D’Angelo Russell’s future with Timberwolves should be clearer by end of NBA Draft

New Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly has four picks in Thursday’s NBA Draft, giving him plenty of chances to build on his reputation as an executive with a keen eye for talent, especially when the picks fall outside of the lottery and in the second round. But whom the Timberwolves are targeting at No. 19 may not be the biggest question swirling around the team as draft night approaches.

That designation is reserved for the future of D’Angelo Russell in Minnesota. Russell is entering the final year of his contract, is eligible for an extension and is coming off of a season that was both impressive in the way he helped the Wolves to a 46-win regular season and disappointing in how he finished, struggling against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs.

Now that the draft is approaching, the first real window for trades has been thrown wide open, and Connelly is expected to consider most any transaction outside of moving Karl-Anthony Towns, who is lined up to receive a supermax contract extension in July, or Anthony Edwards, the young star who should be primed for an even bigger role next season.

The dichotomy of Russell’s start and his finish has muddied the waters for a player who was once viewed as a central figure in ex-president Gersson Rosas’ vision for a revival in Minnesota. With Edwards emerging as the primary wingman for Towns, Russell is now third in the pecking order, a challenging role that had him needing to strike a fine balance between facilitating for Towns, Edwards and the rest of his teammates and looking for his shot.

It wasn’t always easy, something Russell acknowledged in his season-ending news conference in May. When Rosas traded Andrew Wiggins and a lightly protected pick to Golden State, it was billed as a way to unite Towns and Russell, close friends whose games complemented each other much better than Wiggins’ and KAT’s. But it took about a year and a half for Towns and Russell to play significant time together, with the pandemic and injuries to both players putting a frustrating delay on the process.

“I think it was rocky, to be honest,” Russell said of his pairing with Towns. “I think we were figuring it out, and then we had either COVID or something happen, and it kind of caused him to be out, caused me to be out. …

“You didn’t know who was going to be out there (in) that window when every team was getting hit with the COVID bug, so that kind of stunted our growth. I think we’re such fans of each other that we found a way to make it work in moments where (we) probably didn’t have the chemistry because we didn’t play together as much as we would have thought.”

For the segment of fans with a bad taste in their mouths after Russell finished Game 6 on the bench, it’s time to cut bait. Move on quickly from a player who has ups and downs and cannot be relied upon from one game to the next.

For the segment that watched Russell deliver the best passing season of his career as the Timberwolves went 7-10 without him and 39-26 with him, it makes sense to keep him and hope the cohesion solidifies next season with, hopefully, a second straight full season together.

Ideally, the Wolves would sign him to a contract extension this summer, but by no means should they part ways with a player who can get hot at a moment’s notice and who found a way to be effective during the regular season even while playing next to a super young scorer still working on his feel for the game and the best shooting big man in the league.

For all of the angst surrounding the situation, the Wolves, Russell and Towns had real big-picture accomplishments to hang their hats on. The team doubled its win total from a year ago. Towns earned an All-Star berth and was voted third-team All-NBA. Russell averaged a career-best 7.1 assists per game, delivered a monster performance in the Play-In Tournament win over the Clippers and showed more commitment on defense than in any of his previous six seasons in the league.

But Russell’s performances were inconsistent, and his history as a streak shooter was validated with highs and lows throughout the season. There also was a curious absence late in the season against San Antonio when Russell did not come to the arena, and then there were the difficult optics of the Wolves’ max-contract point guard being benched for Jordan McLaughlin over the final five minutes of a must-win game because Russell had a hard time against the Grizzlies’ physicality and couldn’t find his jumper.

How Connelly chooses to handle the Russell situation will determine how dramatic the roster overhaul will be this summer. If Russell is traded, it will signify a major departure from the Rosas plan centered around KAT and D-Lo. If Connelly retains Russell, the Wolves will be relying even more on continuity and internal improvement to build on the success they had last season.

“D-Lo had a wonderful year,” Connelly said at his introductory news conference. “His big-shot-making ability allowed this team to win 46 games, and he’s a guy that can streak-score with the best of ’em. So I don’t know how or what our roster is going to look like on draft night or into free agency, but certainly, this team doesn’t win 46 games without the contributions of them both. And it’ll be fun to get to know both guys.”

Connelly was lured away from Denver for decisions just like this one. As straightforward as some may think it is, this is a complicated issue to work through. Because the most recent image of Russell is one of struggle in a big moment, his value may not be as high across the league right now. But Russell also was good enough last season that the Timberwolves cannot afford to give him away, not if they want to remain competitive in a Western Conference that is only going to get better next season. This is not the same as when Rosas was looking to move Wiggins off of a Timberwolves team that was going nowhere. The Wolves have legitimate hopes that this season was just the beginning, so they have to maximize every spot.

Russell is aware of the discourse. That much was clear even a month ago when he met with the media two days after the Timberwolves season ended. He chose his words with painstaking care, a nod to the nerves still raw from the playoff loss to the Grizzlies and the uncertainty that loomed in the summer ahead.

