The Timberwolves lured a sellout crowd to Target Center on Saturday night to see a guy who has never played for the Wolves not play for the Wolves.
The introduction of D’Angelo Russell was limited to a short video and a short speech at center court, with Russell pumping up the crowd, then taking a seat.
In the strange history of a dysfunctional franchise, this ranked as one of its oddest nights. Russell led cheers as the Wolves blew out the Los Angeles Clippers 142-115 while making 26 three-pointers, one off the NBA record.
“It makes you positive about what could be to come,” coach Ryan Saunders said.
The Wolves looked energized more by the guy they traded, Andrew Wiggins, than the guy they traded for, but the guy they traded for remains the most mysterious and important part of the deal.
The Wolves’ new regime immediately identified Russell as the player they wanted last spring, gave him a helicopter ride and a sales pitch to land him last summer, lost him, traded away a seemingly untradeable player to finally land him, and feted him at an improbably celebratory gathering in downtown Minneapolis.
Saturday, Russell sat because of a quad contusion, delaying for at least a few days the process of answering the biggest question facing them now:
Just how good is Russell?
He’s a gifted scorer and passer. He can run the pick-and-roll, which could create new options for his most important teammate, Karl-Anthony Towns.
He is close with Towns, and relationships matter in a league where the stars can orchestrate player movement as effectively as general managers, and he fills a position at which the Wolves have spent their entire franchise history searching for long-term solutions.
Russell fits, but the Wolves aren’t looking for a fit. They’re looking for a fixture. Russell, to date, has been anything but.
He is 23 and is on his fourth NBA team. He was just traded by the Golden State Warriors, who previously had proven to be the best judges of talent in the NBA. He has yet to win a playoff series but will be asked to alter the fortunes of one of the worst-performing pro sports franchises of the past 15 years, and a team that entered Saturday night’s game with a 13-game losing streak.
He is a poor perimeter defender who will pair with Towns, a lousy post defender. The Wolves need him to be D’Angelo, not ’Angelo.
Asked about the importance of having two-way players, Clippers coach Doc Rivers said: “Unless you’re in football, where you can be a one-way player. In basketball, it absolutely helps. You can have a couple of one-way guys. On most teams, everybody has one or two, either a defensive guy or offensive guy, but you can’t have many.
“Especially in the playoffs. You can get away with it more in the regular season. But in the playoffs, if you’re all offense and zero defense they tend to find you quickly when you’re on the other team, for sure. If your best players want to play both ends and value both ends of the floor and rebounding, it surely helps.”
The Wolves were right to trade Wiggins. They made a good deal under the circumstances. Wiggins is not a winning NBA player and if he becomes one, that doesn’t mean he would have in Minnesota.
Now they need Russell to differentiate himself from Wiggins.
NBA analysts I spoke with before and after the trade offered the same view of Russell: He’s good. But he’s not that good. He’s a talent but not a superstar. He’s a quality halfcourt offensive player on a team that promises to play fast. He’s a bad defender on a team that goes months without making an important stop.
Before the game, the Wolves began introducing all of their new players. Time passed. Then they introduced Russell, who walked to midcourt and grabbed the microphone.
He’ll be heard from soon enough.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org