The Timberwolves 2015-16 season is starting to wind down. They’ve played 64 of 82 games as I begin this writing at Target Center, during pregame shootaround of the Wolves-Spurs tilt on Tuesday night. I posted quarter report cards after the first 20, and then 41 games had been played. The first quarter was optimistic. Fans recall the hot start to the Wolves season when they racked up surprising wins against the Heat, Bulls and Hawks, setting unsustainably-high expectations that would lead to eventual criticism of interim coach Sam Mitchell. The first quarter report card was brighter than the second one.
This third quarter report card covers player performance in Games 42 through 62 of the season. It’s a 21-game sample that showed a few interesting trends. They went 7-14 in that stretch; worse than their first quarter, but better than the second. Kevin Garnett played a grand total of 3 games and 40 minutes. Kevin Martin played in only 8 games. So did Andre Miller. Both of them player for the Spurs now.
The third quarter commenced the full youth movement, with the following players leading the team in minutes played:
Since Coach Mitchell has trimmed the rotation down to mostly those 6 players, I only graded them, along with rookies Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica.
Here are the grades:
Ricky Rubio: A- (Previous Grades: A-, B+)
Rubio grades high for a few different reasons. First, he stayed healthy, which is never taken for granted with this player. He played in every game, averaging about 31 minutes per. Second, he posted his usual, stellar assist-to-turnover ratio of 8.6 to 2.5. Third, he shot the ball better than usual, connecting on 40 percent of field goals. Fourth, the Wolves — as always — played much better with him on the floor (-0.5, close to even basketball) than when he was off the floor (-6.1).
Zach LaVine: B- (Previous Grades: B+, D)
LaVine had a terrible second quarter of the season, and has bounced back with decent play for a pretty clear reason: He has been moved from playing mostly point guard to playing about half of his minutes at shooting guard. In the second quarter, LaVine played next to Rubio for 316 of his total 635 minutes. Averaging 30 minutes a game, LaVine put up per-game averages of 15.1 points (on 48.8 percent shooting, including 41.0 percent from downtown), 2.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 turnovers. His 2.1 turnovers per 36 minutes revealed improvement in the ball-control department; he was averaging 3.1 per 36 through the first two quarters of the season. LaVine would grade out better if not for his on court/off court differential. When LaVine was on the floor the Wolves were outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions, and when he sat on the bench the Wolves outscored opponents by 2.8. He continues to correlate with worse team performance, albeit less than last season and hopefully to a decreasing extent.
Tyus Jones: C (Previous Grades: Incomplete, D+)
As the season took a sharp turn toward Full Rebuild, Miller was phased out of the rotation and eventually traded, and Jones was phased into the regular rotation as a backup point guard. I gave Jones a D+ in the second quarter, and that might’ve been generous. The big problem was in the net rating/team performance area where the Wolves were getting absolutely blitzed during the time that Tyus was on the floor. Things were much less disastrous in the 123 minutes he played in Games 42 through 62. In that time the Wolves were outscored by 16, amounting to a net rating of -3.4. That’s not great – obviously – but it’s not terrible and far from the worst on the team during that stretch. He shot poorly 13-38 from the field, but that seems more like small sample size and maybe some jitters more than anything else. Jones isn’t ready for primetime yet, but he showed improvement from Quarter 2 (his first) to Quarter 3.
Andrew Wiggins: B+ (Previous Grades: B, B)
In terms of his individual statistics, Wiggins has been very consistent this season. In his third quarter, he posted the following per-game averages (averages for first half of season listed in parentheses):
Minutes: 34.5 (35.0)
Points: 19.7 (20.9)
FG%: 46.0 (43.8)
3P%: 28.2 (25.3)
FT%: 77.9 (73.4)
Rebounds: 3.2 (3.8)
Assists: 2.1 (1.8)
Turnovers: 2.0 (2.4)
Steals: 0.8 (0.8)
He’s been mostly the same player this entire season, aside from a few bad games to open the season when his back was sore, and a few more games after that when his spin move was extra effective in crunchtime, not yet having been scouted very well. In the third quarter, he fell down a slot on the scoring pecking order. Karl-Anthony Towns led the team in scoring (21.0) but Wiggins still managed to score nearly as much as he had been, and at slightly improved efficiency. One interesting detail about Wiggins’ third quarter was that he took over Ricky Rubio’s spot as the team’s on/off differential king. Wiggins had the best “on” rating of (+0.8), and the worst “off” rating of (-10.8). That the Wolves played 11.6 points per 100 possessions better with Wiggins than they did without him is a new trend for him, as he’s been kind of middle-of-the-pack in that statistical category. We’ll have to see over a larger sample size if it is just noise, or if he’s beginning to positively impact game outcomes in ways that his teammates are not.
