A Turn Toward Player Development (Rockets 113, WOLVES 101)

The downside to the Ricky Rubio ankle sprain injury is as obvious as it is significant:

Instead of playing competitive basketball that is fun to watch, the Wolves would instead struggle to win and sometimes look really bad when nobody can create any offense. That was certainly the case in the second half at Orlando — the first Rubio-less action of the season — when the Wolves lost to one of the league’s very worst teams. It held true the following night in Miami, when they fell behind 29-13 after one quarter. Despite a gritty effort that cut the Heat lead to 4, the talent disparity won out in the end. The Wolves lost by 10 to D-Wade and Bosh.

And last night, facing the Houston Rockets in Mexico City, the Wolves were again outclassed. The Rockets probably have both the best shooting guard and the best center in the NBA. The Wolves don’t have a single player who is currently in the top five at his position in the league. Kevin McHale rode his superstars hard in last night’s game — James Harden played 40 minutes and Dwight Howard played 33 — and they did not let him down. D12 was a beast for every second he was on the floor. If he wasn’t posting up to score, he was tipping in a teammate’s miss. On defense, he was patrolling the lane and swatting anything in sight.

Just ask Andrew Wiggins:

Harden was not as consistently great as Howard last night, thanks in large part to the defense played by Wiggins. Kudos to Flip Saunders for capitalizing on the opportunity to challenge his prize rookie with a top-notch matchup. It was reported before the game that Wiggins would guard Harden and that he would not get much help. The 19-year old rookie was up to the challenge all night, consistently refraining from fouling Harden — the number one priority in defending the league’s most frequent free throw shooter — and instead using his length and athleticism to invite inefficient shots. Mostly two-point jumpers off the dribble, with a hand in his face.

But Harden had a little bit of success against Wiggins — he is the best off-guard in the league, after all — and was totally destructive any time he faced a different defender. He finished the night with 23 points (on 23 shots) and 10 assists. In the fourth quarter, Harden got in more of a groove, especially with his passing. He began slinging bounce passes through defenders — one time literally through the spread legs of Gorgui Dieng — to Howard for easy buckets. He was great, and the Wolves had no realistic chance of winning last night’s game, given the presence and performance of Harden and Howard. This might have been true even if Rubio was playing.

So the Rockets were great and the Wolves struggled to keep up. The lead was 17 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and reached 21 at different times. Some late-game energy from Corey Brewer and a couple threes from Robbie Hummel trimmed it down to a final margin of 12.

But despite the fact that Ricky’s injury sucks and the Wolves are going to lose a lot over the course of the next few weeks, there may be a silver lining. The whole thing about this season is that it could go a number of different directions. Flip could ride the veterans hard and gun for an 8 seed. (He almost certainly wouldn’t win the requisite 47+ games, but good luck convincing him of that if the team was playing .500 ball into February.) Or, alternatively, he could invest more into the future. That means playing more Wiggins and maybe even playing more Zach LaVine, the raw and untested rookie guard from UCLA.

Rubio’s injury might have made that decision for Saunders.

It directly opened up an opportunity for LaVine at point guard, and big props to Flip for recognizing this. Instead of overplaying Mo Williams — who, with more sample size, is proving to be more of an inconsistent offensive player and incapable defender than we saw in preseason — Saunders is starting LaVine. Last night, he played the rookie 34 minutes. For some perspective, LaVine only played that much once in his lone college season.

Much to my surprise, he did okay. I have not been alone in thinking that LaVine would be a quintessential “project” and take years to resemble an NBA guard. Despite his elite athleticism and rangy body, the 19-year old rookie had a “deer in headlights” look about him when I watched in preseason action. And this was coming off a college career that was only one season long, in which he was not even a starter on his team. So yeah. I thought he would look terrible if Flip ever put him out there.

That was not the case last night. LaVine had 8 points on 2-9 shooting, which is far from great. But, as point guard, he also had 9 assists compared to just 3 turnovers. That’s very good. I keep hearing that he has a scorer’s mentality and that the transition for him is to develop point guard instincts. Maybe that’s true, but one pretty effective NBA point guard play is to blow by a defender and either look to score or dish off to a big man when the help defense arrives. LaVine did the latter a couple of times last night, and that’s precisely what the Wolves need in Rubio’s absence: some playmaking. LaVine also shows significant promise on the defensive end of the floor. Much like his buddy Wiggins, his feet move really well, side to side. He works hard, too. With his length, athleticism, and intensity, the upside is there for LaVine to be a plus NBA defensive guard. That is going to take some time, but it’s nice to see *some* immediate ability and flashes of what makes him a special prospect.

Wiggins was the other Wolf that played over 30 minutes; 32 to be exact. He battled a little bit of foul trouble, probably owing to the effort exerted on Harden. But Wiggins led the Wolves in scoring with 15 points. He still resorts to that dribble step-back jumper too often, but at least he makes it sometimes. In the game highlight featured atop this post, Wiggins squared up Harden, blew past him with an impossible first step, and jammed.

More of that, please.

We’re going to micro-analyze Wiggins and dissect the nuances of his game, so here’s one little problem I see in how he’s playing right now: When he has the ball on the wing, he doesn’t get into much of a threatening position. He is pretty vertical, often with the ball too high and his elbows up. Instead of the proverbial “triple threat,” he only threatens to make a non-bounce pass into the post man, or rise up for a jumper. I’d like to see him get the ball lower, like Joe Dumars in the photo below, so that he can credibly threaten to drive:

Michael-Jordan-Defense-300x200Rubio is not going to be out for the entire season or even a majority of it. He might only miss 10 games. But the Wolves will likely lose almost all of them, and the playoff dream will be all but dead. This puts a fork in the road for Saunders, and the early signs suggest that he’s taken the turn toward player development. And that’s a good thing.

A few bullets:

* Shabazz continues to play ridiculously hard, and collect buckets in a variety of ways. Now he needs to learn how to shoot free throws. The scoring forward is shooting 44 percent from the stripe this year. He shot just 65 percent, last year. Perhaps Mike Penberthy can take a 15-minute break from Rubio training to teach Bazz some better fundamentals on his free throw stroke. It doesn’t look good, and it almost never goes in twice in a row.

* Thaddeus Young struggled last night. He had 6 points (2-10 shooting) and 3 rebounds in 27 minutes. If he doesn’t play well when Rubio’s out, the Wolves *really* have no chance. I’m still trying to get a good read on Thad’s game. I never watched Philly when he was there. He takes very difficult shots, but makes a surprising number of them. He plays very hard. He’s a little bit undersized for his power forward position. With his likely free agency next year, the Wolves and the rest of the league are watching him and taking notes. He’s been good more than he’s been bad, so far.

* Gorgui only played 14 minutes last night and he’s averaging just 18 per game, this season. The Wolves have too many guys, and I get that, and I also want to see Anthony Bennett getting all of the backup power forward minutes (when he’s fully healthy; he came back in limited duty for 9 minutes, last night). But Gorgui’s better than an 18-minutes player on a bad team. His offensive game continues to expand, what with jump hooks with either hand, and a pretty little bank shot out of the post. His help defense is very good. He needs to (continue to) learn man-to-man post defense, and I hope Flip does with him what he’s doing with LaVine and Wiggins: give him some reps.

That’s it for now. Wolves play at New Orleans tomorrow night. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of Anthony Davis so far this season, but people are saying that he’s made “the leap” that everybody anticipated. SportsCenter highlights this morning showed him blocking every Laker shot in sight. So we’ll see how that goes for the Wolves.

Until then.

Season Record: 2-5


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