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Minnesota Timberwolves: Examining the fit between KAT and D-Lo

Together at last, how well D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns mesh on the court will indicate the potential ceiling of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Both the Minnesota Timberwolves and Karl-Anthony Towns finally got what they wanted at the trade deadline after months of a not-so-subtle pursuit.

D’Angelo Russell is now a Timberwolf. Gone is Andrew Wiggins. There’s no time like the present for Minnesota to begin trekking back up the standings with two All-Stars locked into long-term deals no older than 24.

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The league’s newest dynamic duo isn’t perfect, and they alone can’t push the Minnesota Timberwolves to relevancy. But they’re as good a starting point as any with respective styles that should be able to elevate the other.

Russell has long been reliant on pick-and-rolls to create offense for himself, dissecting backpedaling defenses with slithering handles and a pull-up jumper.

“To wake up and see the situation that I’m in and feel the love of somebody wanting me to be here … it’s a surreal moment for me right now.”

—D’Angelo Russell on playing with Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota pic.twitter.com/iTh3rSZmrX

— ESPN (@espn) February 7, 2020

Last season as a Brooklyn Net, he ran the two-man game on nearly 50.0 of his possessions, generating 0.89 points per possession, ranking inside the 67th percentile en route to his first All-Star appearance.

As a member of the Golden State Warriors, he ran 10.3 pick-and-rolls per game which led to 9.2 of his career-best 23.6 points per game.

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Rarely did he get to the line — less than 10.0 percent of the time in those two years — and his propensity for mid-range jumpers is alarming in the analytics age.

Russell is already established as a pick-and-roll operator and this isn’t something to scoff at. While Jarrett Allen and Marquise Chriss are solid roll-men in their own right with incredible athleticism, neither will help Russell in the same ways as Karl-Anthony Towns.

There’s simply never been a center with the offensive gifts of Towns, who’s a threat from just about every spot on the court.

He isn’t just having a phenomenal shooting season for a big man. Of those attempting more than 7.5 3-pointers a game, Towns’ 41.2 outside percentage ranks fourth across the entire NBA. He also has the highest true-shooting percentage among players taking at least 17.0 shots a game at 64.2.

Allen was one of the league’s best roll men in the league with Brooklyn last season, but his offensive repertoire was rigidly limited to the restricted area. The same goes for the revolving door of bigs who saw minutes in Golden State.

The game will be made easier for Russell on account of not only the space KAT creates with his outside shot, but the attention he commands as the league’s 11th-leading scorer. The same can be said in reverse, where Towns finally has a perimeter threat to make his life easier.

It’s no coincidence that Towns’ assisted 2-point and 3-point field goals have dropped to career-lows this season. He’s had to do more of the grunt work as the absence of a true floor general in Minnesota continued to leave its mark.

Jeff Teague wasn’t the solution. When the Wolves tried to get creative with Wiggins running point, it was clear that wasn’t going to work either.

Russell isn’t inherently a pass-first point guard, but he’s always had good vision and instincts dating back to his days at Ohio State. Among those with a usage rate north of 30.0 last season, his 7.0 assists per game ranked third.

The only reason his assist numbers dipped from that career-best mark to 6.2 a game was due to the absence of reliable scoring options at the Warriors’ disposal, forcing Russell to shoot and score more than he ever has.

In Russell’s debut versus the Toronto Raptors, there was a mixed bag of takeaways.

For starters, Minnesota lost 137-126. Russell was a minus-22 and Towns a minus-7, shooting just 5-of-13 in the absence of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka,

How much will the Wolves acquiring D’Angelo Russell help Karl Anthony Towns? pic.twitter.com/OU44t1JfYa

— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) February 7, 2020

In the 25 minutes the two friends shared the court, the Wolves posted a defensive rating of 139.7. For comparison, the worst mark in the league is currently held by the Washington Wizards at 115.8.

Conversely, Minnesota’s offensive rating was 119.4, which would top the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks. The smallest of sample sizes of course, but a tiny window into the problems these two can pose with time to acclimate.

Keep in mind that none of the 10-highest two-man lineups featuring Towns this season have posted an offensive rating higher than 115.8 — that belonged to Teague, who is now a member of the Atlanta Hawks.

Game two wasn’t much better. The Minnesota Timberwolves blew an 18-point lead to the lowly Charlotte Hornets at home. In the absence of Towns due to a wrist injury, it’s hard to draw much from Russell’s 26 points and 12 assists in his home debut, even if he was a plus-12 in 35 minutes.

Their defense is a real issue as are the supporting pieces around them. Neither has shown many leadership qualities since being drafted No. 1 and 2 in the 2015 Draft.

No amount of offensive production can ever make those problems disappear, but for two players still trying to find their place in the league’s hierarchy, perhaps the talent each possesses is what the other needs to start turning the corner.

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