Wolves 125, Lakers 99: A Matchup of the Future

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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:

  1. Both teams are insanely talented.
  2. 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.

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7 Responsesso far.

  1. pyrrol says:

    Notes: LaVine might be out a bit. I didn’t know he was a scratch until late, but when he walked out to congratulate the guys he was limping noticeably.

    Wiggins had a red hot game. I’ve said it before, but the work he put in this off season is very clear to be seen on the court. Most obviously, in his 3 pt shooting, but he wouldn’t be a point-forward option without an improved handle. That being said, I’m not sure it is a nightly good strategy to have him be a point forward. It works when he’s hot, but it really isn’t the best overall offense for us to use unless he is just going bananas and it gets a little dull to watch, too.

    I’ve not been worried about Bjelica and expect more good things from him. The question of whether it helps him to play SF is an interesting one. I think it’s more about who he played with tonight and the continuity that comes with big minutes that set him off. He’s a combo forward–a stretch PF, and maybe a bit slow for a SF. He can rebound decent for a bench PF and get put backs and can score in the paint. But he hits threes like a SF. So, in theory he can be a bit of a bruiser as a SF, and be a bit of a stretch as a PF. It makes sense that he would be best as a bench PF and if starting, then doing that as a SF. It worked well tonight, but I think he can do well in both roles. Loved Thibs’ lineup solution.

    OK, KAT did take some ‘forced’ shots. But mostly he missed shots he normally makes. And he kept at it and still helped us win. If that’s his version of an off night, I guess I’ll take it.

    I agree with Thibs moving up Tyus on the depth chart, but it was kind of grey the way he did it. And I’d actually like to see Tyus given the keys to run the bench offense a bit more when he’s out there. Unless there is something way better, if Rubio is on the bench and Tyus is out there he should be running the offense. Period. I do think it is a red flag of sorts for Dunn. I mean, he sort of destroys team offense when he’s out there. He can’t possibly make up for it on the D side of the court, and his D is still flawed in a lot of ways. Is this why he was picked 5th–a LaVine-like high ceiling but not ready yet kind of situation? I don’t think so. Part of why he was picked so high and was high on the draft boards is that he was expected to translate rather quickly to the NBA (for a PG). I don’t see that. We are in patient mode now. And I’m not sure what the ceiling is either. I’m not saying it is low, but we just can’t be sure it is high yet. Tyus, for his part, has been underrated over and over, but is everything Dunn is not as far as a quick study. He had an obvious natural feel for running the offense last year, even as he struggled to adapt to being physically over matched. Now he’s adapting to that, and adding polish to his natural instincts. He looks like a legit backup PG already. So that’s the good news. While we wait out Dunn and what he really is, he have Tyus doing quite well in his stead.

    Rubio looks happy to be back. He is such a help to the team, and brought some razzle, too. The Wolves were fun tonight and look more together as a team lately. Hope we are making the next step.

  2. seanie blue says:

    Zach could be the best 6th man in basketball. As long as he makes goofy plays at exactly the wrong time, he’ll never be a leader on a winning team, and he shouldn’t be a starter on this one. I don’t care if he can jump over the Empire State Building: teams win games, not athletes. He’s fun, I love to hear his chatter, but he’s exhibit A of not making his teammates better. I’m amazed more people haven’t seen the drag he puts on Wiggins by forcing a truly transcendental player to work too hard defending bigger players. Wiggins is a 2, and tonight’s explosion is just further evidence. I don’t think it matters who plays the smaller forward, as long as Wiggins doesn’t. Rubio and Wiggins can make this team win this season if they are the backcourt. Wiggins is potentially unstoppable, and he always makes his teammates better because of the attention he demands: driving to the basket as suddenly as he can skews the defenses around to distraction. The NBA adjusts, as we’ve seen with KAT, but there is no adjustment to Wiggins. And what a personality for pro sport: an assassin who understands the geometries of the game. It would make this team better if Zack was traded for a veteran SF who can lead as well as play, but I understand the chemistry Zack has with his teammates. He just doesn’t know how to play basketball to win, and that’s fine if can be the microwave off the bench and unsettle the other team with dazzling ability, but when it comes to the crunch and a thoughtful play is needed to stay close to an opponent or to keep a slim lead, it’s a bonehead play that knocks the Wolves off, and Zack contributes far more of these than any single player should be allowed. If he misses a few games, the Wolves go on a tear no matter who plays the small forward slot.

    • Frank says:

      I’ve sat wondering over the past 3 years when Wiggins will be moved to the 2. I couldn’t have said it any better than Seanie Blue except you maybe too hard on Zach. I’ve told many, one or the other has to move (even to the bench). They lack a big, strong, tough SOB small forward or Belly!

  3. Tom says:

    I think with the wolves playing larger line ups (like upcoming Charlotte) it is good to see Thibs finally go big with wigs at two and belly at SF. This may have been a line up that beats Denver and Nets, but I bet it isn’t the last time we see it.

  4. sportsbygreg says:

    Wiggins is starting to play like a TRUE superstar.

  5. gjk says:

    It’s baffling that they’re trying to turn Towns into Patrick Ewing or Tim Duncan when he’s much more like Dirk Nowitzki or C-Webb on offense. He’s doing a lot of posting up and driving, and not much is being created for him by others. Maybe the mid-range shot isn’t something worth heavily featuring, but Towns is really comfortable at that distance and one of the best in the NBA from there. I’m all for him shooting 2-3 3s per game, but get the guy some easy ones. The pick-and-roll with him and Rubio is really good yet barely emphasized so far.

    At some point, they’ll have to recognize the need for a passing/shooting wing playing the role that Bjelly did last night. He can probably do that against certain lineups, and it’s probably worth utilizing more, but he’s a 3/4 more than just a 3. As a player, he’s most similar to Hedo Turkoglu, a guy who played 3 more than 4 but struggled against athletic wings. I’d still like to see what he and Bazz do with more minutes next to Rubio.

    Rubio’s done a much better job of not assuming he has to shoot. When he doesn’t have an angle near the rim, he’s been keeping his dribble alive and changing the geometry of the defense like Nash used to be able to do. Defenses aren’t structured to stop a ballhandler flying around in the paint, and it leads to some fun stuff.

    • pyrrol says:

      Great points gjk! I don’t think Towns is being used quite right yet, either. I do think he should be used in the post, though. He’s quite gifted down there, and maybe I’m old school, but I think teams with a healthy post threat are more dangerous.

      This weird line up may have show us some useful things, but one game isn’t quite a reason to retool the whole line up arrangement.

      As a team, even in a well done game like this we could still use more creation by Rubio off the dribble. Too often our offense asks Rubio to dump the ball off right away (usually to Wiggins) rather than probe the offense. When Wiggins has a golden touch that’s fine, I guess. But when we ask Rubio to dump it off it doesn’t seem like we have a good alternative often enough. It’s like we just say, ‘Wiggins go do something while everyone stands around.’ When Rubio is allowed to probe dazzling things often happen, and if not the team seems to have better overall ball movement on those possessions. Rubio is great at twisting the D in knots by doing this, and even with no other action in play, just a little Rubio probe opens so much up. Rubio showed an ability to sneak a layup during this game that will only make this type of thing more effective.

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