By: Zach More
This is the third installation of our 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 small forwards.
Depth Chart Breakdown
Starter: Andrew Wiggins
It seems over the past two years we have gone from "Wiggins is a future MVP" to "Wiggins is a potential all-star" to "Wiggins hasn't established himself like we thought". There is no doubt that Andrew Wiggins is the starting small forward on this team and a darn good one. The question is, how good can he be? Wiggins has the prototypical size for the SF position at 6'8". He can score in bunches (averaged 20.7 ppg in 2015-16) and has the ability to take over games. What we need to see now is the efficiency to increase (FG: 45.9%, FT: 76.1%, 3P: 30%) and for his overall impact on the game to improve. These are both bound to happen this upcoming season with the Wolves finally boasting a consistent starting rotation that can play off each other and feed off Wiggins strengths.
Wiggins the defender
When Wiggins came into the league many believed he could become a lock down defender. Over his first two seasons we have seen some instances of great defense, but way too often just so-so defending from Wiggins. Whether this can be contributed to him playing so many minutes and putting so much energy into the offensive end, lack of positioning or just lack of desire we don't know. If this trend is ever going to turn around it is going to be this year.
Tom Thibodeau has long been known as one of the best defensive minds in the game and he will demand that Wiggins puts in the work to become a good defender. With Thibodeau's knowledge and coaching I expect Wiggins to become the lock-down defender that we all thought he could be. The Wolves need him to be that guy.
I believe that Andrew Wiggins is sitting on a big year. He has no problem taking a back seat to KAT. In fact, he might actually prefer it. He will remind people in a hurry of the all-around talent he is and will be in discussion to be an All-Star this coming season.
Final stat line prediction (per game): 22 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists.
Backup: Shabazz Muhammad
Backing up Andrew Wiggins to start out the season will be Shabazz Muhammad or better known as "Bazz". Shabazz is one of those players that fans tend to love or hate. He has that scorer's mentality that he can score on anyone at anytime. This can be a great trait to have, but also can be his downfall. I believe the first two months of the season will be huge for determining Muhammad's future on this team.
As mentioned above, Bazz can go in stretches where he is impossible to stop. With his bulldog mentality and strong left handed post game, he can be a nightmare when he gets low position on smaller guards.
This however wasn't the case as much this past season as Bazz only averaged 10.5 PPG shooting only 46.5% from the floor. When Bazz isn't hitting from the post he has a hard time scoring as he has not improved his ball handling or three point shooting (28.9%) enough yet for those to become big parts of his game. Bazz did however show that he has good touch on the corner trey. The only problem was the offense in the past was not designed to get these shots, but let's not get into that now.
Shabazz on defense
It wouldn't be right to talk about Bazz without talking about his defensive shortcomings. Bazz has always been known as a below average (nice way of saying bad) defender, as teams tend to go right at him when he is on the floor. Last year with his improved conditioning and foot speed Bazz showed a little improvement in that area of his game throughout the season. If anyone can help Bazz on defense it is Thibodeau. I believe Bazz will put a consistent effort in on the defensive end and if he can show improvements he will gain Thibodeau's trust and therefore playing time.
I do believe we will hear Bazz's name come up constantly in trade rumors. I truly believe this is the year that Bazz will get traded at the deadline. If the Wolves are in contention they will be looking for a true 3 and D guy, Bazz will be appealing to other teams. They know he can score and teams are always looking for scorers.
Final stat line (per game - before traded): 9 points, 3 rebounds, 1.5 assists
Will see minutes: Brandon Rush, Nemanja Bjelica
Besides Wiggins and Muhammad we will see Brandon Rush and even Nemanja Bjelica can some meaningful minutes at SF this season. These two players are similar in they could be dark horses on this Wolves team. Early in camp we will see many different rotations of seeing how these two can fit into rotations and what their skill sets can bring to each. Both of these players have potential to make a big impact from the three-point line and the Wolves will need them to if they want to be a serious playoff contender.
Brandon Rush wasn't the big-name shooter many wanted the Wolves to sign this off-season but he can come in and help this team. Last year on the mighty Warriors team Rush wasn't asked to do much. He only played 14.6 minutes per game. During that time he averaged 4.2 ppg on 3.6 attempts per game and 41.4% from deep. Rush will no longer be an after thought when he is on the court as he will be one of the Wolves top shooters from behind the arc.
