By: Dan Slaubaugh
This is the first piece in a series of articles that will look at each individual position on the Minnesota Timberwolves roster heading into the 2016-17 season. Today we feature the point guards which, unlike past years, look to be a position of strength this season.
It took awhile, but it finally looks like the Timberwolves have found a formidable combo at the point guard position.
Depth Chart Breakdown
Starter: Ricky Rubio
From the most casual fans to the diehards, all Wolves fans have an opinion of Rubio. His tenacious defense and incredible court vision are often overlooked by his poor shooting.
This is really just the second time Ricky Rubio has had a supporting cast strong enough for postseason glory. The first was 2013-14 with a roster built around less-attractive names such as Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin.
Nonetheless, my oh my is this team built for Ricky.
"Flip Saunders built an unbelievably talented roster full of efficient wing players in LaVine, Wiggins and Muhammad and an all-around superhuman big man in Towns. There are no better options than Rubio, a pass-first point guard with alien-like court vision and feel for the game, to conduct an offense with all that talent.
Rubio isn’t just a fit with the roster, though. He has all the qualities that newly-hired head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau looks for in a point guard, especially on the defensive end of the floor. The defensive scheme Thibodeau employed during his tenure with the Chicago Bulls attempted to force opponents to one side of the floor -- something Rubio does individually at a very high level all while defending the most important position on the floor." - Drew Mahowald
Rubio's job this season will be like past years -- trying to conduct a youthful but talented offense with great efficiency. The Wolves' young core of LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns have benefited from Rubio's ability to get them the basketball where and when they want the past few seasons. Now it's up to Rubio to take them to the next level.
Offensively, scoring simply isn't Rubio's game. He averaged 10.1 points last year, and not necessarily in efficient fashion (he shot 37.4% from the field and 32.6% from downtown). Despite Rubio’s poor shooting numbers, other measurements show that the Wolves are far better with Rubio on the court – on both the offensive and the defensive ends. In 2015-16, the team’s offensive and defensive ratings improved by 5.9 and 2.3, respectively, because he does everything else – rebounding (5.1 rebounds per 36 minutes), passing (8.7 assists per game to 2.5 turnovers) and defense (2.2 steals per game and terrific instincts) - at an elite level.
With that said, it will be important for Rubio to shoot at a level where his stroke isn't such an obvious liability. Statistically, if Rubio can shoot 40% from the field and above 30% from beyond the arc, it will benefit the rest of the offense by opening up more space for playmaking opportunities. Nonetheless, Rubio has become a model for how to succeed in the NBA at the point guard position despite a shaky jumper.
Backup: Kris Dunn
When newly-minted front office members Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden chose Kris Dunn with the #5 overall pick in this year's NBA Draft, many fans (including myself, admittedly) were disgruntled. The culprit? Fans who have developed an emotional attachment to the often ridiculed Spaniard Ricky Rubio.
Most people wanted the team to use their pick to acquire a perimeter shooter or a big man with serious potential. But Dunn doesn’t look to be a typical backup.
"Gifted with explosive athleticism and an insatiable competitive fire, Dunn is like a defensive-minded, poor man's Russell Westbrook." - Bleacher Report
After averaging 16.4 points, 6.2 assists, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game in his senior season at Providence, Dunn will be on a mission to assert himself as the team's point guard of the future.
At 22 years old, the learning curve for Dunn won't be as steep as most rookies. His excellent size (6'4" with a vulture-like 6'9" wingspan) and his tenaciousness will be an asset Thibodeau can utilize right out of the gate on the defensive end of the floor.
Offensively, Dunn's bulldog mindset and elite physical tools will largely benefit him when attacking the rim. His offensive game as a whole will remind you a lot of Dwyane Wade's in that he'll make up for his mediocre shooting (45% from the field, 37% from 3pt range in 2015-16) by attacking and finishing efficiently at the basket through contact.
And although the point guard position is the toughest to learn/adapt to in the NBA, there's a decent chance he might be spending half of his time at the shooting guard position right away (more on that later).
Dunn's defense puts him in the position to get considerable minutes (18-22) on the court right away. His facilitating and experience will largely benefit the team when conducting the backup unit on the floor. The Wolves were putrid last year when Rubio was on the bench, due in large part to having a reliable backup for him. This year, things look to be different.
If Thibodeau chooses to play Dunn strictly as Rubio's backup right out of the gate, look for the Rubio on/off +/- numbers to look much more appealing to the eye. His presence as a backup should help key a more reputable backup unit, which is a step in the right direction for this team to return to playoff basketball.
3rd String: Tyus Jones
When the Wolves selected Dunn with the 5th overall pick, Tyus Jones was immediately pushed to third on the Wolves' point guard depth chart.
Since then, Jones is on a mission to prove his doubters wrong and carve out a nice role for himself this coming season.
He is coming off an excellent Summer League performance in which he averaged 22.7 points, 7.7 assists, and 1.5 steals over the final six games in Las Vegas, leading Minnesota to the Summer League Finals vs. Chicago.
As we all know, Summer League isn’t elite competition, but there's almost always a first or second round pick on the floor, and Jones was head and shoulders above most of them on his way to Summer League MVP honors
Jones’ 2016 summer league performance doesn’t mean he’s a great player — nothing like that can be proven in Vegas — but it does provide further evidence to what the eye test suggested toward the end of last season — that he’s progressing.
The question is, will Jones' progression translate over to the NBA hardwood against proven NBA guards?
Jones didn't see much floor time the first four months of the 2015-16 season and when playing time opened up he struggled to adapt to (like most young point guards do) to the NBA speed/pace of the game.
