’t navigate.

And there, where it all began for Walker, was worlds away from the stardom and fortune that he knew potentially awaited in the NBA.

***

“I never really knew, honestly.”

After sighing and thinking about it, his candor got the best of him. It wasn’t until well into his high school career that Walker even seriously considered pursuing basketball professionally. Growing up, he’d routinely been discouraged from doing so since small guards do not often make it big in the NBA. Often, even when they do, their careers are short-lived.

Officially listed at 6’1, Walker measured in at the 2011 pre-draft combine at 5’11.5 without shoes. The concerns over his size, statistically, were well-founded. When asked how often he’d heard his size would preempt his aspirations, Walker didn’t hesitate.

“All the time,” Walker said. “I’m ‘too small, not strong enough, can’t shoot… That’s stuff that I’ve heard for years, but it’s never bothered me, because I know how to play. I just play based off of straight-toughness. I just knew—I always knew—that would get me over the hump. I always took the criticisms as motivation.”

From time to time, though, doubt would creep in. How could it not? As a young man attempting to defy odds, if you hear enough people say that you’re not good enough, or that you’re too small or too weak, you may eventually begin to believe it yourself. That can be especially true of a youth growing up in an underprivileged neighborhood where hope and optimism don’t necessarily reign supreme.

That’s probably why Walker needed the validation of playing varsity basketball to help him believe that he had an opportunity to be great. But even after that, it would take a few more years for him to believe that he had NBA potential. When he first laced up his sneakers for Rice High School’s Varsity team, Walker’s prime focus was earning a scholarship to attend college, not to one day play in the NBA.

“I really started to take [basketball] seriously my sophomore year of high school,” Walker recalled. “That was my first year playing varsity, so when I made that team I was just like, ‘Hey, I could probably go to school for free.’ That was my goal.”

It was a goal that is indicative of the values that Walker’s Antiguan parents, Andrea and Paul, instilled in him from an early age. Even as his stock climbed and the NBA began to seem an attainable aspiration, Walker’s mother continued to stress the importance of an education. His playing days would be limited, but an education would last a lifetime.

Before long, though, his on-court contributions ceased to fly under the radar. By 2008, he had become ranked as one of the top high school players in the country, earning an invitation to the 2008 McDonald’s All-American game where he would share the court with other future NBA lottery talents such as Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Greg Monroe, Ed Davis and, of course, Al-Farouq Aminu—the one who assisted Walker on the play that would make all the difference in the world for him.

“After the McDonald’s All-American game, I started to look at all the mock drafts and stuff like that, and I saw that I was up there,” Walker said when he asked when he realized the NBA was an option for him. “Just for my name to be up there, it gave me some hope and some confidence that I could be a pro.”

And the fateful play over Holiday? It was an exclamation point that underscored many things about Walker’s game—his athleticism, his fearlessness and his determination.

“I played well,” Walker recalled, proudly. “[The] big time dunk that game, on Jrue Holiday… I had a big time dunk on him. That was definitely, by far, the most memorable play of that game for me.”

Yes, it was an exclamation point that underscored Walker’s virtues. That one play epitomized the belief that Carl Nickerson—Walker’s junior high school coach at Intermediate School 174—instilled in him from his days as a young teenager.

“[Coach Nickerson] is the one who kind of helped me develop a toughness that nobody could take away from me,” Walker said. “He always pushed me. He made me super tough, and he was always hard on me. He just made me go and he was the one who got me really serious about basketball.”

Nickerson also played a key role in Walker finding his way to Rice High School and it was there that he attained national recognition playing for coach Moe Hicks. Like Nickerson, Hicks helped Walker’s development, instilling the key defensive principles that he needed to truly become an impact player at the next level.

With his national championship and a trove of awards and accolades under his belt, it’s clear that Walker has capably met each challenge he has faced. Now, in his fourth year as an NBA pro, Walker can proudly wake up each morning and lace up his sneakers knowing that he is an inspiring and improbable success story.

En route to this point, he has overcome social, economic and physical obstacles and epitomizes the spirit of New York City—tough, rugged, defiant and hard working.

With a rich basketball tradition and some of the most famous courts in the country, Walker, the city’s own, has emerged from among his peers as the torchbearer for New York City point guards. Perhaps the best point guard prospect to come from the five boroughs since Mark Jackson, Walker seems poised to join Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls as the only active NBA player to become an All-Star after playing high school basketball in the five boroughs.

Unlike Noah, though, Walker spent his entire childhood in New York City. Truly, he is a son of the Big Apple. And now, on the cusp of greatness and with his city on his shoulders, Walker again finds himself approaching a new beginning.

***

The “next” Kemba Walker is out there, somewhere. He is minuscule in stature, but gargantuan in heart. He needs tutelage and encouragement as much as he needs practice and repetition.

Walker knows that well, because long before he was an inspiring professional and a role model by default, he was a young teenager taking directives from Coach Nickerson, sneaking out of his apartment behind his mother’s back, developing and honing his skills on the basketball courts at the Sack-Wern housing projects where he grew up.

That’s why Walker returned to the court in 2013, armed with his stardom, fortune and support from both Under Armour and the NBA to refurbish the courts that helped him rise up out of the underprivileged neighborhood from where he came.

Somewhere, Walker knows, there is another future torchbearer. And if they were to ever have a conversation, for Walker, the words would be easy to find.

“I would ask him if he thinks he’s good enough to make it and I would definitely expect him to tell me ‘Yes,'” Walker said. “I would ask him what he’s going to do to make it, and [I would tell him] there’s only one thing you can do, and that’s outwork everyone around you.

“You got to put in the extra work to become a pro basketball player, you got to work extra hard.”

He knows a thing or two about that, as well.

So, as much as Walker pays respect to his former coaches and the tough playgrounds for his development, he also honors the example that his parents set for him many moons ago.

“My parents always worked hard to try and provide for my siblings and me,” Walker said with a smile and tone of admiration. “I remember there were times where my parents, mom or dad were sick and shouldn’t have even gone to work, but they went anyway. Rain, sleet, snow—whatever the weather conditions were—they went to work to try and provide for me and my siblings and to make sure that we had food on the table and clothes and sneakers to wear each and every day.”

Walker paused for a moment. With his eyebrows raised, he nodded.

“My hard work definitely comes from my parents.”

***

With Tim Hardaway as his hero and the Sack-Wern courts as his lab, Walker has improbably risen as the face of an NBA franchise. The Hornets are currently attempting to qualify for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and with the 24-year-old Walker leading the way, brighter days are ahead.

Seven years ago, when he received Aminu’s pass at half court, he could have opted to delay the potential fast break. Instead, he accelerated and met his challenge, head on.

Seven years ago, Walker mustered his strength and courage and he leapt.

Seven years later, he is still ascending.

In the four years that have passed since he first entered the league, Walker’s physical appearance has changed, albeit slightly. He has a bit more facial hair, a few more pounds of muscle, a couple more wrinkles and a more confident, relaxed demeanor.

Still, through it all, even after four years, he’s the same person with the same values, same spirit and same heart.

Through it all, he’s still minuscule in physical stature, but a mammoth with miles and miles of heart.

Still ready to hurdle any obstacle, hailing from the Sack-Wern courts in the Bronx to Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena, some things never change.

And as it relates to his approach to defying odds and meeting challenges, neither has Walker.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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