Andy G and Patrick J: As the NBA Playoffs begin, we’re going to continue recapping the season that was for the Timberwolves. We’re breaking this down into general positions, with a focus on who is still on the roster — as opposed to the slew of players who were traded mid-season, like Corey Brewer and Thaddeus Young. In case you missed Part I on the guards, be sure to check that out.
Today, we’re talking forwards. Basically, there’s a lot of hope at the three and a lot of uncertainty at the four. Read on below the fold for our takes.
Muhammad & Wiggins: The Core of the Team
Andy G: The Wolves forward situation is clearly divided into two groups, and the first one is entire team’s bright spot: the combination of second-year swingman Shabazz Muhammad, and presumptive Rookie of the Year winner, Andrew Wiggins.
Early in December, when the Wolves were really struggling without Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, and Nikola Pekovic, I wrote a post dedicated to Shabazz, and the idea that he was — at that time — the team’s best player. I also called for Flip to play Shabazz more minutes. At that point in time, despite his consistently productive play, he was only logging 17.3 minutes per game.
That changed as Flip–however slowly–adapted to what was happening in front of him, during games. During the month of December, Shabazz posted the following per-game stats, in 28.7 minutes, team ranks (excluding very-limited-minutes players) in parentheses:
- 18.1 points (1)
- 49.5% field goal percentage (2)
- 48.0% three-point percentage (1)
- 4.7 free throw attempts (2)
- 5.3 rebounds (2)
- 1.5 assists (7)
- 0.9 turnovers (7)
- -10.5 net rating (3) (behind Corey Brewer and Robbie Hummel, ahead of the team’s best veterans like Mo Williams and Thaddeus Young, and much better than Andrew Wiggins.)
Muhammad proved that he not only belongs in the NBA (a subject of some dispute among Wolves and NBA prognosticators at the time he was drafted) but that he has the potential to become a star offensive player. He can get buckets against almost any type of defense — he bullies small defenders in the post, and uses intelligent and (very) aggressive cutting and driving to hunt points against bigger players. Muhammad is proving to be a tireless worker, but in his offseason conditioning program and in his skill development. Before games, Shabazz can be seen grooving all sorts of shots. This ranges from your garden variety catch-and-shoot threes to some funky hook shots in floaters. And he uses all of those in games, with success.
I can’t say enough good things about Shabazz at this point, because from what we’ve seen, he is a player with upside, intelligence and desire.
What else is there?
He’s 22 years old and figures to be an impact scorer in the league for a long time.
Andrew Wiggins is likewise somebody that Wolves fans should feel good about, for reasons that are becoming familiar to all basketball fans around the world.
Basically, if you have an internet connection and even a small social media footprint, you’re bound to have seen some of the best dunks of the past year, courtesy of Wiggins.
This one was the best:
But there were plenty more to enjoy. After beginning the season with a frustrating tendency to “settle” for step-back jumpers, Wiggins grew more and more aggressive. For this, we probably have Flip Saunders to thank. A central theme of this past season — tied to the injuries and consequential tanking decisions — was that Flip was going to demand that Andrew Wiggins dominate games. He repeated this over and over again in his post-game pressers, and it was evident in the team’s strategy, which most nights amounted to “feed Wiggins in the post, and have him try to score.”
Some nights (most nights?) it was ugly, other nights it was pretty awesome, but it did prove to gradually reveal a beast in Wiggins that we were not certain was there.
He has become addicted to dunking the ball at every opportunity.
Not only is that fun, but it is efficient, good basketball. Dunks are high-percentage shots themselves, and pursuing them the way that Wiggins does (and Muhammad does, fwiw) leads to generating free throws and getting opponents into foul trouble. Wiggins shot just 3.8 free throws per game in November. That increased steadily throughout the year, to where he was attempting a whopping 10.4 per game in April. In April, when Flip pulled every meaningful player from the rotation, aside from LaVine and Wiggins, Andrew posted per-game averages of 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
Superstar numbers, basically. He recently turned 20.
There isn’t much else to say. Shabazz and Wiggins are young, athletic, productive wings who the Timberwolves are lucky to have, going forward. If there was a disappointing aspect to their first season together it was just that Shabazz’s injuries (first an oblique strain, then a hand injury that required surgery) prevented them from playing very much together. The hope is that they develop chemistry next year and for a long time after that. Each provides unique skills and it’s easy to imagine them playing great with each other, complementing the others’ pluses in minuses in ways that will help the Wolves win lots of games.
Patrick J: I’m with you on each point you made above. I’ll add a few thoughts.
First, let me be clear about one thing (Obama voice): Both Wiggins and Shabazz may well break out again next year. We haven’t seen the end of their improvement, assuming that Shabazz continues to work as if he’s the NBA model for youngsters on how to go from zero-to-hero. And I think he will.
People used to make fun of his limitations, but “Left-Block Bazz” became much more than that as this season progressed. See the number of different ways he exploited match-ups and situations in this video, which shows the buckets he scored against the Lakers on December 14 en route to a 28-point performance.
Shabazz also showed he could take and make threes–a rare feat this season for any Timberwolf not named Kevin Martin. See his repertoire from December 30 at Utah, in which he included a varied assault which included dunks and 5-6 from distance en route to a career-high 30 points.
