a quick debate with myself about Andrew Wiggins

Glass Half Empty: Andrew Wiggins is off to a pretty terrible start to the season.

Glass Half Full: How so?

Empty: Well, he’s shooting 30 percent from the floor, and averaging just 1.3 assists compared to 3 turnovers. He’s got a PER (7.6) you’d more expect from Adreian Payne, to go along with negative win shares.

Full: Yeah, but there’s only been three games. Small sample size much? Last year, when he played 82, he was the runaway Rookie of the Year. Plus, isn’t he injured?

Empty: Good point. Small sample size, and possible minor injury noted. Still, it’s the WAY that he’s struggling that is sort of discouraging. The types of things I hoped to see from him to take the next step – like shoot less contested two-point shots, more threes, and develop synergy with Ricky Rubio – we have not seen much of. Instead, it’s been a worse-looking version of the 1994 Isolation stuff that they did with him last year, only without such sympathetic defenses facing a tanking Wolves opponent.

Full: That’s a little unfair. Wiggins was going at real defense last year, when he was drawing 10 free throws a game in the last month of the season. Plus, he worked out with that special coach in the offseason and he supposedly improved his handles quite a bit.

Empty: Yeah, I remember reading about that. They edited up some cool highlight videos. But so far his handles look about the same. He has that nice spin move, but still looks shaky off the dribble. He lost the ball twice during crunchtime last night when the Wolves needed points. He needs to spot up for 3 more, and cut to the basket more. Maybe the handles will improve slowly over a few years, but there’s no reason to force it.

Full: What about defense? He locked up Kobe during crunchtime the other night?

Empty: Kobe isn’t good anymore. But you’re right, Wiggins looks like he might become a very good defender. It’ll be more telling to see him guarding Klay Thompson (or even Steph Curry) and the top scorers in the Western Conference. Dwyane Wade is in town on Thursday, so that’ll be a better test.

Full: He’s probably just adjusting to a different role; one that doesn’t involve him as a primary go-to scorer. With his size, athleticism, work ethic and shooting ability, there’s no reason to have doubts that he’ll figure it out. It might not even take very long.


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Blazers 106, WOLVES 101: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Wolves lost by 5 to the Blazers tonight. For a recap of sorts, I’ll do this one Good/Bad/Ugly style which is an inherently more sensible structure following a Timberwolves loss.

The Good: Everything about how the night started.

In the days leading up to tonight’s game the Timberwolves put out the word that fans should try to be in their seats early, and in time for the tribute they planned to remember Flip Saunders. By the time Tom Hanneman grabbed the mic at center court, Target Center was nearly filled to capacity. Hanny said a few words before turning it over to the jumbotron, where they showed a series of touching testimonials from both around the NBA and then within the Wolves organization. There was live music accompanying a bunch of old Flip photos and videos. The whole thing was done spectacularly well; so much so that not only were there few dry eyes in the arena stands, but on the floor as well. Karl-Anthony Towns was seen crying during the tribute, and later admitted that it may have drained some of his energy for the game.

Bravo to everybody involved in putting tonight’s events together. If you missed the FSN telecast and were not in the arena, much of the tribute is available or viewing at timberwolves.com.

Along with the Saunders tribute, the opening to the game falls decidedly in the “good” category. Whether it was due to extra hype, playing for Flip, or just sound execution of a gameplan, the Wolves first unit came out strong against the Blazers. They built an immediate 7-point lead after a couple of quick baskets from Towns. Ricky Rubio made three pull-up jumpers, and the second unit even came in and kept things rolling. The Wolves were up by 17 points late in the first quarter, and maintained a 13-point lead as late as 7:07 to play in the second.

From that point on, things just didn’t go their way.

The Bad: Coach Mitchell’s Rotations

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The Punch-Drunk Podcast, Ep. 12: A New Day

In which we discuss Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio, and early impressions on the 2015-16 Wolves season.

(Eds. Note: We taped this yesterday. As usual, we had some technical difficulties during this one. ymmv.)

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Talking Towns, Rubio, Wiggins

“I’ve had thirty years of NBA experience. I’ve seen guys come and go. This guy, to me, looks like he’s special. He’s the real deal.”

–Jim Petersen, on Karl-Anthony Towns, during the 3rd Quarter of last night’s telecast.

In previewing this Wolves season, I posed questions about each player, and finished with perhaps the most important franchise question about the most important player on the team:

Is Karl-Anthony Towns the real deal?

He was the player they selected with the first overall draft pick, for the first time ever. With a semblance of a young Timberwolves nucleus forming, Towns figures to be in the middle of it, next to Andrew Wiggins. If the Wolves are going to succeed in their Thunder Model rebuild, Towns needs to be an all-around force; the kind of player that can put a team on his back and carry them to some wins.

