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.

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12 thoughts on “Backup Point Guard Duty: Tyus Jones & The Ghost of JJ Barea

  1. I agree that with Thibs liking the point wing offense and two pick and roll players like Butler and Wiggins, Melo Trimble is the type of player that can play PG in this offense. I thought if they could have gotten JJ Reddick, he would have been an excellent player for that combo guard or two guard set that gets the ball to either wing and finds spacing to hit threes. Of course that means that young Andrew needs to be a more heady passer and the jury is still out on that. As for Tyus, when he played in Flip’s first open scrimmage to the public, I thought he was a bust. He was so tiny and slow that guys like Zack were blowing by him as if he didn’t exist. To play like he did last year shows that the kid has basketball heart and mind and I think Thibs has made guys like Tyus look pretty good (Right DJ Augustine?) Wolves need back up wings and I hate to say it, but I hope Baz isn’t their first option. He has shown the league that he only thinks of scoring and nothing else. That is why he is still looking for a job. Get someone with some ability to defend before you ask Baz to come back

  2. I am fine rolling the dice with Jones. With the leap he made after one year he has earned the shot at being the primary backup. If he makes a similar leap I think we are looking at one of the better backup PG’s in the league.

    Plus he has the advantage of the Wolves downgrading at the starting PG spot. It will be easier to stack up to a weaker player, so I think he will start to get more notice.

  3. Tyus will be very good on both ends of the court. After watching him play two weeks ago in the Twin Cities Pro-Am championship game, I can see why Coach Thibs apparently has confidence in Jones.

  4. Backup PG will be fine. Tyus is ready to contribute – he could always find the open man on offense, but couldn’t defend the NBA position – there is more improvement needed there (and his size makes that development critical) but offensively with the guys on this roster he will contribute. Of greater concern is Teague – he compares much more closely to JJ – Shoot first, play the point like a SG, only slightly bigger than JJ or Tyus, his experience should make him a capable starter. That and the presence of 3 other shooter (4 perhaps – Gibson is our only reluctant shooter at PF) and the potential that each of these players could put aside personal glory for the success of being a key part of an incredible talented lineup should carry us through. Wing depth is still a concern – after Crawford there is significant dropoff – when we need more minutes, our best present options are Tyus (with Teague) going as a small lineup – allowing Teague open looks for his shot, or Bjelica (going big – hopefully against a SF he has foot speed to keep up with on D). If Crawford remains healthy and productive at 20 minutes a game, there really isn’t many additional minutes needed. Should Crawford prove more effective playing on 14 -16 minutes a game, then Tyus/Bjelica or Brown will need to step it up. We really don’t require much scoring from that backup wing – there are others on the floor who can score, but we have to have defense, can’t give up 12-14 quick uncontested points in 6-8 minutes. Trust Tyus – go for another wing for depth, and do our best to get out from Aldrich’s contract – buy out/trade/? have no idea how we do it, but get it done.

    1. Crawford was easily the worst signing of any team in free agency this year. He is fine in the regular season, but he is 100% unplayable in the playoffs. Rivers not realizing that is the main reason they lost in round 1 to the Jazz. Every time Crawford was on the court the Jazz would just make who he was defending the focal point of the offense. In the rare cases it was not working they would run screens until he switched and attack Crawford again.

      Come playoff time everyone is going to realize just how big of a liability he is, that one game he gets hot will not make up for 6 games of being the biggest liability on the court.

      1. The main reason the Clips lost in the 1st round was the injury of Blake Griffin and Rivers’ bizarre unwillingness to run more plays for JJ Redick. Crawford played a role in the second one of those since he got some of Redick’s minutes, but let’s not go overboard with “easily the worst signing.” The clear winner of that award is Tim Hardaway Jr.; guys signed to the room exception almost shouldn’t qualify as a bad signing because the $ and length are too small to be big problems. He’s a bad defender and an overrated shooter who can make contested 3s off the dribble better than most guys in the league (a somewhat overused but still rare skill) and be an excellent secondary ballhandler/facilitator. His problems against the Jazz have a fairly obvious solution: don’t sub him in for offense late in games if the opponent isn’t likely to call timeout after they regain possession. The Clippers wanted 3 perimeter threats on the floor and he was their 3rd-best; that’s not the case here.

