Wolves Beat Jazz & Other Jottings

The Wolves got a much-needed win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night, holding a lead for nearly every second of the game and ultimately winning 94-80. It was much-needed because the Wolves were on a 4-game losing streak and play at Detroit tomorrow night, and because the Jazz were severely undermanned, missing their two big men, Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, as well as the up-and-coming wing Alec Burks. It would have been ugly, had the Wolves lost, so a 14-point win felt good for the team, its fans, and its coach. After the game, Mitchell was in a much better mood than he was during it. He could be seen yelling at his young players throughout the entire game after each mistake they made, sometimes using timeouts to emphasize a point, and other times — such as twice with Karl-Anthony Towns — simply yanking the player after the game. (In his presser, Mitchell laughed about pulling Towns, and went out of his way to talk about what a great attitude KAT has. During the game, KAT seemed upset to come out of the game.)

A few miscellaneous jottings about the game, the Wolves recent play, and team issues:

Rubio
Ricky Rubio has been playing arguably the best ball of his career, of late. His PER before tonight’s game was 18.3, while his career-best before this season was 16.2. After 17 assists against the Jazz, that PER will rise up closer to 19. He’s averaging 9.2 assists to just 2.4 turnovers per game, his 2.3 steals per game are second in the NBA to Russell Westbrook. (Per-36 minutes, Rubio edges out Westbrook in steals, 2.7 to 2.6. Per minute, Rubio is second to Rajon Rondo in assists.) His oft mentioned on/off splits remain an ocean apart, as the Wolves outscore opponents by 3.8 per 100 possessions with Rubio and lose by 8.0 points per 100 without him. While his shooting remains very poor (though he did hit some shots tonight against the Jazz!) the rest of his game is simply so good that it all adds up to a good basketball player. The specific chemistry that he developed — seemingly instantly — with Kevin Garnett has been a joy to watch, and it’s hard not to think that, over time, Rubio and Towns could team up for similar action, connecting on those pick-and-pop assists, and leading the defense top to bottom to get stop after stop in first and fourth quarters.

Wiggins
Andrew Wiggins does not have the solid, hard-to-find-a-weakness set of two-way skills that Karl-Anthony Towns has. Wiggins plays wing but doesn’t yet have a particularly smooth handle. His jumpshot form looks good, but his range doesn’t extend reliably out to the three-point line. His free throw shooting — which is important, because he draws a lot of fouls — is inconsistent. His defense shows signs of being spectacular, but also has lapses when he loses focus or intensity at the wrong time.

All of that said, Wiggins is having a very good second NBA season as he adjusts to his role of Leading Scorer in a Functional NBA Offense. Recall that much of last season was spent force-feeding Wiggins in the post and demanding that he plow through a help defender or two to generate buckets or free throws. That got him rookie of the year honors and toughened him up as an attacker of rims, but it probably didn’t teach him the best scoring techniques in the modern NBA. Wiggins is being used in different ways, but a common attack begins with him running off of a double screen to catch the ball with momentum. From there he takes a dribble to size up defenses. If there’s a clear path (rare, especially in the Wolves tightly-packed offense) he’ll cruise in for a dunk. If not, he does a good job of surveying potential help defenders. If he’s facing 2 or more, he’ll pull up for a jumper or floater. If it’s just 1 guy, he’s got a methodical Euro-step move that clears space for him to explode off one leg and usually score. He is refining these moves, and will continue to get better. He doesn’t rebound enough, and he isn’t active enough in an all-around sense, but some of those edges of his game will smooth over time. Like Rubio, Wiggins is improving in PER, up to 15.7 from 13.9 despite a more diluted offensive role. His per-36 scoring is up to 21.4 points from 16.8.

Tyus
Tyus Jones is playing backup point guard now. This seems official and lasting, at least until either injury or other factors shake things up. He has played backup point for 4 games, in which time he’s averaging 3.3 points, 1.8 assists, and 1.3 turnovers in 13.7 minutes of action. When Tyus gets a ball screen to separate himself a bit from his defender, he shows some promise as a scorer and playmaker. Against the Spurs, he made a pair of nice baseline drives and kick-out passes to assist Shabazz Muhammad for threes. However, he can get in trouble on the baseline – as happened once tonight versus Utah – when it gets cut off early and he has to jump-pass back to the wing. His own defender is usually taller than he is and jumps to tip that pass. He’ll figure those things out. His bigger question marks come on defense, where he’s not up to NBA game speed, and won’t be for at least another season. He’ll get better, but the minutes he plays will probably cost the Wolves in the scoring margin stats.

Pek’s situation
It was reported today that Pekovic will be practicing full contact, which suggests he will return to game action some time in the foreseeable future. I wrote in my season preview that Pek’s career might be over, and that the Wolves could be exploring the option of trying to get him off of their salary cap. I rambled off some tweets on this subject today, so rather than type more about it I’ll just post the whole sequence here:

A couple quick additional thoughts on this subject:

  1. Remember a while back when it was reported that Pek would be named president of Partizan Belgrade, his former Euro team? That seemed like an odd bit of news for a player smack in the middle of his $60 Million NBA Kahntract. Whatever merit there was to the report, it suggested that Pek might be thinking about Life After Playing Basketball for a Living.
  2. I have no idea if Glen Taylor has insurance on Pekovic’s contract or not, and this might go a long way in determining whether the Wolves would want to try to get him off the cap. If his deal is uninsured, that would mean that removing him from the cap just means Taylor is paying more money for the same number of active players; something I doubt he’d be keen on, in this rebuilding phase. But if Pek’s contract has insurance and a career-ending injury would have somebody else paying his remaining $24 Million, then the Wolves might try to get him off the books by next summer so that they can add a big free agent to play with Rubio, Wiggins, Towns and the rest, beginning next season.

That is about it for now. Wolves play at Detroit in an early New Year’s Eve tilt tomorrow night (5:00 Central Time). I’ll probably post something on Friday during the holiday. Go Wolves and Happy New Year to readers.

Season Record: 12-20

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