For the first time in his two-games-long career, we saw evidence of this last night in Denver. The stats tell most of the story: KAT had 28 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 blocks in 33 minutes of +15 basketball. His team won easily (in a game that Vegas pegged them as underdogs) and he was by far the biggest reason why. Towns looked comfortable shooting or driving, as the situation required. When an interior defender was out of position, Towns initiated the precise amount of contact to both draw the foul and maintain balance to finish the play and make the shot. His awareness might have been highlighted best by a play that didn’t register a stat: in the post, he head-faked, drew extra defenders, pivoted out of the defense and kicked out a perfect pass to Ricky Rubio at the top of the key. Ricky’s shot rimmed out — so no assist for Towns — but it was a helluva play; one that demonstrated poise and awareness befitting a player way older than 19.

On defense, Towns was very good. He had those 4 blocks and 14 rebounds (11 of them defensive) and goes after defensive boards with the same type of urgency that Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love do. When Towns senses an opponent’s hand creeping in to poke the rebounded ball away, he promptly flares out his elbows and looks for Ricky Rubio to push the ball.

This was just one game, but it seemed almost unbelievable that a 19-year old rookie could look so good in his second professional game. Fans should be excited about this player.

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Wolves Hold Off Lakers, Win for Flip: (Wolves 112, LAKERS 111)

The Wolves win over the Lakers was an exciting and gratifying one for a few different reasons. It came by just one point, as Lou Williams’ shot narrowly missed at the buzzer. The Wolves trailed by double figures for much of the night, including by 15 points midway through the third quarter, and rallied for a big comeback in the fourth. Ricky Rubio had one of his best career games, scoring a career-high 28 points and dropping 14 assists next to just 1 turnover. He was clearly the game’s most valuable player and showed off a skillset that would elevate him to the bona fide stardom that many of us think is within his realistic potential.

But, of course, this win was most gratifying because of the circumstances under which it came. Flip Saunders was on everybody’s mind in the days leading up to this game, right up through the pregame routine when the Lakers wore shirts that said “FLIP” on the front, and held a long moment of silence for his memory. After the buzzer sounded, Rubio and Kevin Garnett were emotional, each pointing to the sky for an obvious reason.

Beating this Lakers team is not a big accomplishment in and of itself. Neither of the teams playing tonight will realistically contend for the playoffs in the West. But after arguably the toughest week in the history of the franchise, it felt appropriate to get this win, and that’s what the Wolves did.

Since it’s (very) late, these are a few quick reactions of mine to this game: Continue reading

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Timberwolves 2015-16 Season Preview: A Question for Every Player (Part II)

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 19:  Karl-Anthony Towns #12 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts against the Hampton Pirates during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the KFC YUM! Center on March 19, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

[Eds note: I decided to preview this Wolves season by going player-by-player, posing one question for each. See Part I here. This is Part II, spanning from Andrew Wiggins as the last wing player through the entire front court.]

Andrew Wiggins

  • How many threes will Wiggins shoot this year?

This seems like a boring question to ask about the Timberwolves’ most important player; one who at this point seems best positioned to become their next franchise cornerstone. A reason for Wiggins having a boring, statistical-detail question asked about him is that he went a long way in answering the bigger, broader question about him last year. The one about whether he could be an alpha dog, go-to guy. Did he have the proverbial killer instinct?

In case you missed the answer to that question, let’s ask Rudy Gobert:

That epic flush was just one of many aggressive highlights that Wiggins made last season. Particularly in the final couple months, he was becoming more assertive as a first-option scorer. He had a lot of success both finishing in the paint and drawing fouls to score from the free-throw line. He won the Rookie of the Year easily. In the final month of the season, he had per-game averages of 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists. His ability to draw fouls was improving steadily from January through the end of the season, at which time Wiggins was shooting over 10 free throws per game in April.

That brings us to this year, and how he can improve. Wiggins can improve by learning ways to score without expending so much physical energy and putting his body through so much abuse. That will help him save energy to be the defensive stopper the Wolves hope he will eventually become. Wiggins can also improve by scoring more efficiently. One concern is that, despite his foul-drawing prowess, Wiggins is not a particularly efficient scorer yet. He shoots too many contested two-point jump shots.

The way for him to both ease his physical workload, and score more efficiently is to shoot more standing three-point shots; the type that both Rubio and Nemanja Bjelica will be able to set up for him this year, if he positions himself properly behind the line, with his hands ready. Andrew Wiggins shot only 1.5 three pointers per 36 minutes last year. I think a good reference point for Wiggins to compare himself to is Kevin Durant – in terms of what an ideal offensive career looks like for a rangy, athletic wing. KD has a career average of 4.2 threes per 36, but has shot a few more than that in recent seasons. Wiggins should aim to triple the frequency of his triples, starting as soon as possible.

By pulling defenders out to the three line in aggressive close-outs, Wiggins will only open up more opportunities for drives and huge slams like the one he put on Rudy Gobert. Extending his range and improving his scoring efficiency is a winning idea, all around.

My guess: He will shoot 2 to 3 threes per 36, this year. Not as many as we’d like, but an improvement.


