Its hard to believe that there was ever a time during the 2012-2013 season when Malcolm Lee played basketball for the Timberwolves. Think hard now. This is before Ricky Rubio’s return, before the re-breaking of the shooting hand, before Rick Adelman’s extended leave. These were the days of the shocking 5-2 start and of Josh Howard and Brandon Roy.
Lee’s season was laid low after only 16 games by a right knee condition I have never heard of, in the second wave (or third, depending how you’re counting–at some point the waves all just flow together) of Wolves’ injuries. His loss was little noticed at the time because it was so overshadowed by Kevin Love’s shooting hand fiasco. This, of course, after playing in only 19 games in 2011-2012 because of mensiscus surgery on his other knee. So: two seasons, 35 games, 532 mostly un-memorable minutes. Doesn’t leave us with much to work with does it?
But while Lee’s brief contribution to the Wolves’ season has mostly faded into the portion of my memory inhabited by former co-workers and books I read entirely while falling asleep, a brief review of the literature (old posts, Synergy, Basketball Reference, 82games) gives us some usable info. (For the record, I will advise you that watching every Malcolm Lee pick-and-roll with the sound off while listening to a Brian Eno ambient record is pretty surreal.)
Offensively, there’s not much to look at. In his first year, Lee looked a bit like a kindergartener at the grocery who has just realized he can’t see his mom: very lost, a little panicked. This year, with a full summer and training camp under his belt, it at least appeared that his mental processing had caught up to the game’s chaos and speed. (One sign of this is that he halved his rookie-year turnover rate.) He had had nice little three-game stretch in which he hit 12 of 17 field goals, including five of his six threes. He did this pretty cool thing:
But still, of all of the Wolves’ guards, Lee was the least adept at creating offensive movement and flow with dribble penetration. So far at least, he’s just not skilled or creative enough to be a reliable shot creator. His numbers tell the story: .46 true shooting rate; 2.5 assists/36 minutes; 9.8 PER. That’s well below average pretty much all the way around.
Defense, though, is where Malcolm Lee has real potential to contribute. In general, he still fits the profile of most athletic, willing but inexperienced players. That is, he’s an aggressive, energetic on-ball defender who has an immense amount to learn about team defensive principles. As he did during his rookie year, he still got lost on the back side of the help defense, still struggled to negotiate screens. But as his brief season wore on, he began to get the hang of disrupting a pick-and-roll, of sticking to a ballhandler while going over screens, of pestering potential scorers as they drove into the paint. Its here, on the defensive end, that the Wolves actually missed Lee, especially late in the season. Remember all of those twos Luke Ridnour had to guard? Remember how checked out Alexey Shved was defensively for much of the second half? Wouldn’t it have been nice to throw Lee out there for some minutes of defensive size and energy?
Lee might turn out to be a solid NBA defender. He might even become an average game manager at the point. Conversely, we may have already seen his best basketball; he may never play significant minutes again. But he’ll be around for at least another year and he makes very little money. It won’t cost the Wolves very much to find out.