But the former Dukie started to figure things out a bit over the final course of the season. This was further evidenced by his performance against the Golden State Warriors where he finished with 7 points, 5 assists, and 0 turnovers in key minutes off the bench.
Here you can see Jones isolated with the ball in his hands on the perimeter. He recognizes the mismatch he has with Marreese Speights and takes advantage of it by beating him off the dribble and finishing beautifully at the rim.
"Detractors mention Jones’ size, defense and athletic ability as weaknesses. While the prototypical point guard size is growing, many competent floor generals are small. Jones is listed at 6-foot-1 — the same height as Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe. Sacramento’s Darren Collison and Dallas’ J.J. Barea are 6 feet, and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas is 5-9." - Pioneer Press
Jones' size might not hinder his ability to run an NBA offense. It's the defensive side of the ball that has everyone worried.
Due to his lack of size and speed, other teams often gameplan to attack Jones. There are much larger, quicker guards than him in the league and coaches are aware of that. During the 2015-16 season, many guards posted up Tyus Jones on the block, knowing that they'd be able to bully him to the rim and finish easily over his small frame.
Jones will need to become an adequate defender if he wants to see minutes this year. Here are steps he needs to take to become one.
The first strength is right there in the title! Depth.
For the first time in years the Wolves will have insurance behind Rubio at the backup point. In the past, if Rubio suffered an injury and was forced to miss time, all hell broke loose. Rubio has been fragile in the past, but he missed only six games during 2015-16 while dealing with minor injuries to his hamstrings and ankles.
There is no evidence to suggest Rubio will get hurt this year, but if he does miss a stint of 10-15 games, the team won't necessarily be at a huge disadvantage like they've been in previous years when he's missed time. The combo of Rubio, Dunn, and Jones is the best the Wolves have had in 5+ years at the point guard position and it will serve well to the team in 2016-17.
The second strength? Playmaking.
Rubio, Dunn, and Jones all have a different way of creating opportunities for themselves and others. They all possess legitimate playmaking ability. Rubio's ability to get someone the ball when and where they need it is significant to the team's success. Dunn's ability to attack the basket, draw fouls, and finish in transition will open up plenty of opportunities and create space in Thibodeau's offense. Jones' ability to hit the perimeter shot will be beneficial to the team's three-point percentage. They all bring a different, unique skill set to the table. Thibodeau's job will be to utilize them as much as possible.
The last strength is DEFENSE. And my goodness am I excited to see what Rubio and Dunn (sorry Tyus) will be able to accomplish on that end of the floor!
Having an elite defensive point guard backing up another elite defender in Rubio probably has Thibodeau more excited than I was when purple horseshoes were added to Lucky Charms. That's a pretty high level of excitement.
The glaring weakness here is perimeter shooting. Rubio can't shoot. Dunn at best is a league-average shooter. Tyus can shoot a little bit, but will receive less minutes than Rubio and Dunn.
Reiterating from before, Rubio shot 37.4% from the field and 32.6% from downtown in 2015-16. This was actually an improvement from 2014-15 where he played just 22 games. No one is expecting Rubio to shoot 37+ % from beyond the arc, but if he can get it above 30% the shot won't be as much of a liability.
The missing piece for Kris Dunn in becoming a complete two-way player is his ability to shoot. He's not terrible. He shot 45% from the field and 37% from behind the arc in his senior season at Providence. But his perimeter shooting in Las Vegas didn't show progression, shooting 17% (1-6) from 3-point range during his brief 2-game stint.
Rubio and Dunn will need to shoot at league-average levels if they want to share the court together for significant minutes, which leads me to my next segment.
This is where it gets tricky.
For now, Ricky's the starter. Dunn is his backup. And Tyus is the 3rd string.
However, we all saw Kris Dunn showcase the ability play off the ball this summer, which makes a compelling case for Rubio and Dunn sharing time together in the backcourt because of Dunn's off-ball abilities and the potential for one of the elite defensive backcourts in the league.
If I had to guess, Thibodeau will test the Rubio-Dunn experiment out during the preseason and see how effective or ineffective it is. The glaring problem for a Rubio-Dunn backcourt is perimeter shooting, which isn't good in a league that's so heavily based around effective perimeter shooting. So yeah, that's a problem. At least one of them will have to shoot at or above a league-average level (35+ %) to make this dream defensive scenario a possibility for Thibs to utilize.
The defensive tenaciousness of Rubio and Dunn combined with their uncanny 6'9" wingspans would give opposing backcourts hell. Arms/hands would be everywhere in passing lanes creating steals/turnovers and extra possessions for the offense that would be an absolute thrill to watch for Wolves fans.
If the pairing works, you could expect Tyus Jones to receive 10+ minutes per game as Rubio's backup as Dunn will shift to part-time off-ball role playing with Rubio.
Here's a layout of what the minute distribution would look like if that scenario worked.
Rubio: 35+ mpg
Dunn: 20+ mpg - 6th man role. Would affect Rush/Bazz's minutes.
Jones: 10-12 mpg, solely playing beside Dunn when Rubio's on the bench.
If the Rubio-Dunn backcourt pairing isn't effective, then that will reduce Tyus' role down to a grain of salt. Rubio would be the starter, and Dunn's sole role would be backup point guard.
Eventually, the Wolves will have to make a decision between Rubio and Dunn. It would be foolish to hand the keys to a rookie at the most difficult position in the league to learn from day one. Even at 22 years old, Dunn is still going to have to adjust to the speed and pace of the NBA game. Historically, teams like the Wolves that are expected to compete for a playoff spot haven’t trusted the point guard position to an inexperienced player. This is where Rubio can help, especially since Dunn appears willing to learn.