It’s a damn shame that Shabazz’s season was cut short. He was just starting to show an expanded offensive game when he went down, first with an oblique injury (Eds. Note: It felt as “oblique” to us as it must’ve felt to Shabazz–it was, probably, part and parcel of Flip’s Big Tanking Adventure.), and then with the hand injury, which ended Muhammad’s season on 20 February. Shabazz only played in one game after the All-Star break.
Muhammad could’ve used those in-game reps, since he does so much work on the side and during the offsesason. However, if he comes back more skilled, healthier, and equally hungry (Eds. Note: Can one play hungrier than Shabazz did last season?), he’s going to be a ton of fun to watch develop.
Andrew Wiggins could also have another breakout season next year. We’ve talked a lot about this, and I don’t think there’s much else that I need to say. I will plug the pieces that we wrote along with Devin Gray over at North Pole Hoops, which covered Wiggins in addition to Bennett. (See especially here.) Most of my thoughts are laid out pretty plainly there.
The Power Forward Position: Sending out an S.O.S.
Andy G: The second group of Wolves forwards, which generally play the 4 position, are not so good. From a roster-building perspective, this is the team’s weakest link, probably by a big margin.
In the 2014-15 season, the Wolves played a lot of different people at power forward. This includes, with total minutes played in parentheses, followed by their PER (15.0 is league average):
- Thaddeus Young (1605, 15.0)
- Anthony Bennett (894, 11.4)
- Robbie Hummel (742, 9.7)
- Adreian Payne (720, 7.8)
- Justin Hamilton (423, 18.0)
- Jeff Adrien (215, 14.2)
- Kevin Garnett (98, 19.3)
The Wolves best power forward this past season was Garnett, but he didn’t even log 100 minutes before they shut him down with a vaguely described knee injury that was probably just a tanking decision. After KG, the best 4 was the player he was traded for, and who led the 4s in minutes, Thad Young. Thad started to come alive toward the end of his Timberwolves tenure — he really struggled for a while earlier in the season, when they desperately needed some leadership — but he never seemed to fit into Flip’s offense, or even the Western Conference where he was routinely outsized by his opponent in the post.
After those two proven vets, it was a mess.
Bennett was quite a bit better than in his rookie year at Cleveland, but that was a sub-professional starting point; all he had to do was get into reasonable shape to exceed his Cavs production. He has the most upside of the players listed above, but he seems to have a fragile psyche that prevents him from reaching it. Instead of waging war against his opponent on the floor, he’s often peering over to Flip on the bench, seeking either direction, positive reinforcement, or who knows what. If Bennett can’t get comfortable in his own skin as a player, he may always leave his fans befuddled and achieve a lot less in his career than what sometimes seems possible.
AB improved his defense throughout the course of the season, has a beautiful shooting motion that should – over time – translate into accurate shooting stats, and he’s a better passer than many probably realize. For those reasons, it’s possible that Flip & Co. want to invest more time and money into him, and they’ll pick up his $7.3 Million player option for the 2016-17 season that is due by the end of October. But that is no certainty and if that does happen, it’ll be met with substantial criticism from AB’s many skeptics. His future is much less certain that he and Wolves fans would like.
Payne is worse than Bennett, at this point. He has a poor basketball IQ, a funky shooting motion that may never allow him three-point range, and seems to have a lack of self-awareness that calls into question how coachable he is — or isn’t. Payne has a good motor — he works hard, especially on the glass — but it doesn’t seem to have the right sense of purpose, and I havne’t seen much from him to suggest that it ever will.
I guess I’m down on Payne, and remain hopeful about Bennett.
But neither is a starting-caliber player as we currently understand them, and neither are any of the other players listed above. Couple this reality with the likely draft picks the Wolves will choose among in June (two centers, and two combo guards) and they won’t be getting their starting 4 there, either.
It’s a big question going forward.
Patrick J: I couldn’t agree more with your takes on the PF crew, especially the Bennett vs. Payne issue. Payne may be a better player right now, and he certainly appears to have the better motor right now.
But that could change. Getting into top-notch shape is something that we saw Shabazz Muhammad (and, to a lesser degree, Anthony Bennett) do last summer with the help of Navy Seal Trainer Frank Matrisciano. Bennett needs to dive deeper into that training regimen to realize the high level of potential that he still has.
And for a team that remains in full-rebuild mode–Eds. Note: Never go full rebuild?–you have to continue to go with your highest upside guys. The Wolves are not going to be very good next season no matter who they draft. They need to squeeze whatever talent they can out of Bennett. It’s tempting to give up on him because he isn’t making a trivial amount of money against the salary cap. But my opinion, and my opinion only, is that doing so would be a mistake. The Wolves are likely to draft a center, Kevin Garnett’s Wolves Reunion Tour inspired zero confidence that he’ll be a consistent contributor next season, and Payne isn’t the answer. The best-case scenario is that Bennett gets his self in shape, benefits from KG’s mentoring, and develops into the kind of player you want starting at the four on a winning team. How likely is that? I don’t know. But given Flip’s (seeming) strategy of gambling on high-upside athletic talent, Bennett needs to figure into that strategy. Give the guy another chance.
In case you’ve forgotten, he is capable of doing things like this. They’re very nice things.
We’ll be back with more closure to this season soon.
‘Til next time.