Backup Point Guard Duty: Tyus Jones & The Ghost of JJ Barea
Minnesota Timberwolves fans have a special anxiety about bench play for a simple reason: the only season of their past dozen in which they had a good starting five was spoiled by a terrible bench. Specifically, that team — the 2013-14 crew that included the final coaching season of Rick Adelman and Kevin Love’s last in Minnesota before the Wiggins trade — was undone by its lack of a capable backup point guard. They had J.J. Barea, whose success in the 2011 Finals as a change-of-gears combo guard masked the reality that he had no point guard tendencies and needed a lot of teammate assistance to play his best ball. Replacing Dirk Nowitzki with Dante Cunningham diminished Barea’s effectiveness. The other plausible point on that team, Alexey Shved, was long exposed as unfit for NBA basketball. He logged 664 minutes that season — many next to Barea, sharing offense-initiation duties — and played terribly.
That ’13-14 squad finished 40-42, with a record that would sometimes qualify for playoff contention in the East. But that year, in a typically-strong Western Conference, it was nowhere close. Barea’s old Dallas Mavericks earned the eighth seed with a record of 49-33. The Wolves would’ve potentially hung right with the Mavs and other playoff candidates had their bench played respectably. Consider that Ricky Rubio’s season plus-minus that year was (+382). Unfortunately, his backup Barea ended the year at (-97).
After that season, Adelman retired, Love was traded away, and the Wolves commenced their third rebuilding attempt since the Kevin Garnett trade of 2007. (Some might quibble about this, but I consider the KG Trade to be Rebuild #1 and the Kahn hiring/Al Jefferson Trade to be Rebuild #2. Flip trading away Love was Rebuild #3.)
Wolves fans can be forgiven for freaking out a little bit about backup point guard play.
That brings us to the team’s current situation.
Right now the Timberwolves have two point guards on the roster. Ricky is gone. Jeff Teague, most known for his time in Atlanta that included an All-Star appearance, is here. Teague will earn about $19 Million next year (and the year after that, and, if he wants, the year after that) so it’s safe to say he will be the starter.
Behind him in the rotation if the season started today is Tyus Jones. The Apple Valley kid and one-and-done Duke legend is only 21 years old. He looks younger than that. Of remaining sources of offseason fan discussion, Tyus’s hold on the backup point guard spot is one of the better ones.
Thibs has used up the vast majority of his cap space and the team is searching for veterans willing to accept the minimum salary to round out the roster. Unless they make a trade, it’s hard to envision them adding a different backup point guard of any significance.
So, what about Tyus? When he entered the league after winning the national championship at Duke, he was not physically prepared for the pro game. Props to him for knowing that he’d get drafted on potential — Flip Saunders traded back into the first round to take him — but no reasonable person expected Tyus to produce immediately. That he played at all as a rookie was somewhat surprising and only the result of tanking for another high draft pick (in this case, Kris Dunn). In those 573 rookie minutes, Jones struggled. He shot just 35.9 percent from the field and had a catastrophic net rating of (-10.0). He looked completely overwhelmed.
From that as-low-as-it-can-get starting point, Tyus improved a ton before his second season. Still the youngest player on the team (he didn’t turn 21 until May 2017) and still noticeably lacking the muscle maturity of a typical NBA guard, Jones played a lot better last season. His shooting percentage rose to a more respectable 41.1, including 35.6 percent from downtown. His assist-to-turnover ratio, per 36 minutes, was an impressive 7.3 to 1.8. Jones’s on-ball defense was still problematic, but his team defense was a revelation: he began to jump passing lanes for steals and draw lots of charges. Thibs, perhaps the league’s most respected defensive mind, went out of his way to praise Tyus’s team defense throughout the season. Most interesting of all, Jones had the best net rating (+2.5) of all Wolves regulars of last season. The Wolves played their best basketball with Tyus on the floor. His playing time was pretty limited, yes — he played 774 total minutes, averaging 12.9 per game — and most of it came against other teams’ backups, but this seemed like enough evidence to at least prove that he could be out on the floor and not be a problematic backup player.
Despite the massive leap Jones took from Year 1 to 2 and his surprising plus-minus stats suggesting he was a helpful player, there is a nagging suspicion that he still isn’t ready to contribute to a good team. Maybe it’s the fact that Thibs played his starters so much last year and the bench was used so sparingly. Maybe it’s the PTSD from 2013-14. I saw Jones play a couple weeks ago in the Twin Cities Pro-Am and he looks stronger and better than ever. Fans who only see him in NBA games would be surprised to know that he can soar up for alley-oop dunks when not struggling to keep apace with NBA competition. Objectively, he deserves every opportunity to be a regular rotation player on next year’s Wolves. Subjectively, I imagine some are still worried that the team needs to add a capable backup point guard in case Tyus isn’t yet ready. The fear would be that next season will go just like the one recalled above, with Teague-Butler-Towns lineups outplaying opponents all year, only to have enough should-be wins spoiled by the bench to miss out on the playoffs. Whether that’s rational thinking or not is up for debate.
While on this subject and before closing, it’s worth pointing out that this team might ask a lot less of its point guard than most. Consider that its best all-around player — right now — is a playmaking wing. Its second-best is a post scorer. And its third best is another wing slasher. A team with a pair of elite wing slashers and a dynamite big-man scorer probably doesn’t want its point guard handling the ball very much. Consider the excellent piece written by Jonathan Tjarks about modern point guard trends. (Eds note: that last sentence includes a link to Tjarks’s piece. For some reason I can’t get the text colored.) Emphasizing the league trend away from traditional position slots and toward versatile, “medium-sized” players, Tjarks profiled Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks as an example of where some teams in the league might head with their point guard position:
At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Brogdon has gargantuan size for his position, and he perfectly fits Milwaukee’s model of suffocating opposing teams with length. The ability of Giannis and Khris Middleton to create shots for everyone else allowed Jason Kidd to play a nontraditional point guard like Brogdon at the 1. He’s by far one of the biggest players at his position in the NBA, and deploying a wing-size player at that spot gives the Bucks incredible defensive flexibility. They pushed a better and more experienced Raptors team to the limit in the first round by starting a lo-fi version of Golden State’s Lineup of Death, with four wings around Thon Maker, a versatile 7-footer capable of stretching the floor and guarding on the perimeter.
If Thibs gets most of his playmaking from Butler and Wiggins, and Towns continues to evolve as a nightmare combo threat of rolling and posting, the Wolves simply will not need very much from their point guard, on offense. In that case, this entire question about the backup point guard could become relatively meaningless. They might run lineups that include no traditional point guard — for an older-school Brogdon comp, think about what Ron Harper was like on the late-90s Bulls; teams that were obviously led by their wing pairing. With playmaking responsibilities shared more equally, the team’s lineup flexibility would increase dramatically and whoever is ostensibly the backup point guard will be an irrelevant question.
For now though, questions still remain. Thibs’s best teams in Chicago were based around heavy point guard involvement. Derrick Rose won league MVP playing for Thibs. Considering that he just spent fifty seven million of Glen Taylor’s dollars on Jeff Teague, Thibs is probably not planning to scrap the involvement of the point guard in his offense. Not anytime soon, anyway. If the team’s approach remains fairly traditional, it seems Tyus Jones will be an important player next year. Whether he takes another step in progressing toward NBA success, or takes one backwards that reveals last season as a fluke, could go a long way in swinging the season outcome from “near miss” to the Wolves first playoff berth since 2004.