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The Hope for the Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves finished the 2014-2015 season with the worst record in the NBA, thanks to a horrible tanking effort from the New York Knicks. On the surface, things aren’t good in Minnesota. It seems like not long ago the Wolves were building around the core of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic. Flash forward and the Wolves heisted Andrew Wiggins from Cleveland for Love, drafted Zach LaVine and continue to develop Gorgui Dieng.

Flip Saunders owns basketball in Minnesota. After being named the President of Basketball Operations, he hired himself as head coach. As Bill Simmons mentioned during a Grantland Basketball Hour, he may be a pretty good executive. He sat on Love until he got exactly what he wanted in return. As a result, Minnesota has a core and a high draft pick to climb its way out of the basement.

Andrew Wiggins

The first player to examine when discussing Minnesota is easily Wiggins, a virtual lock for Rookie of the Year, (Sorry, Nikola Mirotic and Nerlens Noel.) Wiggins remained pretty constant all season before finishing the year with averages of 16.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists, and he posted a respectable 44/31/76 shooting line. While Wiggins put up good numbers for a rookie, he also came into the league with the potential to be a great defender.

According to SportVU, he allowed shooters to shoot higher than their usual field goal percentage against him, but that’s not representative of Wiggins’s talent. He was often forced to guard the best opposing offensive player with little to no help around him.

Later in the season, after injuries ravaged the Wolves, Wiggins could be found posting up his defender, and his development was obvious as a pseudo-post player. Here, the defense is allowed to clog the lane on Wiggins hard, but he draws the foul out of the post (via YouTube):

Wiggins has also shown nice vision out of the post. Here he shows off that vision to find the cutter to the hoop while posting near the elbow:

And here he is passing out of a double-team, leading to an open three for LaVine (via YouTube):

Wiggins’s assist numbers grew by the month before reaching four per game in April. (Small sample size alert!) He didn’t have a lot of help around him, but eventually he will and those double teams are going to become less frequent. The good news is that he’s developing the skills early to find himself passing out of the double rather than hoisting up bad shots.

His on court/off court splits are somewhat interesting given his reputation, although they back up those individual defensive numbers mentioned earlier. Offensively, it should be no surprise that Minnesota was better when Wiggins was on the court. According to NBA.com, Minnesota posted a 100.2 offensive rating with Wiggins on the court, compared to the 98.8 posted when he was sitting. Meanwhile, the Wolves had a defensive rating of 110.3 with the rookie on the court, compared to 107.6 when he was on the pine. Of course, there were a ton of other factors coming into play on this awful team, and I expect the defensive numbers to stabilize in his favor over the course of his career.

The future for Wiggins is bright, especially if Minnesota can convert its high draft pick into an effective player.

Zach LaVine

Brace yourself, because this may be a pretty lofty comparison for LaVine: I see him as having the potential to be a poor man’s Russell Westbrook. At this stage in his career, it’s too early to formulate a real argument that he’s a poor man’s Russ. He can be, though, because there are real similarities between the two.

First, both are hyperathletic, hyperenergetic players. LaVine played some minutes at point guard, due largely to injuries. He doesn’t see the court like Westbrook does now, and I don’t expect LaVine to play point guard for the duration of his career; it’s just not him. Both are 2-guards stuck in a point-guard body, although as mentioned, Westbrook has improved his point-guard skills.

Here’s LaVine’s rookie season:

2014-15 24.7 3.7 8.8 .422 0.7 2.2 .341 3.0 6.6 .449 .465 1.9 2.3 .842 0.4 2.4 2.8 3.6 0.7 2.5 10.1
Career 24.7 3.7 8.8 .422 0.7 2.2 .341 3.0 6.6 .449 .465 1.9 2.3 .842 0.4 2.4 2.8 3.6 0.7 2.5 10.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/29/2015.

Similarly, here is Russ’s rookie year:

2008-09 82 65 32.5 5.3 13.4 .398 0.4 1.6 .271 4.9 11.8 .415 .414 4.3 5.2 .815 2.2 2.7 4.9 5.3 1.3 3.3 15.3
Career 507 490 34.0 7.4 17.2 .432 0.8 2.6 .304 6.6 14.5 .455 .455 5.5 6.7 .819 1.6 3.6 5.2 7.1 1.7 3.6 21.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/29/2015.

LaVine shot better his rookie year than Russ did his rookie year. As you’d expect, Russ got to the line considerably more and rebounded better, a skill which he continues to improve as he’s one of the best rebounding guards in the league.

With Russ, his shooting was really criticized until roughly the last year and a half. (And it’s still criticized at times now.) LaVine has a better touch, but is nowhere near the passer Russ has become.

When LaVine went off against the Warriors near the end of the season, he did some Westbrookian things. Stop me if you have seen this before, Thunder fans. The transition jumper at the top of the key, a Westbrook specialty:

The All-Star break provided a tale of two LaVine’s. He got more minutes after the break and took advantage of his increased playing time.

Before the break, he shot 7.1 field goals per game. After the break, he increased his field goals to 11.5 per game and increased his percentage from 41.4 to 43.1. Not a huge jump, but he was taking four more shots per game, so the increase carries weight.

Similarly, he shot two more threes per game after the break. While shooting more threes, he also raised his three-point percentage a full 10 percent. After the break, he shot 38 percent from downtown, compared to 28.4 percent before the break. He also added almost two more rebounds and a full assist per game.

Saunders saw LaVine’s development and adjusted the offense to fit the rookie’s growth. LaVine saw his usage rate go from 20.1 to 25.1 after the All-Star break.

The Rest

Minnesota’s two building blocks are clear: Wiggins and LaVine. Rubio is also a main part of the core if he can stay healthy. The Wolves got Anthony Bennett from Cleveland as well in the Wiggins trade, and Bennett could still turn into something useful, but he’s not good enough to draft with the idea that he’s a staple of the team. Dieng has shown flashes of being a rim protector and more than a black hole on offense, but consistency is a concern. Kevin Martin is too old to be considered anything more than a role player. Chase Budinger gave Minnesota a little life at the end of the season after dealing with injuries, and Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Budinger has decided to exercise his player option for next season.

Pekovic is an interesting player for Minnesota. He’s 29 years old, doesn’t protect the rim and gets hurt all the time, but he gives Minnesota a big body who can throw up 12.5 points and 7.5 boards per game. He’s locked through 2018 at $12 million per year. When the cap goes up, that’s not a terrible contract.

The big win for Minnesota is a guaranteed top four pick in the draft. ESPN’s Chad Ford has them ranking big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor at the top of their draft wish list in his latest chat.

Minnesota probably isn’t going to compete for the playoffs next season, but they’ve started the post-Love rebuild on the right foot, even if this year wasn’t very good on the court.

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