In two weeks, the Minnesota Timberwolves will reevaluate Ricky Rubio’s ankle. He’ll be on crutches during that time and then we’ll see how the swelling and ligaments are progressing. Optimistically, I’d say the Wolves are looking at a four-week recovery overall for the significant/high ankle sprain, and six weeks may even be the more likely scenario. That’s simply a guess based on covering injuries like this and talking to a couple of people who are smarter about it than I am.
In the next 4-8 weeks, or however long Rubio is sidelined, Zach LaVine will likely be the starting point guard. Flip Saunders is wary about playing Mo Williams more than 25 minutes a game due to advanced age in the NBA and not wanting to wear him down. When the Wolves made the decision to keep Glenn Robinson III over J.J. Barea, they knew the risk of injury at the point guard could thrust them into a situation like this. And it’s a great chance at developing LaVine in a way they probably didn’t believe was a likely scenario. Saturday night against the Heat, we saw a lot of what the process should and likely will look like during Rubio’s down time.
Zach LaVine’s mentality is to be a scorer. His first instinct is to push the ball and look for an opportunity to get a good shot up against a scrambling defense. That’s a luxury you can have when you’re running a second unit, grabbing garbage time minutes, or you’ve proven yourself to be one of the top scoring point guards in the NBA. LaVine doesn’t fit those descriptions right now. We saw a concerted effort in his stint against Orlando in which he was clearly trying to be a facilitating point guard in limited minutes.
That’s easier said than done when you have a guy like LaVine starting for the first time on the road against a good opponent. Instincts and emotions are more likely to take over for a young guy and it can lead to a disorganized effort for the entire game. That’s not so much a knock on LaVine or a young player. Teams are built to run a certain way and the Wolves are built to be run by Ricky Rubio on the court. Take that away and everybody has to adjust their game to remain competitive and be in a position to win the game.
The Wolves started out this game horribly on both ends of the floor. The 29-13 first quarter deficit was actually pretty close to a best-case scenario considering how easily the Heat were executing their offense and how discombobulated the Wolves looked when trying to score. Post-entry passes were sloppy or thrown completely out of bounds. There wasn’t any decent, consistent dribble penetration. Players were standing around, floating on the perimeter, and the offense looked stagnant. You can blame that on LaVine. You can blame that on the veterans around him. You can blame the basic emotion of a letdown following such a serious loss with Rubio. Wherever the blame goes — if that’s even necessary — the Wolves were looking primed for getting blown out.
“They got us a little bit early and jumped on us,” Flip Saunders said following the loss. “It seemed like every shot they shot went in and every one we shot didn’t go in. I was just hoping to get 25 points by half, the way it was looking because we were struggling so much scoring.”
It wasn’t until the Wolves put the lineup of Zach LaVine, Kevin Martin, Andrew Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, and Nikola Pekovic back on the floor in the second quarter that they really started getting going. The Wolves pushed the pace a little bit when LaVine came back in and had some of those rookie jitters out of his system. They managed to cut the lead from 20 to 14, and even got it down to 12 by halftime.
LaVine’s pace is that of a very aggressive guard. This is both a good and bad thing. Considering his size at 6’5”, it allows him to grab a rebound and immediately move the ball up the floor when he’s in. When he’s looking for others in the open floor and soft transition opportunities, the Wolves’ forwards that can finish become extremely dangerous. A good example of this was when the Wolves started to make a run in the second quarter and LaVine found Young in transition for the dunk plus the foul:
This is part of the developmental process for LaVine. He knows a balance is needed in how he attacks a defense and that his instincts to score can become even more dangerous when he’s looking to pass first.
“Tonight, I was trying to make sure I got into the offense and different things like that,” LaVine said after his five-point, four-assist, six-rebound performance. “Push it at times because my speed, athleticism is one of my biggest assets, but sometimes you’ve got to slow it up and get a play in and just not try to be too aggressive. My mentality is to be really aggressive so I wanted to come into here and just set up the offense and things like that.”
