Parochialism, Ubuntu, and other fun words: A Tyus Jones conversation
Many Minnesota basketball fans were excited by the fact that the Wolves traded back into the first round to acquire former Apple Valley prep star Tyus Jones with the 24th overall pick. But was it really the right move? Bill and Steve broke down all the angles in an email thread. Here’s the transcript:
You seem like maybe not a huge fan of drafting Mr. Jones. Would you like to exchange emails about it? I’m not necessarily a big Tyus fan but I kind of want to play devil’s advocate.
I might be a heartless, joyless, cynical bastard. When the Timberwolves traded the 31st and 36th picks for Tyus Jones, and all I could do was roll my eyes and embark on a snark-filled social media hissy fit.
I feel the need to explain myself. I don’t necessarily hate the pick. The Wolves need a true backup point guard, he put up efficient stats for the National Champions, and he’s still just 19 years old. What’s not to like? Well, he’s small (yes, he’s 6’2 with a 6’5 wingspan, but he’s rail thin) and doesn’t exactly jump out of the gym. But no prospect is without faults, especially when they’re still around late in the first round.
What really bugs me about this is that it seems so damned contrived. The Wolves traded away a young player (Thad Young, who’d been considered the potential power forward of the future a few months prior) in order to bring KG “home” ahead of their season ticket renewal deadline back in February. Then there’s the Jones move, which will spur parochial interest in the club, even if he’s nothing more than a mediocre player. What was the motivation, here? If he was from Toledo, would the Wolves make this move? Or is this merely the Country Club inducting another “one of us” into the fold?
I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
In thinking about trading for Tyus Jones, I find myself back into a somewhat uncomfortable corner, philosophically speaking, based on things I’ve said about other moves the Timberwolves have made. To wit:
1.) I have gone on record as saying that I think the Wolves’ practice of selling second round picks is terrible and undervalues players who can be a great value to a team that has to maximize every possible asset it has.
2.) I was generally in favor of bringing Kevin Garnett back because I never completely bought that Thad Young was doomed from the start. I think Young could have been a good fit with this team had injuries not derailed the vision of the team. Once things had gone south, though, it was not a relationship that was worth repairing. Could they have gotten more in terms of assets for Young? Maybe, maybe not. I still think the long-term impact of the Garnett move is playing out.
3.) I am leery of guys whose greatest quality in the mouths of GMs who draft them is “knows how to win.” Remember when LeBron decided Shabazz Napier was a must-have for the Heat because of his championship pedigree with UConn? Once LeBron bolted for Cleveland, “knowing how to win” didn’t help Napier see the floor for the Heat.
And yet in spite of all that, I find myself pumping the brakes on calling the move for Jones a disaster borne of the Wolves’ country club parochialism. (At the very least, we’re all getting to use the word “parochial” a whole lot, which is a plus.) There is absolutely no way in which getting Tyus Jones is not a majority marketing decision. I say this simply because if he weren’t from Apple Valley, there’s no way the Wolves’ front office is moving heaven and earth to get him.
But on the other hand, if he weren’t from Minnesota, then Flip wouldn’t have been watching play since he was a sophomore, wouldn’t have been eyeing him as a potential recruit when Flip was maybe going to coach the Gophers. Now that familiarity can be looked at as problematic in that it may be making Saunders overly comfortable with Jones in spite of his clear shortcomings (size and speed, primarily). But it also means that Flip may have a very clear sense of what Jones’ capabilities and limitations are, and more so than some other prospects. As not only the coach but a GM and (maybe most importantly) a part owner of the team, Saunders sees a known quantity who could blossom but who definitely brings a local appeal that will get butts in the seats. At worst, you’ve moved two second round picks for him.
Which, again, I know I said they have to value those second round picks, but you’re also now looking at a team with a gaggle of young players who need minutes and can’t all get them already. Consider the plight of poor Glenn Robinson III who hung around and hung around and never cracked the rotation. The Wolves need to get developmental minutes to Wiggins, LaVine, Muhammad, Dieng, Towns and possibly Payne (and even Bjelica now). Are two early second-rounders really going to break into that glut? There’s a better chance of just Jones wriggling in there.
I guess the ultimate thing for me is that while the rah-rah hometown thing was perhaps an overreach in Garnett’s case and not a completely sound philosophy overall, there’s nothing inherent in it that makes Jones a bad pick. There’s even a part of me that thinks you’ve given Jones the best chance to succeed in the NBA by bringing him back home. While the glare of the local spotlight can be harsh, there’s a good chance he gets more chances and a softer learning curve here than he would on any other team.
