“Insane shooting numbers” and “rock solid vet” is the word on the Minnesota Timberwolves two newest signings: James Nunnally (the shooter) and CJ Williams (the vet).
But beyond those demarcations, the two fit a larger archetype; one of maturity and an understanding that being great in their role is enough.
The term “Thibs Guy” is often thrown around the Wolves ether with a pejorative connotation but in this case — if we are going to recognize Nunnally and Williams as such — it should not be negative.
It is my understanding that the frustration with Thibs Guys or the Thibs Way — a sentiment I have shared — comes from an antiquated style on the floor but perhaps even more so an outdated strategy for roster construction.
These two moves are not that.
In fact, signing overseas vets is the hip new thing. Good, smart teams are not only gunning for efficiencies in shot selection on the floor but trying to become more proficient in how they use each roster spot.
In this case, the final few.
Last season, the Utah Jazz handed out nearly 2,000 minutes to Ekpe Udoh and Royce O’Neale, two players who were both playing overseas in 2016-17. Udoh and O’Neale add to perhaps the most triumphant overseas middle-aged-foreigner-to-star-role-player story in the league: Joe Ingles.
Daniel Theis and Shane Larkin were both playing in Europe before taking on critical roles last season for the Boston Celtics — a contender desperate to replace minutes lost to myriad injuries. Boston also just signed Brad Wanamaker (Nunnally’s teammate in Turkey last season).
The San Antonio Spurs used Brandon Paul who had played in three different leagues in as many countries before becoming San Antonio’s 2017-18 version of Jonathan Simmons — a break-the-glass in case of a Kawhi Leonard emergency replacement.
Darius Miller bombed 358 shots from distance at a 41.1 percent clip last season with the New Orleans Pelicans after playing the prior two seasons overseas.
The list goes on.
The Nunnally and Williams signings are relatively small financial potatoes — likely combining to enter the season with less than $1 million guaranteed — but their acquisitions are similar to the above players. And, it is an indication entering year three of his tenure that Tom Thibodeau is continuing a trend towards risk aversion.
From moving on from Shabazz Muhammad (a wildcard) to signing Derrick Rose (a known to Thibodeau) and prioritizing Anthony Tolliver (also rock solid) over Nemanja Bjelica (historically volatile), we can see a clear desire to have the bench be a lower risk proposition than it has been the past two years.
While Nunnally and Williams certainly are not known commodities, their more specified styles of play suggest that they come with fewer vagaries. The styles may differ: Nunnally prefers to spot-up on offense and play the weak side on defense where Williams is an eager driver with the ball and quick to get into an opponent’s space on defense. But they do have a specific style.
And that’s what Thibodeau wants. “Star in your role,” is a classic parlance of his.
Nunnally, the Wolves most recent signing who has reportedly signed a partially-guaranteed multi-year deal, has starred in the role of elite spot-up shooter overseas since going undrafted in 2012.
Over the past two seasons in the Turkish and Euro leagues, Nunnally shot 400 shots from 3 and made 208 of those attempts. Extend the sample size to five years — and a few more leagues — Nunnally has shot 847 3s converted at a clip of 45.4 percent, per Rafael Uehara.
With a high and quick trigger, Nunnally has a controlled fling to his shot that has more of the hopping swagger of a 5-foot-10 guard than you’d expect out of a 6-foot-7, 220-pound frame.
“Five years ago, it was more isolation and mid-range, but when you look back — when the Spurs were playing the Heat, when Danny Green and Gary Neal were just going off — you saw what they were doing, just spreading the court,” said Nunnally in an interview with Ben Rohrbach of Yahoo! Sports. “It was crazy. They’re not the most coveted guys … but then they do it and open doors for guys like me.”
Details of how much of Nunnally’s deal is guaranteed will indicate just how open that door is in the eyes of Thibodeau, but it seems clear that he is acknowledging this type of player’s value more than he was five years ago — when his Chicago Bulls were 29th in the NBA in 3-point attempts (shooting 580 fewer 3s than the 2017-18 Wolves did).
Signing Nunnally reminds me, in both function and financials, of the Darius Miller signing with New Orleans that I mentioned above. Miller, also 27 years old signed a two-year deal with the Pelicans for $4.2 million, but only the first year was guaranteed. When Miller hit over-40 percent of his 3s, guaranteeing his second year was not only a no-brainer but became a valuable trade asset.
The Pelicans also expressed interest in Nunnally this summer but when he signed with the Wolves they pivoted to a two-year deal with Jahlil Okafor. Okafor’s deal is for two years (like Nunnally’s) but the second year has a team option and the first year is only partially guaranteed.
My assumption would be that Nunnally’s contract structure is similar.
These are calculated risks.
Both Minnesota and New Orleans are desperately trying to take advantage of the primes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis. The higher-risk propositions were made a year ago — Jrue Holiday/Jeff Teague and DeMarcus Cousins/Taj Gibson — to varying degrees of success, but these moves are being made on the margins.
Not grand slams finding a star but home runs on a role player.
Of course, calculated risks are still inherently risky. It’s not all rainbows and roses for Nunnally’s prospectus. Many players struggle to translate shooting success from Europe over to the NBA. Being defended by longer and faster defenders in the NBA can skew a player’s effectiveness by forcing them to adjust the speed and height of their release. Nunnally has a pretty shot but a low release. There is also, of course, the reality that a FIBA 3-point line is 19.25 inches shorter than the NBA’s.
And then there is the other side of the ball and the question: Is adding shooting or defense more important for the Wolves?