The downfall for Rush his whole career has been his injury issues. Last year Rush played a in 72 games which was a nice surprise for the Warriors. In the three years prior, Rush played in: 2, 38 and 33 games respectively. Most of the time his missed games were with major knee injuries occurring. For the Wolves to get the most out of Rush they will have to manage his minutes and not be tempted to play him too much. Keeping him healthy for a full season will be a key factor.
I believe the Rush signing will be looked at as one of the best "small moves" of the past off-season. The Wolves have enough depth to manage his minutes and keep him fresh and healthy. The mere threat of his shooting alone will make him a productive player when on the court. Rush should see the majority of his minutes at SG.
Stat line (per game): 8 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist
I will admit I was one of the biggest Bjelica fans going into last season after watching a lot of his tape from his time for Istanbul. The way he could shoot, dribble and pass I thought his game would translate very well. This however wasn't the case. Bjelica seemed to struggle with his confidence for the majority of the season. During games it often looked like he was overthinking everything, nothing look smoothed. He would pass up open shots to try to make a play and then shoot a contested shot the next possession. This led to a stretch where he played very limited minutes per game. When the season started slipping away and injuries started to mount Bjelica saw his minutes rise again. He was one of the best players the Wolves had down the stretch as you could see some of that flare coming back to his game that he had overseas. Bjelica ended the season with a stat line of 5.1/3.5/1.4
I truly believe that Bjelica is the biggest dark horse on the Wolves roster for the upcoming season. If he can start the year playing like the confident player we saw for stretches last year and use the experience he gained to improve his game the Wolves will have a hard time not giving him minutes.
He has the rare comination of size, playing making ability and outside shooting that could make him a match-up nightmare for the opposition. The Wolves would love to see this from Bjelica as they need all the shooting they can get.
I think Bjelica will still have his moments and the confidence won't always be there. Thibs will play him when the match-ups are right and hopefully he can provide a spark and show something during that time. Bjelica will see time at multiple positions this year, including power forward. His defense and foul trouble will be key factors to how many minutes he gets per game.
Stat line: 7 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists
The small forward unit as a whole will be a strength this season for the Wolves. The Wolves will count on this group on a nightly basis to put up major points.
- Athleticism: This is an extremely athletic group led by Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has shown the past two years that he is as athletic as anyone in the game. He can make amazing dunks look easy with his leaping ability and needs to use that athleticism in more facets of the game.
The bench is not lacking athleticism either as Bazz has improved in that part of the game with his body transformation. As mentioned above Bjelica can do a lot of things other guys his size can't do on a basketball court.
- Scoring: All of these players have been considered a scorer at some point of their career and are all capable of lighting up the scoreboard. If shooting numbers can continue to improve the SF's will be putting up a big % of the Wolves points on a nightly basis.
- Depth: The small forward position will be four deep and all four players have a different skill set which is big in how the NBA has turned into such a match-ups league.
As with any positional group there are some weaknesses that come with the SF's of the Wolves.
- Defense: Other than Wiggins there is no doubt that all of these players lack defensive ability. We all know Bazz has always struggled on that end and Rush hasn't been the same defender since his knee injuries. Bjelica showed last year he struggles to defend without fouling. Player's don't usually become a good defender overnight and this is an area where team defense will have to help cover this deficiency.
- Shooting: The top two players on the depth chart (Wiggins and Bazz) have not shown they can be consistent 3 point threats yet in their young careers. We haven't seen enough of Bjelica to say he is a good shooter and Rush is coming into a new system where he will no longer be an afterthought to the defense when he is on the court. This is an area that we very easily can see improvement in this season but as of now it goes in the weakness category.
This is always a tough prediction as so many different variables can happen. The depth that the Wolves have at this position makes it even harder to predict. Thibs is known for playing his players big minutes and usuing his bench on a match-up type basis which make this even harder to predict. Here is my prediction on how I see the minutes breaking down at the SF position only on a nightly basis. This does not take into consideration the minutes these players will get at other positions.
Wiggins - 28
Muhammad - 10
** All stats are referenced from NBA.com