He connected with Wolves fans in a meaningful way, challenging them to show up and show out, and they responded with volume and force. There is a vocal contingent of Russell fans out there, the D-Lo stans, who back him to the hilt, and when he is playing well and in a groove, he is engaging and magnetic.

It also was a season in which Russell shot 34 percent from 3-point range, the second-lowest of his career, and missed 17 games. In the playoffs, he averaged 12.0 points, 6.7 assists and shot 33 percent from the field.

So as he tried to sift through the ups and the downs of the season, Russell considered the questions as if he were tip-toeing through a minefield. He didn’t want to fully dive into his thoughts on the postseason to avoid a splashy headline that could be misconstrued. He did not want to discuss his contract situation because “it kind of comes back to haunt you a lot of the times.”

His cautious tone spoke to his understanding of how the business of the NBA works. It felt more pragmatic than skeptical. He is on his fourth team in seven seasons. He has experienced dysfunction with the Los Angeles Lakers, disappointment after the Brooklyn Nets essentially chose Kyrie Irving over him and disillusion when the Golden State Warriors traded him to Minnesota seven months after giving him a max contract.

Russell’s contract and his status as a franchise pillar made him a natural candidate to speak for the team about what went right and wrong and what needed to happen to keep the momentum going. But Russell seemed hesitant to act as a team spokesman when asked about the path forward for the Wolves.

“I don’t wanna say the wrong thing on that either, man,” Russell said. “I would just rather not because I think that could go a way I don’t want it to go, as far as me thinking I have the answers to that. So I just think that time. Us working out in the summer, getting that chemistry.”


The chemistry between Karl-Anthony Towns (left) and D’Angelo Russell has been slower to develop than many in Minnesota had hoped. (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

Connelly is the third leader of the front office the Wolves have had since Russell came to Minnesota in 2020. Stability has been hard to come by in Minnesota for almost two decades. At the time Russell spoke, Sachin Gupta was in charge. So Russell’s wariness was somewhat understandable. How could he speak for an organization that still had so many questions to answer about itself?

“As the stability and organization showing that they want you and things like that, that’s what a player wants,” Russell said. “So for me, that was amazing this year, being a part of something like this, where it’s been a while since this organization has been in that position. So like I said, it was just special to be a part of it.”

As Connelly acclimates himself to a new franchise and does his due diligence on the roster he has inherited, logic would dictate Towns and Edwards are the only true untouchables. Connelly can have discussions with Russell about an extension, but it would seem unlikely Russell could command another max contract from the Wolves, even with his strong performance in the regular season. If he isn’t ready to take a salary less than max on an extension, he and the Timberwolves can choose to play out the deal and go into unrestricted free agency next summer.

This is where things work in the Timberwolves’ favor. Russell played well enough last season that the Wolves do not have to move him. As soon as they trade him, they would go looking for a point guard who can move the ball and hit shots from the outside.

And choosing to ride this out could work in their favor in two ways. First, the last time Russell was entering the final season of a contract, he delivered an All-Star season in Brooklyn. He still has something to prove, so entering next season in a contract year could motivate him to put his best foot forward in an attempt to secure a long-term contract either in Minnesota or elsewhere.

It would also give Russell, Towns and Edwards more time to work on their fit together. Another year sharing the court could give them more cohesion, which is particularly important for Russell, who probably had to adapt his game more than Edwards and Towns combined.

“I’ve never really been in that position where I’m going into the game knowing that the teams probably not worried about me as much,” Russell said. “It gives me that lane to kind of look at it from a different perspective and try to attack it from a different way because they’re prepared for this guy, that guy, that hit, that punch.

“So this year they put me in a role of just figuring out how I was gonna attack, attack things out. So that allowed our chemistry to be just a little up and down.”

Second, if Russell were to leave in free agency next summer, that would free up more than $31 million off of the Timberwolves cap sheet. Couple that with Patrick Beverley’s $13 million expiring contract and Malik Beasley’s $16 million team option, and the Wolves could potentially open up enough salary cap room for a max player, whom they could add before Towns’ max extension kicks in for 2023-24 and anticipated big-money extensions for Edwards and Jaden McDaniels take effect.

Minnesota has never been a market that has attracted max-level free agents, but new owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez are trying to change the perception. Even if they cannot lure a free agent with all of that space, it would offer them the flexibility for trade deals to continue building around their core. Heck, the team could use some of that money for Russell if he plays even better next season.

The draft is one day away, but to this point, the Timberwolves have not come close on any trades involving Russell or any other player, sources told The Athletic. The discussions are expected to evolve from theoretical to practical the closer it gets to the draft. The Wolves know they have to get better to stay competitive in the Western Conference. Just how aggressive they are in that pursuit could be apparent by the time the first round is over, and the window for blockbuster trades starts to close.

Russell was asked what has to happen for the Timberwolves to leap from a No. 7-seeded team to one primed to go deeper into the playoffs.

“I don’t know, like as far as what we can do, what would help our team,” he said at the end of May, “because I don’t know what our team is going to look like.”

It won’t be long now until some of the uncertainty surrounding him and the Timberwolves is addressed.

(Top photo of Russell: Nick Wosika / USA Today)

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