If you go back and look at the rivals.com basketball prospect rankings in 2013, you will see Andrew Wiggins at the top of the list and Julius Randle right behind him at number two. Zach LaVine is also on there, ranked 44th. In the 2014 rankings, Karl-Anthony Towns is ranked 5th, Tyus Jones is ranked 7th, and D’Angelo Russell is ranked 18th. And in 2015, Rivals ranked Brandon Ingram 4th in his class.
Even if an imperfect measure, the number of recent highly-ranked prep prospects on the Timberwolves and Lakers reflects a couple of truths:
- Both teams are insanely talented.
- Both teams are insanely young.
At Target Center on Sunday night, fans bore witness to a preview of what will hopefully become a playoffs rivalry down the road. While LaVine sat the game out with a sore knee, the other six names in that first paragraph played big minutes. And on this particular night, the Wolves were the better team. They won by 26 points which is probably a bit misleading (it was a 12-point game with 3:33 to go) but reflects that this was not a very close game. The Wolves shifted back and forth between building up big leads and then letting the Lakers back in the game. They just happened to end the game on a high note — hence the big final margin.
There were a number of Timberwolves takeaways in this matchup of future-contender hopefuls. I’ll run through 5 of them.
The first is that Ricky Rubio is a very good basketball player who makes the Timberwolves a better basketball team. He was key to the first quarter that saw the Wolves open up a 13-point lead. Ricky made driving layups and great passes. He even hit a three-pointer. Rubio set the tone and his teammates followed his lead. He ended the game with a 10 points/10 assists double-double, along with 4 rebounds and 3 steals in 34 minutes of +25 basketball.
The second is that Andrew Wiggins is blossoming before our eyes. Playing a mix of shooting guard (in LaVine’s absence, Nemanja Bjelica started which shifted Wig to the off-guard) and point-small forward (initiating the half-court offense, but with two other point guards on the floor) Wiggins turned in a career high 47 points (!) on just 21 shot attempts (he went to the line 22 times) to go along with 3 assists in a game-best +33. He scored steadily throughout the game, logging 41 minutes and dropping 25 in the first half and another 22 in the second. Wig scored in a variety of ways, mixing in threes (2-5), dribble jumpers, and constant attacking the hoop to both score and draw fouls. He had it going.
Something to notice about this team’s offense: it really thrives in transition — primary or secondary — when led by Ricky Rubio for the first three quarters of the game. When the game slows down in the fourth and they find themselves taking more care of the ball after a defensive rebound, you can expect to see Point Wiggins initiating offense from the top of the key. He usually plays off a ball screen and — right now — he usually looks to score. He made a number of solid passes, however, and that assist total could’ve been bigger had his teammates knocked down more shots. I found it interesting that (in LaVine’s absence) Thibs had Wiggins playing point guard with both Rubio and Jones on the floor with him.
The third takeaway is that Bjelica played one of his best career games. He had a few Bjelica-esque mistakes in the first quarter — losing control of the ball on what would’ve been a breakaway dunk, and passing it to Wig’s feet when he was open next to him in the corner — but he settled down and had a great all-around performance. His three-point shooting was the most obvious plus, knocking down 5 treys on 8 attempts. But he contributed in other ways as well, including 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in +21 basketball. Whether it was moving to the small forward position for stretches or just a hot night remains to be seen, but this version of Bjelica looked more like the one we hoped to see when he arrived last season with Euro MVP buzz.
The fourth takeaway is a negative one: KAT didn’t play well and he forced a lot of dumb shots. He still seems to be looking for his go-to moves in this new system. Whether it’s increased attention from defenses or KAT trying to adjust to Wiggins as the initiator of more sets, some of the games have been surprisingly frustrating for him. He shot 7-22 from the field tonight, which is a better indicator of his (relatively) poor performance than his otherwise nice looking 18/12/2 stat line.
The fifth and final takeaway is that — in the middle of this game — Thibs shifted Tyus up to #2 in the point guard depth chart. I wrote about this on Saturday. Jones is playing better than Dunn right now, and Thibs (in the Lakers game, anyway) has made the appropriate adjustment. Dunn just needs work on his offense; not just shooting but playmaking as well. It is much less a Dunn Red Flag than a positive sign about the strides Jones made throughout and since his rookie season.
A funny thought that ties in the rivals.com intro: Jones probably considers himself better than D’Angelo Russell. He was considered better in high school and it was his team that won the national title in the one season that they played college ball, and it was Jones winning Most Outstanding Player honors in the Final Four. The only thing that’s changed is their level of competition. I’m not saying he is better (he isn’t) but it would almost be weird if Tyus himself didn’t believe it, considering where they’ve been in the recent past.
These Wolves-Lakers games are going to be must-watch TV for a long time. Ingram is going to grow into that frame and cause all sorts of matchup problems while playing defense with Tayshaun Prince-like versatility. Randle is a bruiser with a crazy streak that reminds a bit of (good) Lance Stephenson. Russell is a maestro with the ball in his hands. The Wolves have all the young guys we know and love, and on Sunday it was Andrew Wiggins who shined brightest among his young star peers.
Next up are the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday at Target Center. Until then.