CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In February 2020, about a month before COVID-19 shut down the NBA season, the Timberwolves swung a trade for D'Angelo Russell. The franchise felt like it was the dawning of a new era.
The Wolves invited the media and had a strong team contingent at the airport hangar where Russell was going to arrive. They held a news conference with Russell and several other trade deadline acquisitions the next day at the City Center, so anyone walking through the skyway on their lunch breaks could have a look at the Wolves' newest players.
But Russell was the showcase. He was the one then-President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas pointed to when he said he wanted THAT point guard to lead them into the future. Russell's arrival meant the departure of Andrew Wiggins and a first-round pick in 2021, and it had all the pomp and circumstance of a team with title aspirations, like it had just found its missing piece.
Last summer, however, Wiggins was the one celebrating in a championship parade while Russell's future with the organization was left hanging in the balance as he entered a contract season.
Wiggins and the 10-10 Warriors, who come to Target Center on Sunday, have had their struggles this season, but championship banners fly forever. The Warriors don't win that title without Wiggins, who provided a lift on both ends of the floor on a team that maximized his skill sets in an ideal situation. It also helped that the Warriors went well into the luxury tax and were able to accommodate Wiggins' max contract so he could be a key supporting player but not the main attraction alongside Stephen Curry.
Wiggins could defend and rebound without having to be a team's top or second scoring option.
Wiggins will also arrive Sunday playing some of the best basketball of his career, statistically speaking. He is averaging 19.1 points per game on a career-best 51% shooting and 44% from three-point range.
Russell started the season slow but has picked it up. In his past six games, he has shot 57% and 37% from three-point range.
"Trying to focus on shot selection," Russell said. "Continue to give coach [Chris Finch] the trust to trust me with the shots I take and make. Hopefully we can continue to develop that trust and encourage it and hopefully he keeps trusting me."
Wiggins helped the Warriors win the title thanks in part to his defense, which was a point of criticism when he was in Minnesota. That has been a knock against Russell his entire career. At least this season, Russell has had some of his best defensive efforts over the last few games.
"His defense has been a notch above where it had been," Finch said before Friday's loss to Charlotte.
Added Russell: "Just got to be a defensive guard to stay on the floor in this league," Russell said. "For me, I'm just continuing to make the job easier for coach to trust me being out there."
Trust is the important word when it comes to Russell. Can the Wolves trust him to play like he has recently the rest of the season? If so, maybe there is a long-term arrangement the Wolves and Russell can work out.
The Warriors asked the same questions about Wiggins, and Wiggins gave them a resounding vote of confidence. Russell was on the bench in Game 6 as the Wolves lost to the Grizzlies.
Wiggins showed up last season when it mattered most, and he signed a four-year, $105 million contract extension to stay in Golden State as a part of its future.
Russell was the point guard of the Wolves' future three seasons ago. But the future has come fast. There's still time for Russell to prove he can be that. Like Wiggins, he'll have to show it when it matters most.