Update: Since this post went up, Timberwolves PR has directed me to the full context of the quote below and pointed out that there’s a big difference between saying “a major part” and “a main part.” Fair enough. It still seems worth discussing exactly what that difference is, and that’s largely what this post is about.
In case you missed it last night, Flip Saunders dropped another gem of a quote in the pre-game media scrum in Portland about his vision for Andrew Wiggins’ development:
Flip Saunders on Andrew Wiggins: "You don't want [three-pointers] to become a major part of his game." Don't know whether to groan or cry
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 9, 2015
Plenty of people — myself included — tore some amount of hair out about this last night. I’m frankly befuddled by Saunders’ reluctance to embrace the 3-pointer as a cornerstone of how a modern NBA offense runs, but then again, I’m just an observer of basketball. I watch a lot of it but I don’t coach it or play it in an organized way. I can look at how much more efficient great wings from LeBron James to Carmelo Anthony to Kawhi Leonard have become since working a greater ratio of 3-pointers into their repertoires, but I’m no expert in how to build an effective overall basketball player.
So I thought I’d call up David Thorpe, who runs the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida and is an analyst for ESPN. He’s gone on record with our own Zach Harper before about Wiggins’ tremendous potential and has talked about how good Wiggins’ jumper looks. He had a lot of interesting insight on the subject, most notably that becoming a good 3-point shooter could mitigate some of Wiggins’ less-than-stellar ballhandling and also that while the Wolves may never be the Rockets, he does believe they would like to shoot more 3-pointers.
What do you think is Flip Saunders’ mindset about Wiggins’ game and is there something he’s seeing that we’re not seeing that would suggest he can’t be effective as a 3-point shooter?
David Thorpe: We can only guess, because I’m not a mind reader. It might very well be that he believes this guy can be like James Harden, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade — guys that are bucket-getters, prolific scorers from all over the court — and that he doesn’t want him to just be Kyle Korver. That might be what he’s thinking of, but I certainly don’t agree with any suggestion whatsoever that he shouldn’t be shooting a lot of threes.
When Kevin Durant exploded into the top two in the world category, what I always said is that the ball-handling was the difference. At 6-10 and a good shooter, not being a great ballhandler really limited his opportunities to score. It just makes you unique when you’re 6-10 or LeBron James at 6-8 plus and being the kind of ballhandler he is. Harden and Wade are basically point guards with the ball that are just scoring machines.
But if Wiggins never develops that talent, you’re talking about a guy that can be very active and successful in the transition game. He can be very productive and powerful in the low post. I watched him play last night and he’s a problem in the post and I’m not sure he really knows what he’s doing yet, but he definitely has some skill and talent down there. Getting on the offensive glass, shooting threes — all those things can get him averaging 16 or 20 a night efficiently, given that he’s a guy who should get to the free throw line a good amount.
So if he doesn’t ever develop his ballhandling, adding a 3-point shot definitely adds a lot to his overall ability. I don’t think it should be the single most important thing — because I think he’s already pretty good at it. Every year I do a rookie-veteran piece where I pick a veteran that I think a rookie should study. And for Wiggins the guy I think he should study is James Harden, for the reasons I just explained to you — he’s got to be better off the dribble.
That being said, he looks like he could be a guy who could be a 40 percent 3-point shooter in a few seasons — he’s not going to do it for a year or two. But it’s such a viable weapon and it just adds another component to his game and for teams to prepare for him. If you gotta run him off the line, that gives him a lot of opportunities to blow by you with that kind of speed. He doesn’t need great ballhandling skills to blow by you if you have to close out the 3-point shot. He already can dribble in a straight line OK — he just doesn’t change direction great and change speeds. That’s the dimension I want him to add.
But not being a 3-point shooter seems to be ignoring what looks like a pretty strong skillset for him. I’m only guessing what Saunders may have meant, but he’s also a little old school.
So the favorable read is maybe they just want him to focus on things like ballhandling right now?
DT: Here’s the thing: You don’t just say — as someone who does this for a living — I don’t go into a summer with a player saying, “We’re just going to do this.” We build out a plan where we incorporate a few things that we want to add or improve on or tweak, as well as some general maintenance. Guys that are really special ballhandlers, we don’t just ignore dribbling because they’re good at it. We would try to pick the areas where we should have the biggest impact the quickest and then we also plant a seed.
A few years ago I might take a scoring guard and begin working on the low post game but tell him, “You’re probably not ready for this this year, but here’s a start.” Because once you start to teach a guy a thing, even if he’s not ready to do it in a game (he might do it in practice), but also he’ll recognize it more as he’s watching the game. That will help his learning curve as he starts to do it.
In the case of Wiggins, I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all to say we want you to be a better ballhandler, to have a better post-up game, you want to work on the midrange game, more than the three. I don’t know if I agree with it or not, though, other than the ballhandling part.
If I had him for two months, we would do a ton of ballhandling, we would continue the work in the post — I don’t think they play him in the post as much as they could. And then we would do a lot of threes. I think that’s the best way to make him more efficient. The ballhandling and the post-ups get him to the free throw line more and 3-pointers are worth an extra point every time you make one. That’s the best way to improve his production and efficiency quickly.
It also helps the team because if you only have to account for Wiggins when he’s inside the 3-point line, you’ve got a little bit of a break as opposed to having to chase him outside.
Saunders has said that teams don’t run plays for threes. Is that right? And how much of Saunders view do you think is informed by the fact that he wants to play an old school way and how much can that limit Wiggins’ development in the long term?
DT: So let’s address the big issue right now with talking about threes. I don’t really know what the big fuss is. With the exception of set plays for threes, which you might run in certain situations based on time and score, he’s not wrong. To run a play for a three — like the ones we call “Reggie Millers,” where you’re coming off staggered screens — there’s just not a whole lot of guys in the league who can make that shot efficiently. They might make it, but they’re not going to shoot 33 percent because they’re running away from the rim.
If you’re running pick and pop, that’s an action that gets you a three. When you get the ball inside and get help and get the kick out for a three. And Minnesota has no problem doing that — they just don’t have that many guys who can make them. Their only guy that would scare you is Kevin Martin and he’s got a broken wrist! He had surgery on it and it’s not going to be really healthy until probably July. We know this because he broke the exact same bone in his left wrist about four years ago with about the same timeframe and it was some time before the pain was all gone.
The opportunities are there. You can get plenty of threes without having to run a single play for three. And they will run plays for three when they’re down three with ten seconds left.
I think he’s kind of tweaking the media a little bit. I don’t think he’s as in love with the 3-point shot as the Houston Rockets are. If you want to look at that spectrum, it’s fair to say that he doesn’t want to do that much, but he also doesn’t have the Rockets team. I don’t know how it would look if he had seven guys, including two stretch fours, that could shoot the three. He has like two guys who can shoot the three and they’re on the wing. I think they would shoot more threes if they had the personnel.