The Timberwolves Unexpected Point Guard Triangle
Entering this season, the biggest big-picture question surrounding the Timberwolves was whether Ricky Rubio was in its long-term agenda, or whether by drafting Kris Dunn fifth overall Tom Thibodeau was signaling intent to change. Playing beautifully alongside Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns in a couple of preseason blowout wins at home, and then battling the Memphis Grizzlies to the wire in the season opener at Memphis, Rubio looked like the obvious “short-term” answer at point guard — at least if this team was hoping to be competitive this season. But there have been signs — some more subtle than others — that Thibs remained high on Dunn, possibly even to the point of exploring Rubio trades.
In an early pregame interview session with media, Thibs was asked if he thought that Dunn was in a uniquely good position for a high draft pick. The idea posited to Thibs was that instead of being thrown into the fire unprepared, Dunn would learn behind Rubio, a sage veteran. Dunn had time to learn the ropes before taking on too much responsibility. Rather than go along with the premise, Thibs brushed it off and said that all of his players are expected to be ready to play and that (apparently) included Dunn. He wasn’t going to enhance a narrative that involved Dunn being something other than an immediate part of the rotation.
Rubio went down with an elbow sprain injury in the fourth quarter of the Kings game; the Wolves second of the season. He has missed the past 5 games. Even if Rubio is injury prone, losing him so soon was an unexpected shake-up. This has been predictably-bad for their record (2-5 as of this writing on Saturday afternoon) but it has also allowed an unexpected, expanded look at Dunn and the team’s entire point guard situation.
The first game without Rubio was the home opener against the Memphis Grizzlies. It included the pleasant (for the Wolves’ record’s sake) surprise that the Grizz would be resting both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, their two best players. They were already dinged up and what remained after the Conley and Gasol scratches was a JV team that had very little chance of competing. Kris Dunn looked good — as he should have, considering the opposition — and the Wolves won by 36 points.
More interesting than Dunn’s success against inferior competition was that his backup, 20-year old Tyus Jones, also looked impressive that night. Jones barely saw the floor in preseason games and was the subject of hot trade rumors. Despite being very young and coming off MVP honors in the Las Vegas Summer League, Jones seemed like an afterthought. Most people (including yours truly) assumed his days in Minnesota were numbered. It wasn’t clear heading into that hope opener whether it would be Jones or John Lucas III who backed up Dunn at point guard. In that game against the Grizzlies, in an unexpected opportunity to play, Jones had 6 assists to 1 turnover in 19 minutes of +10 action. When Tyus entered the game in the first quarter it seemed like the team broke out of an offensive rut and started to move the ball. Thibs was asked about this after the game by Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press.
Just like with the question about Dunn learning behind Rubio, Thibs rejected the premise that Dunn may not have looked as good out there as Jones:
“I thought the ball movement was great right from the beginning. I thought Kris got us playing with a good pace and then when Tyus came in the pace was established.”
Thibs might as well have done a Mutombo finger wag after swatting away the attempt at Tyus love.
Thibs talked for almost 10 minutes after that win, seeming to relax for the first time in the interview setting as Wolves boss. When asked about Memphis resting players, he made a comment that could be interpreted as having Rubio/Dunn relevance. (Eds note: I like to read way too much into things.)
“One guy’s out, the next guy steps in and often times you see that becomes the story of the league; a guy gets an opportunity because someone was injured and he takes off and, you know, that’s the way the league works.”
Combine this comment that followed a win and nice Dunn performance with the Woj report that “Thibodeau doesn’t anticipate Dunn becoming the starter until approximately 20 games into the regular season.” That’s too much smoke for there to be no fire, and it seemed clear that Dunn had a chance RIGHT NOW to win the starting point guard position while Rubio recovered from injury.
As for Tyus? Who cares, he wasn’t really in the mix.
Fast forward a mere 4 games and everything is scrambled.
Kris Dunn has not played well. His offense is almost non-existent. His jump shot needs work (the technical basketball term for it is, “broke-ass”) and he hasn’t yet learned how to attract help defenders or generate passing lanes to open teammates. While his on-ball defense is exciting to watch, his court awareness has a ways to go and it isn’t clear that he’s an all-around plus defender yet. His defense will absolutely become great in time, but right now in his first career games, he makes some mistakes.
Tyus Jones, on the other hand, has continued to play better than anyone reasonably could have expected. In the close loss to the Nuggets at home, Jones did not post impressive stats but it seemed clear to anyone watching that the offense flowed better when he was initiating it. In the last two games — a close loss at Brooklyn and a convincing win at Orlando — Jones put up numbers in increased minutes and seemed to establish that he is currently the best healthy point guard on the team. At Brooklyn Jones had 12 points, 7 assists and 5 steals in 32 minutes of net-zero basketball. (The team lost by 9 points.) At Orlando, Jones had 10 points, 5 assists and 0 turnovers in 30 minutes of +19 basketball. For comparison, the Wolves were outscored by 3 points when Dunn was playing point.
Jones still has a ways to go to get fully up to the NBA pace — at least against top-notch point guards — but he is markedly better than last season when he was overwhelmed. He understands the most essential play for anyone who lacks physical advantages but wants to help his team: drive and kick to initiate movement. When he’s out there, just watch what happens to the entire offense after Jones makes this simple play. Wiggins in particularly benefits by catching the ball with a gap to shoot off the dribble, rather than a defender geared up and bracing for his back-down isolation play.
Tyus Jones is a good basketball player who is trying to catch up to NBA speed.
Kris Dunn is a bigtime athlete who is trying to become a better basketball player.
What are the Wolves going to do with this information?
That is the new and very-unexpected question, just 7 games into this season. The Dunn & Tyus Show will probably come to a conclusion tonight, as the Wolves have just announced that Rubio will be available to play against the Clippers. It’s anyone’s guess whether Thibs & Layden LLP inferred anything meaningful from the small sample size of Rubio-less basketball, and whether it has any impact on who might occupy their trade block throughout this season.
It would be majorly surprising if the early Dunn struggles change the Thibs calculus. The bigger question is whether the Jones success has any impact. If the point guard slot was thought to be crowded with both Rubio and Dunn, it might be a rapidly inflating bubble with Tyus joining the party. This is a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
Assuming Rubio starts or plays heavy minutes tonight, it will be telling to see who backs him up. Jones earned the job over the past 5 games, but that may not matter if the team has Dunn’s Development as the higher priority. I guess we’ll have to sit back and watch it play out.