Throughout the Timberwolves' struggles early this season, D'Angelo Russell has been a measure of calm when discussing where the team stands.
Russell was a counterbalance when fellow guard Ricky Rubio spent his media sessions laying bare all that was wrong with the team following a string of blowout losses without Karl-Anthony Towns.
Russell echoed the voices from the front office and coach Ryan Saunders, saying that the Wolves are a young team still trying to find their way in the NBA landscape.
That hasn't changed this week as Russell spoke Tuesday before the Wolves take on Orlando at Target Center on Wednesday.
"I'm always talking about us being young, but it's just real," Russell said. "You're not realizing how close we are when the result is loss-loss-loss. So I think you've got to keep everybody's character and energy right, first, and I think that kind of falls into play when things start going well."
It's hard to see now when things might start going well, as Towns, Rubio and Juancho Hernangomez remain out in the NBA's COVID protocols with no impending return on the horizon for either. The Wolves had a chance to win Monday when Atlanta committed 26 turnovers, but the Hawks still beat them by 11.
There were breakdowns late in the game defensively the Wolves need to eliminate if they want to turn some of these close losses — the Wolves have now lost nine of 10 — into wins.
"Being inexperienced, you've got to live with those mistakes throughout the game," Russell said. "When it's two or three minutes to go down the stretch, we kind of make the same defensive mistakes that we were making in the first quarter. That just piles up, and it's hard to beat good teams in the league, it's hard to beat bad teams in the league when you do that. That's what we're kind of dealing with."
Coach Ryan Saunders said there were glimmers of hope present in the defense — currently 28th in the NBA in efficiency — in those 26 turnovers Atlanta committed. Having Jarred Vanderbilt be more aggressive in defending screens helped the Wolves in that regard Monday.
"There is a pathway to being disruptive defensively," Saunders said. "We were able to do some things with Jarred Vanderbilt that we normally wouldn't do with other bigs in certain situations too that I think he did give us a boost and give us a jolt."
One problem the Wolves had was converting those turnovers into points. They scored 26 points off those 26 turnovers, or one point per possession every time they got a turnover, which is not a good offensive average. For context, the least efficient offense in the NBA, Cleveland, averages around one point per possession in all situations.
Russell said the Wolves have to improve getting the ball to the "right guys" in transition situations.
"We're not rewarding guys for running in transition, including myself, so guys don't trust the run in transition, because they don't feel they're going to get rewarded," Russell said. "So I think we've got to pile up a few plays of rewarding those guys that are working their [butt] off on defense and running in transition."
This is life with a young team. First, the team has to develop a defensive identity to get turnovers on a regular basis. Then it has to convert those into points, which can be a whole other process — and as the Wolves are finding out, not always a smooth one.
"We've just got to keep chipping away at it," Russell said. "And I don't think we should be too low on ourselves right now."