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Timberwolves 2015-16 Season Preview: A Question for Every Player (Part I)


Will Zach LaVine eliminate any of his weaknesses in his second season?

The Timberwolves regular, real season begins on Wednesday night at the Staples Center. They play against the Lakers at 9:30 CST on ESPN. On Friday, they play at Denver; a game that will be broadcast on Fox Sports North Plus. Then, on Monday, they play against the Portland Trail Blazers. This will be their home opener and will undoubtedly feature an emotional tribute to the team’s recently fallen leader, Flip Saunders.

Flip’s passing is going to weigh heavily on this team for a while, but the games will be played. The show will go on. I am qualified on neither a personal-relationship basis, or a simple “writing chops” basis to dig deep into the happy story of Flip’s life or the sad story of his death. The best I can offer on this tragedy are some words about what Flip accomplished in rebuilding this Timberwolves team, setting it in such a positive direction. I did that yesterday afternoon when the news broke and I could not focus on basketball. This is my awkward way of saying that I am going to move on, as far as this blog is concerned, and write about basketball again. As many have written in the past 24 hours, Flip understood better than most that “at the end of the day,” basketball is supposed to be fun. That is how I view it, and to me, it is fun that the Timberwolves are about to begin another season, and that is what I wanted to write about tonight.

For this piece, which I guess is ostensibly a “season preview,” I thought it would be fun to break down the Wolves roster by positions, and pose what I find to be important questions facing each player in the season ahead. Some of these will involve stats, some will involve style of play, and some will be a bit more big-picture or random. I’ll offer some quick guesses at my own questions, and open it up to commenters to weigh in on where they agree or disagree.

I’ll go through the positions in (what I believe to be) reverse order of importance to the Wolves future, for DRAMATIC EFFECT.

Without further ado…

[Eds note: This post is running longer than I anticipated, so this will be Part I, and I’ll publish a Part II either tomorrow or Wednesday that covers Wiggins and then the big men.]


Andre Miller

  • How many minutes per game will appease “Professor Miller?”

When this season opens, and as long as Ricky Rubio is healthy (knocks on all of the wood) Andre Miller will be this team’s backup point guard. I think it seems reasonable to assume that a healthy Rubio will average about 35 minutes per contest. Given that neither he nor Miller are very good shooters, they will probably not share the floor much. This means that there might only be about 13 minutes per game for Miller – and that is if they play rookie Tyus Jones ZERO, and they play Zach LaVine exclusively off the ball. If the plans to prioritize development are sincere, Jones will probably see a few spot minutes here and there, and LaVine will probably play some point, too. (The part about Jones is especially likely, given the Wolves lack of a D-League affiliate where he might otherwise have spent most of the year.) Miller is going to turn 40 years old (!) in March, so his expectations for playing time might be realistically low. But consider that he finished last year in Sacramento, playing for his favorite coach George Karl, and was logging over 20 minutes per game.

My guess: Miller will be okay sitting some games out completely — with some communications and “heads up” from the coaches — but will expect some floor time, too. I think he will probably average 12 minutes per game and be happy enough with that.

Tyus Jones

  • Does Tyus have any interesting upside, and will we see any teases of it this year?

Tyus Jones was possibly the most acclaimed prep basketball star in Minnesota history. He was widely considered one of the very best prospects in his national class throughout his entire high school career, eventually made the McDonald’s All America Team, and chose to attend Duke, instead of, well, every other basketball powerhouse. In his lone season in Durham, he earned third team All ACC honors, led the Blue Devils to a national championship and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

If that was all that you knew about him, you would probably imagine someone who looks a lot different than Jones does. From McDonald’s games past, you might imagine somebody who looks like Jonathan Bender or Kobe Bryant or, locally, Kris Humphries. Somebody big, strong and super athletic.

But Jones is none of those things. He is only 6’1″ and very skinny. He plays with a nice pace, but is not particularly explosive. He has a lot of physical development ahead of him, if he is going to make an impact at the NBA level the way that he did in high school and college.

What I am curious to see is if there are early signs — this season — of upside that exceeds “quality backup point guard.” I notice people putting this type of ceiling on Jones’s potential, before he plays a single game. Given that Jones has been much, much better than his peers through this point in his life, and he has won championships at every level, through this point in his life, I suspect he imagines an NBA career that involves him making an impact on games; a career better than just backup duty. As a point guard, I suspect Jones envisions himself running a high-power offense — like he did at Duke — with not only smart decisions and crisp passes, but clever plays, too. Once the speed of the NBA game slows sufficiently down for him, and his body matures, can he do some of the things that Chris Paul does to clear so much space for himself around the elbows, shrugging off defenders with hand-check-deterring flops, and just generally make a positive impact on team performance?

My guess: He is one year away from showing us much to be excited about, but he may have a bright future and long career ahead of him.

Ricky Rubio

  • Will Ricky Rubio run the Wolves offense, or will it be run from the bench?

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