LaVine focusing his aggressiveness into the pace of the team instead of just finding his own shot was extremely beneficial at time. Three of his four assists came in transition opportunities. He created a 3-pointer for Shabazz Muhammad at the end of the third quarter and he even got Andrew Wiggins his first dunk of his career, and it was a fun one:
LaVine got more comfortable as the game went on, but he also faced a point guard combination that is solid but doesn’t overwhelm you as well. When he faces a much more aggressive point guard on both ends of the floor, we may see him struggle quite a bit more because that’s just part of the growing pains of the NBA. We also will see him rise to the occasion in plenty of stints and flash some of that potential the Wolves are trying to slowly build up into a reality. And I think the slow approach is correct. They don’t have much of a choice when it comes to the playing time situation until Rubio is back, and I still think LaVine is more of a 2 in the NBA than a lead guard, but for now they get to see how he responds to playing with the veterans.
“I wanted him to be with our main guys,” Saunders explained. “I thought that was better than him coming in with the second unit where he maybe had to do too much.”
LaVine agreed with Saunders’ decision and thought process there, as well.
“It definitely helps for the first game, the first start, to have that veteran leadership to calm you down and tell you where to go,” LaVine said. “Things like that. ‘Good job, bad job. Do this, do that.’ That helps.”
As for the rest of the game, the Wolves did a couple of really good things to get back in this game and we got to see yet another fantastic test for Wiggins.
The Wolves tried to emphasize their advantage inside early but did a sloppy job of getting the ball to Pek and Young in advantageous situations, or at all. The team switched up some of their sets in the second half to take advantage of those mismatches and force the Heat to have to defend Pek in the post. Pek had a great third quarter with nine points and four rebounds. He hit all four shots and even got an And-1 opportunity as well. They scored 18 of their 28 points in the paint with five other points coming at the free throw line. They pounded the ball inside and controlled the tempo because of it.
“We changed some of our, ran some of our different sets,” Flip said. “Looked more to attack them in some high-low situations. Wig looked to him in a couple. We made some good decisions. That’s part of our change because Ricky had been most of the facilitator to get Pek the ball in the post so now we have to find some different ways. To the benefit of the players, they adjusted at halftime and found ways to get him the ball so that was a positive.”
As for Wiggins, he’s had a pretty tough set of players to go up against in his first two weeks of his career. He’s faced an improved Jimmy Butler, the powerful Joe Johnson, and now Dwyane Wade in three of the last four games. In the game against Orlando, he faced a physical specimen in Tobias Harris, who killed him on the boards. And for the most part, Wiggins has held his own in key situations. The match-up against Wade was by far the toughest one.
We like to pretend Wade is on his last leg, but he looks rejuvenated this season after getting in better shape and losing all of the pressure of being on a title contending team. He’ll probably always be a knee injury away from deteriorating in-season but that doesn’t mean he’s not almost impossible for a rookie wing defender to go up against. There was a play in the fourth quarter in which Wade left Wiggins in his dust on a crossover move. A few possessions later, Wade tried the crossover again against the kid and Wiggins stayed with him and eventually forced a pass out of a post-up. Wade would follow that up with a jumper from the baseline in Wiggins’ face and then beat him and Pekovic on a pick-and-roll coverage for a dunk that served as the dagger for the game.
Wiggins stuck with the late assignment of trying to defend one of his idols growing up though, and it led to a cool exchange between Wade and Wiggins after the game that harkened back to when Wade was a rookie and a Wolves’ Hall of Fame veteran gave him some words of encouragement about how great he can become.
“Just some words of advice really,” Wiggins answered when asked about what Wade said to him. “He said to keep going hard. He asked me if I wanted to be great and I said yes. He said I’ve got all the tools to be great, just keep working.”
While the stat line for Wiggins won’t always blow us away in this rookie season, the learning experience he’s getting by being tested by the best in the league is invaluable. It’s something we can’t measure with stats. It’s something we’ll only see add to his development as he grows into one of the best wing players in the league over the next few years. And in a situation like Ricky missing a month or more with this ankle injury, perhaps we get to see a similar growth process with LaVine.
The future is bright and the present is all about patience. It’s about finding their identity on the floor in the proper balance to breed future success.