But so I guess what I’m saying is that I still think parochialism is bad, but that in this case it doesn’t really have anything to do with whether Jones turns out good or bad. I do know, though, that you had other players you liked better in that same area of the draft. So who did the Wolves miss out on?
There were guys I liked better than Jones in that general range: R.J. Hunter, Delon Wright, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Jordan Mickey come to mind. But as a draft novice, stumping for specific picks in the latter part of the first or early second round is probably a fool’s errand, so I won’t cape up for them here. That’s not my quibble.
Your analysis is solid – I agree with most of it. There’s plenty of parochialism (seriously, SUCH a fun word) at play with many of the Wolves’ decisions, but that doesn’t mean every time the organization hires or acquires someone with a local connection it’s doomed to fail. I mean, Jim Petersen is “one of us” and he’s also the best color analyst in the league. (I guess I’m a homer after all.) It’d be unfair of me to call the Tyus Jones trade misguided just because he happens to be from Apple Valley, and just because I think the “homecoming” angle is contrived. Ultimately, this was a low-risk move, and it’ll pique the interest of some fans who maybe like high school and college hoops, but ignore the NBA. That’s certainly possible.
I guess what it boils down to, for me, is that I dislike when geographical or sentimental factors govern personnel decisions. In the case of both Garnett and Jones, it’s certainly possible to make the argument that the best of both worlds are present. It’ll give the fans goosebumps, or make for a neat human-interest feature, AND they’re good basketball players. Maybe I’ve lost touch with what being a fan is really like, because none of that appeals to me. I think the Timberwolves ought to find the best basketball players available, as pragmatically as possible, and when this touchy-feely stuff clouds things up, I lash out.
And see this is exactly where things might get interesting because what if it’s not that parochialism is inherently bad (cf. Jim Petersen) but that the Wolves have just done it badly? What if it’s no different than any other strategy within basketball in that it doesn’t matter so much that you adopt it as that you adopt it and learn how to do it well?
The story around LeBron’s return to Cleveland was unmistakably a local one about delivering respect and championships to a blighted town — it just so happens it involved the best player in his late prime and yielded them a trip to the NBA Finals when they’d received the top pick in the draft just the year before. You could argue that Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and other stars taking discounts to stay with their adopted home teams has an element of the kind of romanticism that’s led the Wolves to decisions like drafting Jones.
I guess some of it comes down to whether you think things like “Ubuntu” play some kind of active part in making a team good or if it’s really just about, as you say, the best basketball players available. And I’ll be honest: I don’t really know which it is. Fans need the stories, the stuff that stitches their feelings about the team together. It seems like most players lean on that same stuff in interviews, and probably do in private to a certain extent — after all, when everyone is playing at as high a level as players play in the NBA, it’s often more manageable for those actually playing to approach the game as being more about heart, effort, aggressiveness and focus than in terms of pure skill or reams of data.
Where the rubber meets the road on all this stuff, then, seems to be in coaching and management. How much can these guys pedal the Kool-Aid without drinking too much of it themselves? I think the Wolves’ front office has before shown themselves too susceptible to getting caught up in narratives about homecoming and return, but I think maybe Jones isn’t that, simply because they didn’t have to give up that much to get him.
When I say that I want the Timberwolves to “find the best players available, as pragmatically as possible,” I wasn’t trying to say that “ubuntu” or subjective factors don’t contribute to team success. In fact, I feel the opposite. There are personality traits, workplace chemistry and dumb luck that are all vital to whether or not a franchise has a winning culture, and analytics can’t help you much with any of that.
My criticism of the Jones thing, and the Garnett thing, and all parochial/hometown/human interest stories that are concocted to show that “this local guy will help the team win because he’s ONE OF US,” is that it’s so contrived. Acquire good players, and then the team will win games, and some of the rest of that will take care of itself. I sometimes wish pro sports teams (and the media, and fans) would cut the Lifetime movie subplot shit out. I’m not saying I don’t care about players as people. It’s clear that Tyus was very moved by the fact that he’ll get to play his home games at the Target Center; good for him. I’m a big proponent of keeping the humanity of professional athletes in mind at all times. And yet, I’m not sure “local boy plays here, local boy loves it here, local boy loves us, let’s all live vicariously through his success” is really appreciating who he is as a person. That’s putting him in a little box we’ve made. So if I got to give a tiny piece of advice to the Wolves, it’d be to quit trying so hard with that shit and worry about other things.
But hell, what do I know. Maybe Tyus Jones will be great! And maybe he was drafted on his own merit! But what bugs me is, we’ll never really know. I don’t hold the fact that he’s from here against him. But at the same time, I refuse to get swept up in the overwhelming love for the pick just because he is from here. Maybe that makes me a fuddy-duddy (man, another fun word). Oh well.