Forgive me for putting a temporary freeze on the game wraps. In the absence of Rubio, Martin and Pekovic, the games have not been very meaningful as competitions. For the time being, I’d rather focus on emerging themes and trends than the win/loss column.
But the silver lining to the recent struggle has been the way Flip has decided to just give Andrew Wiggins the ball and let him go to work. In the season’s opening games, Wiggins was consistently nervous-looking in the first half, before opening up his scoring arsenal in the third quarter. We could see the talent, but would have to wait for the results. Rubio, Martin and the vets would be the primary playmakers.
Wiggins played 39 minutes last night against the Bucks. In the game before that he played 41 minutes and in the game before that he played 33 minutes. After starting the season as a third or fourth option (he didn’t score double figures until his fourth game) Wiggins is now the unequivocal first option. Last night, he scored 14 points on 14 shots, along with career highs of 8 rebounds and 4 assists. From the opening tip, he was the focal point of the offense.
He had a career-high 29 in the previous game against the Kings, and he had 14 in the game before that against the Spurs. Flip has Wiggins posting up, and using a variety of moves to score: step-back jumpers, rip-through/blow-by drives to his right, and turnaround jumpers seem to be his most common weapons of choice. In this infant stage of his career, I’m seeing an offensive upside that — if you squint a little bit — looks kinda like Carmelo Anthony.
In case you missed it, Wiggins is not the only other Recent Number One Overall Pick on this Timberwolves team. Come to think of it, he isn’t even the only one of those who was born and raised in Canada. Wiggins’ teammate and fellow traveler in the Kevin Love trade, Anthony Bennett, is also learning on the job for the Wolves.
Only Bennett is being handled very differently than Wiggins is.
First, he’s not playing as much. With Thaddeus Young back in the lineup last night, Bennett played 21 minutes last night; barely half what Wiggins played. Second, and more importantly, he is not nearly as involved in the offense. Whereas Wiggins is being used as a first option and playmaker, Bennett’s role is simpler and more limited. He stands around the top of the key, doing one of three things:
- Set a ball screen;
- Catch a pass and quickly look to a wing for a dribble hand-off exchange; or
- Catch and shoot.
One statistical illustration of how Wiggins and Bennett are playing different roles is in their “shots dashboard” on NBA.com, which shows how many dribbles they take before they shoot the ball. To date, Wiggins takes only 38.5 percent of field goal attempts without a dribble. Bennett shoots right off the catch on 74.4 percent of his attempts. Wiggins is dribbling because he’s a primary option and tasked with making a play. Bennett doesn’t dribble because he’s floating and waiting for a pass while somebody else does the heavy lifting.
Flip is demanding a lot more of Wiggins.
The more limited role for Bennett makes sense. Last year, he experienced a disastrous rookie season. On a dysfunctional Cavaliers team, Bennett arrived out of shape, suffering from various ailments, and played terribly. He was quickly written off as a bust. Now in Minnesota, with a fresh start, it makes sense to simplify his game, focus on the things that he can do (read: bury 20 footers at the top of the key like they’re layups), and restore his confidence before looking to develop his game in more advanced ways.
It’s still early, and all of this might change multiple times over the course of this long season. But I think this difference in treatment, between two awesomely talented young players, is important and worth paying attention to. By feeding Wiggins the ball and demanding that he expand his game, the Wolves are doing two things:
- Investing in his development, with an expectation that they will benefit from it in the future; and
- Increasing the likelihood that he develops how they want him to.
With Bennett, they are kinda sorta doing the opposite. I was talking Wolves with some friends after last night’s game and my friend Brian made what seemed like a good question, in regards to the new focus of posting up Wiggins for those square-up attack moves:
“Why don’t they ever do that with Bennett?”
It’s a good question because Bennett seems like he might be at least as good as Wiggins at that sort of play. He’s showing off a beautiful square-up jumper, and has all sorts of strength and agility to be a powerful finisher off the dribble. Over time, when his post-Cleveland psyche is fully repaired and his confidence is restored, it would be wise for Flip to devote some offensive-attention resources to Bennett, like he’s doing now with Wiggins.
The great Dr. Lawyer Indian Chief captured the right sentiment during last night’s game:
True that. It’s great to see Bennett knocking down jumpers, but it will be even better to see the Timberwolves reciprocate with some investment; maybe even treat him like a top overall draft pick, and a player who a lot should be expected from.
Something to watch and think about as the season progresses.