From the scouting reports and statistical profiles I’ve read on Nunnally, defense should be a concern. One report read, “[Nunnally] gets blown by an unsettling amount in isolation and doesn’t hustle in pursuit to try challenging shots and passes from behind.”
Another pointed to a complete disregard for defensive rebounding — 11 percent defensive rebound rate — and a clear preference to just run down and get ready to shoot. Additionally, Nunnally’s team last season (Fenerbahce) ran an aggressive switching system — the antithesis of Thibodeau’s drop coverage system.
But, again: calculated risk. Playing off-ball defense for Thibodeau requires attention to detail and awareness; a learned skill and one that a 28-year-old (like Nunnally) would be more likely to intuit than a 19-year-old (like Josh Okogie).
When it comes to players signed for the minimum, it is critically important to not set expectations beyond hoping the player has one clear-cut NBA-caliber skill. With Nunnally, that is of course shooting. And the move by Thibodeau to sign him is an indication that a commitment to increasing 3-point volume is not just lip service.
The Rock-Solid Vet
With CJ Williams, defining that discernable NBA skill is harder.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Golliver, Los Angeles Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank described Williams as a player who is “not going to make gameplan mistakes” and was someone Doc Rivers trusted because he believed Williams was “rock-solid” schematically. The Rivers-Thibodeau connection likely came into play here, as did Thibodeau’s relationship with Jeff Van Gundy.
Van Gundy coached Williams for the 2017 USA team in FIBA competition.
Maybe that fairly ambiguous skill of “veteran grit” is an NBA-caliber skill. However, given the contract Williams signed with the Wolves — a two-way deal, that suggests he will be wearing a jersey that says “Iowa” on it more often than “Minnesota” — even one discernable skill is not even a fair expectation.
That said, Williams played an important role for a fairly frisky Clippers teams last season, starting 18 games and averaging 25.5 minutes per game in those contests. Meaning: he has recent NBA experience. Furthering the Thibodeau risk-aversion narrative.
Of the 43 players currently signed to two-way deals, no player played more total minutes than Williams — who logged 707. The median minute total from the group was Milton Doyle of the Brooklyn Nets who played only 125 minutes of largely garbage time.
It’s likely that there was no player with more recent experience who would have been willing to sign a two-way with the Wolves.
As an aside: I wouldn’t be certain that Nunnally will play more than Williams just because his deal has more guaranteed money. Nunnally had a standing offer overseas for $1.5 million and that may be contributing to his NBA salary more than being definitively a stronger player than Williams — who was in the relatively cheapo two-way market.
With what is shaping up to be an end-of-rotation need for a wing, the question will be which of the two can execute enough to contribute immediately.
Execution can come from familiarity. Not only does Williams have more recent — and meaningful — NBA experience, he has familiarity with the Wolves coaching staff. For both the 2015 and 2017 summer, Williams played for the Wolves’ summer league team. Those squads were coached by current Wolves assistant Ryan Saunders.
In 2017, I had the chance to watch Williams up close in Vegas and a trek back into my notes from those games have Williams as the “most confident” player on the squad. When the ball wasn’t in the hands of that summer’s point guard (Marcus Paige), the offense ran through Williams who often effectively attacked the bucket. While that summer team was awful, he was my highest-graded player — light years ahead of Amile Jefferson, who actually signed a two-way with the Wolves.
Thibodeau also has relevant film from the actual NBA to watch on Williams. He can use that to determine whether or not the 28.2 percent Williams shot from 3 with the Clippers is a fair indication of his shooting prowess or if the over-40 percent he shot in the D/G-League is more representative.
Williams is not a dynamic shooter — in that, he isn’t going to be putting up 3s off the dribble — but he can definitely stand there and stroke it. How many players did that on the Wolves last year?
A likely concern of Thibodeau’s — and certainly mine — is whether or not Williams can temper his, at times, wild desires to attack the rim. Years in the lesser leagues, where he had success, seem to have infected him a bit with a hyper-confidence to drive against defenders that are not on the G-League level.
In the NBA he’ll have to pick his spots more. With the Clippers, Williams really loved shooting long floaters. Breaking out of that habit and finding a pull-up game for late-clock situations like this one will likely uptick efficiency. Shooting from 3-10 feet was his weakest area last season.
It’s not going to be perfect with the minutes Williams does get — if he gets any — but they will be different than the backup wing minutes a year ago. Jamal Crawford’s new nickname has become “addition by subtraction” so even if Williams can be passable, that’s helpful.
And if he can replace the 301 minutes Muhammad played as a slightly better version of Marcus Georges-Hunt, that’s a coup.
The Offseason Wraps The Thibs Way
There can be qualms of pursuing Tolliver over Bjelica and it is fair to have concerns about whether or not Rose can be effective or healthy but Thibs laid out a plan: Thibs Guys off the bench.
And he executed it.
At his end-of-season press conference, when asked about the style of his coaching and roster construction Thibodeau responded pointedly: “Every day I put as much as I can into it, and I’m willing to live with the results.
“And that’s the way that I’ve always approached it, so I’ve never concerned myself with the critics. I feel I’m gonna study the team harder than anyone else, so I’m gonna have a better understanding of the team also.”
That understanding is undoubtedly on the line this season. Every player on the bench this season other than Tyus Jones, Thibodeau has drafted or signed himself. To his credit or condemnation, these moves are his. They are all now Thibs Guys — literally and metaphorically — and it’s time for them to begin starring in their role.