        1. Tim Hardaway Jr is the worst bargain, but at least he brings value to a team. You are right, the solution for him in the playoffs is to not play him late. That is why it is a terrible call. The used the last of their salary for a guy that loses all value the moment the playoffs start. It was the last chance to add a contributor and they squandered it.

  5. Remember, Jones could still be a senior at Duke, and is still 21 — so there’s still appreciable upside to mine here. By the time Teague gets to his option years in his contract, MIN may not still be a fit for him (worst-case scenario). Jones will be in his mid-twenties and will have presumably seen everything in the League, and will be as physically mature as he’ll likely get. His biggest problem is something he really can’t improve on: lack of Elite athleticism for the PG position; he’s more of a barely qualified NBA athlete. Provided he continues to hone his NBA skills and can defend his position, he could start and do fine as a fourth or fifth option offensively. Chris Paul now is where he would need to be heading as a player, stylistically. Otherwise, career backup is clearly in the cards for him regardless of what team be plays for.

  6. I’m excited to see Tyus in the backup role, and to some degree he’s earned a chance to fill it with his play and improvement. On the other hand, it’s a bit ironic that Thibs could not wait to ship out Rubio (for the likes of Teague) and yet is 100% fine with the risk and weaknesses of having Tyus as the primary PG option after Teague. It’s odd having Tyus being the return PG from last season. We got rid of Rubio, with all his unique skill, and our not so promising 5th pick. While it seemed like Thibs was gunning to get rid of Rubio, I wondered if he could ever bring himself to pull the trigger after seeing everything he does for a team first hand, after having him help keep the season from being a disaster. I also never thought Thibs would so quickly admit his mistake in picking Dunn at 5 and ship him off without giving him more of a chance to play himself out of his assumed role. I was glad to see us not waste any more time on Dunn, but frustrated with Rubio leaving. I like that Tyus is still here and will enjoy seeing him given the keys to the backup role, but it’s a little odd that he’s the last man standing so to speak. There is risk because he has obvious weaknesses. But he has a great feel for the game (which made him a stark contrast to Dunn) and that alone is intriguing. Fun to hear he can dunk well in a casual setting—would not have guessed that.

  7. Given what is left for PG free agents (Lawson, Williams, Sessions, etc.) I’m not sure I would pick up one of them and push Tyus to 3rd string, even if one of them would be willing to play for the vet minimum. I think Melo Trimble can be a good combo guard to back up Teague N Tyus and will be hungrier than the vets in doing what Thibs wants.

    Our bench is still thin (Crawford, Taj or G, Belly, Cole and eventually Patton) and it would be nice to have an athletic scorer like Green or a defensive stopper like Allen just to give our wing starters some rest during the season. Not that Thibs agrees they need a rest, but if Pop does it, maybe Thibs should too.

  8. JJ was fine when he could be paired with Rubio, which was his role early in his Wolves career. Once the Shved experiment went down the tubes, he was forced into a role because of his height that was never going to work. The bigger problem with that bench centered around Shved and Derrick Williams going bust, Muhammad/Dieng just not being ready to contribute, and Adelman’s bizarre strategy of not staggering minutes in a way that had 1-2 starters in there with the bench. Thibs at least staggered the minutes so either LaVine or Towns was part of the bench-heavy lineups to start 1st and 4th quarters.

    They’ll need the security of a veteran as the 3rd guy. Even if Teague has been durable historically, Jones seems like a guy whose effectiveness tops out at about 24 minutes. Of the ones available, only Watson really seems like a threat to his backup PG role; Brooks also seems like a fit if he’s making shots. I’m just glad the Tyus stans have quieted down with some of their nonsense; it’s hard to root for a guy when so many were irrational about how good he is. He’s decisive and seems to understand when the offense is expecting him to shoot, which helps a lot.

    1. Good comment – I think Tyus is ready for big minutes – but if we are thinking 34 + minutes without a real NBA quality backup (should Teague go down), this would only work for a couple games – Even Teague is going to have difficulty with much more than 30 minutes (little guys bring great energy, but on defense they have to go flat out to defend) simply due to the total energy demand at all times. PG has to be the first down the floor to defend (almost always against a bigger player) while they also expend the energy bringing up the ball and setting up the offense. Crawford moving to PG if there is an injury simply puts more pressure on both the point and wing rotations.

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