The 2016-17 regular season is finally almost upon us. The Wolves have an exciting cadre of wingmen on the squad, most of whom are as talented and full of potential as they are young. With Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine entering their third seasons and Shabazz Muhammad entering his fourth, big things are expected from the young pups as they look to build on their past successes and failures. Additionally, the Wolves added Brandon Rush of “one of the greatest college basketball games I have ever witnessed” fame to help bolster the bench. Without further ado, let’s dive into a wing position preview of sorts.
The Canadian and the Dunk Champ
When discussing the Wolves’ wing situation, one can’t begin anywhere else than with Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins. LaVine was more or less a disappointment the first two-thirds of last season, thrust into an unnatural position, that being the Wolves primary back-up point guard. He often looked overwhelmed and uncomfortable running the team as the second unit’s floor general and it became overwhelmingly clear that LaVine was unfit to be a point guard in the NBA.
However, after the All-Star break, then head coach Sam Mitchell made the permanent change to shift LaVine into the starting lineup full-time at the two-guard (a decision that originally had been made in the preseason, but was changed not even a week later) and he evolved from being the Human Ember to the Human Solar Flare. LaVine shot a blistering 43.7% on a little over five attempts per game from beyond the arc over the Wolves’ final 28 games, compared to the 34.5% on three attempts per game he tallied during the squad’s first 54.
In a similar fashion, Wiggins’ play also picked up post-All-Star break, shooting 41.3% from 3 (compared to 24.4% prior), improving his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) to 51.6% (from 46.5%) and true shooting percentage (TS%) to 57.8% (from 52.6%) all while tallying 2.4 assists per game (1.8 prior). Essentially, Wiggins went from being a high volume scorer who didn’t do much else, to being an efficient scorer who flashed some play-making ability.
While both players still undoubtedly have their weaknesses – LaVine often lacks focus and drive on defense, particularly when defending man-to-man, and Wiggins needs to improve his rebounding, for instance – the progression those two showed last season has to be encouraging for Wolves fans.
Both LaVine and Wiggins figure to be starters once again this season, and with that title will come greater expectations for improvement and success. The key for both comes down to one word: consistency. Both players showed glimpses of the talent they possess last season, but in order for the Wolves to take the next step towards becoming annual participants in the playoffs, they need LaVine and Wiggins to become more consistent on both sides of the ball.
Common senses says that it will be invaluable for the Wolves if Wiggins can improve enough to convert from three at, or slightly below, a league average clip, hone his playmaking ability, and not float on defense, and if LaVine can replicate to a degree his three-point shooting from after the All-Star break in addition to playing passable defense. If these things occur, the Wolves will be well on their way toward becoming consistent participants in May and possibly beyond.
But what is the likelihood that both improve in all the aforementioned areas? It’s impossible to say at the moment, but one has to imagine that having Tom Thibodeau as head coach should do wonders for both players’ games. Both LaVine and Wiggins have all of the physical tools to be, at the very least, capable two-way players. They’re quick, athletic, and, perhaps most importantly, long. Similarly, both players’ focus (or lack thereof) on defense has been the most discussed critacism on that end of the court. Over their two seasons in the league, LaVine has been criticized for being unengaged and unfocused on defense while Wiggins has been crushed for floating and for playing up to his competition, only bringing the defensive heat against marquee players.
That won’t fly under Thibodeau. Thibs’ system is famous for pushing the ball-handlers out of the middle of the court, for switching off of screens, and for rotating to provide help defense. His system requires constant attention and recognization. As Zach noted in his recap of the Wolves’ preseason opening victory against the Miami Heat, LaVine has already shown impressive team defense instincts and Wiggins did a good job both on- and off-ball.
Whether both will continue this trend into the regular season, but both Wiggins and LaVine have the talent and tools to be two-way players; at this point, it is up to them to fully buy into Tom Thibodeau’s system and teachings so that they can make that next leap.
The Glass Cannon
In essence, 2016-17 may be a bit of a make or break season for Shabazz Muhammad. After carving out a reputation for himself toward the end of his rookie season and especially during his sophomore campaign as a high-flying, left low-block bully who could occasionally knock down a three, Muhammad undeniably took a step back last season. Although Muhammad saw his minutes increase dramatically (from 866 the previous season, a season limited to 38 games due to injury, to 1,682 in 2015-16, a 48.5% increase) and appearing in all 82 games, the success of his “breakout” second season did not translate to the 2015-16 season. Muhammad saw significant regressions in many statistics across the board including three-point percentage (3P%), effective field goal percentage (eFG%), assist percentage (AST%), offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), and turnover percentage (TOV%) (all numbers come via Basketball-Reference).
As minutes and sample size increase for a player as dramatically as they did for Muhammad, a drop in production can, and, to an extent, should be expected for any player. However, it wasn’t just the numbers that took a drop; the optics of Muhammad’s season followed suit. He would often display tunnel vision on both sides of the ball, forcing drives into a contested lane and often looked totally lost on defense, an area where Muhammad has been particularly dreadful during his career.
However, for as disappointing as his season was last year, there are still a few reasons to be excited about Muhammad’s game going forward. Despite his overall poor three-point percentage last season, Muhammad shot a combined 28/67 from the corners, a very respectable 41.8% (he shot an almost inconceivably bad 19.0% on 84 attempts from above the break threes, according to NBA.com). Thibodeau has indicated, and it was seen during Summer League, that the Wolves will increase the amount of corner threes they will take this season, which bodes well for Muhammad. If he can return to his left low-block punishing and offensive rebound juggernaut form of two seasons ago and improve to being even just a poor defender (he has a career 114 DRtg and posted a -4.2 defensive box plus/minus last season), a desire that has been stressed by both himself and Thibodeau, Muhammad’s value on the Wolves increases greatly.
Truthfully, I’m much less sanguine on the idea of Muhammad making great strides on defense; too often he sticks to his man like a fly on rotting flesh, neglecting to make the necessary rotations to prevent the opponent from getting a bucket. But it is much less important for the success of the team for him to be a defensive stopper when he’s coming off the bench. Muhammad will fulfill his role on the team sufficiently if he can beat down on opposing defenders, clean the offensive boards, control the low-block, and drill the occasional corner three. To put it simply, play within himself. Muhammad gets into trouble when he tries to do too much. If he plays within his skillset and role and he will be just fine.
The Versatile Vet
Brandon Rush was brought to the Wolves for one thing: his outside shooting. Rush is a career 40.3% shooter from deep on 4.5 attempts per game. But perhaps the most appealing aspect of Rush’s ability to hit from deep is that he converted 45.5% (40/88) of his attempts from above the break. The Wolves were abysmal last season from above the break, hitting on a rancid 32.8% of their attempts. Rush’s ability to extend the floor from somewhere other than the corners (though he did hit 38.1% of his attempts from the left corner last season) will be a major boon for the Wolves.
What will be interesting to see is how exactly Thibodeau uses him within his system. Thibs has indicated that Rush may see some time, along with Wiggins and Muhammad, as a small-ball four, a position that he has only been utilized in for only 5% of his career, according to Basketball-Reference (though he was estimated to have played power forward for 12% of his minutes last season with the Golden State Warriors). Rush isn’t a particularly big guy and not exactly a deft passer, so his ability to extend the floor and defend both wings and smaller fours will be the biggest positives he would bring to the table.
Rush brings depth to the Wolves bench, one of the NBA’s weakest last season. Although his signing isn’t one that will put fans in the seats of the newly renovated Target Center, it is one that will make the Wolves better this season. How much better is yet to be seen, but it never hurts to have a veteran presence coming off the bench, especially one who spent the past two seasons with the Warriors.