He’s having a pretty good season, even if he hasn’t yet ascended into the ranks of all-around stardom. He turned 21 years old a couple weeks ago and would be a junior at Kansas gearing up for March Madness, if this was 1995 instead of 2016.
Shabazz Muhammad: D+ (Previous Grades: C-, B+)
It isn’t working out for Bazz here in Minnesota. In the third quarter of the season, his normally-good shooting efficiency dropped. He shot 43.0 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from three-point range. In 24.4 minutes per game he racked up a measly 0.7 assists next to 0.9 turnovers. Among regular rotation players, Bazz had the worst on/off splits. (Eds note: I don’t consider Adreian Payne to be a “regular rotation player.”) I think Bazz has been put in a difficult position by having so many young players with upside surrounding him, and the team not prioritizing his development very much via in-game plays. It’s hard to get a scorer like Bazz the ball in positions to do different things and expand his game when they are trying to do the same thing for Wiggins and Towns in the first unit, and LaVine in the second unit. For much of the season, Bazz was paired next to co-gunners LaVine and Martin, which made the chemistry extra toxic. I think there’s a good chance that he will be playing in a different — probably better for him — situation next year. He has limitations that do not seem to be going away, but he plays with a combination of explosiveness, scoring touch, and sheer will that will have a place in the league for many years. It’s just too focal and disruptive to fit into this development project that Minnesota has going on right now.
Nemanja Bjelica: D+ (Previous Grades: C+, D+)
Bjelica has not had a good season, and he has now been out of the lineup with a mysterious foot injury that occurred during the All-Star break. He’s missed the last 11 games. In the 21 games that comprised the season’s third quarter, he played in only 11; missing some due to the foot injury and some due to DNP-Coach’s Decision’s. Power Forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves is one of the easiest positions to earn playing time in all of NBA basketball — particularly when KG is out with his own health problems. That Bjelica hasn’t earned the trust of the coaching staff is worrisome. They had moderately high expectations of him when the season began. So far, things haven’t worked out.
Gorgui Dieng: B+ (Previous Grades: B+, B)
What would you say if I told you that you could have a third-year big man who could play over 30 minutes per game without foul trouble, score 13 points on almost 60 percent shooting (and 80 percent foul shooting) and pull down 9 rebounds while doing a little bit of playmaking for his teammates?
Those are all true features of Gorgui Dieng in the third quarter of this season. Phrased that way, he seems like a no-brainer for a player to build around. Heck, he even had good on/off splits, finishing behind Wiggins for the best “on” rating (+0.2, the only other guy in the black). But there are a few drawbacks that help temper the enthusiasm about Dieng in the long term. First is age: Despite his third-year status he is 26 years old, about 9 months older than Ricky Rubio, actually. Physically, he is about in his adult prime. Second is his position, or lackthereof. Despite some occasional flashes of chemistry with Towns, it does not seem as if Dieng has an obvious place to play against opposing starters. Last night against the Spurs, he was physically abused by LaMarcus Aldridge. Against smaller players and stretch fours it is not clear that he can keep up with their speed and athleticism.
Dieng is definitely, without a doubt, a rotation NBA big man. He will have a long career and it might even be in Minnesota. But it does not seem like it will ever be in a starting lineup on a good team. That’s okay, but not exciting. Anyway, he had a nice third quarter to the season, relative to role and reasonable expectations.
Karl-Anthony Towns: A+ (Previous Grades: A+, A-)
In the third quarter of the season, Towns established himself as the clear-cut best player on the Timberwolves. Maybe he was already the best, maybe he wasn’t, but he has now removed any doubt. He is not only one of the best rookies of the entire preps-to-pros/one-and-done era (a couple rivals might be LeBron and Anthony Davis) but he is already one of the best players in the NBA. In the third quarter of the season, Towns averaged 21.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.9 blocks. He shot almost 57 percent from the field and almost 80 percent from the free throw line.
Since I’m not sure what else to say about how great KAT has been, I’ll just refer you to John Meyer’s new Towns feature at Canis Hoopus as part of SB Nation’s Rookie Week.
Chime in the comments with your own thoughts, and where you agree or disagree with my grades.