Timberwolves Player Profiles: Jeff Teague

Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Johnson (@CjohnsNBA) contributed to this story.

The Minnesota Timberwolves preseason is here. Additional player profiles below. 

During the 2017 offseason, the Timberwolves traded Ricky Rubio and the remaining two-years/$28 million of his contract to the Utah Jazz for a 2018 first-round pick that became Josh Okogie.

Almost immediately afterward, they signed free-agent Jeff Teague to a three-year, $57M deal. The sequence of events, in theory, accomplished two goals.

First, it replenished draft capital that had evaporated when Flip Saunders exchanged a lottery-protected pick for Adreian Payne in 2015. And second, it added an experienced point guard to the roster who better fits Tom Thibodeau’s preferred style of play.

Let’s dig into his player preview.

Statistical Profile

  • Teague’s Heatmap demonstrates his disciplined approach to finding the spots on the floor from which he likes to attack. He had more attempts from floater range — where he converted 98 of 251 shots — than he did at the rim (122/196). And of 228 3-pointers attempted, a staggering 207 came from above the break. Whether it’s the most effective strategy or not, Teague shoots from where he’s comfortable.
    • Most minutes played per game (33) since 2011-12.
    • Highest 3PAr (percentage of field goal attempts from 3-point range) of his career.
    • More than seven assists per game for the second consecutive season.
    • Lowest usage rate since 2011-12.
    • Lowest player efficiency rating since 2011-12.
    • Ranks 25th of 100 point guards by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM).

Role on the Wolves

With his new team, Teague was expected to fill a role that his predecessor could not.

During Rubio’s final year with the Wolves, a polarity became apparent between the Spaniard’s strengths as a distributor and Thibodeau’s inclination to use him as a spot-up threat. When Teague – a better shooter – was acquired, it was easy to imagine him as a secondary option while Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins initiated the offense.

Teague went on to score 14.2 points per game on near league-average efficiency in 2017-18; he was his best finishing at the rim, where he converted on a career-high 63.4 percent of attempts. And in accordance with that most anticipated, he did so on a relatively low usage rate (percentage of plays used by a player while they’re on the floor).

More plainly, he enjoyed a smaller role in the offense than he has during the previous years of his career.

But because he was running a deliberate system that is designed to create favorable isolation opportunities, Teague often held the ball deep into a shot clock. As a result, the Wolves had the most field goal attempts in the league with under four seconds remaining in a possession.

Interestingly, of those late shot clock heaves, Towns was responsible for fewer attempts (74) than Butler (133), Jamal Crawford (111), Wiggins (108) and Teague himself (89). However, Towns led the league in effective field goal percentage in these situations, per NBA.com/stats.

Moving forward, an improved chemistry with Towns would help Teague to bolster his value to the Wolves. Not only do his post-entry passes leave more to be desired, the duo seemed to have a difficult time building rapport in the pick-and-roll.

Teague as PnR Handler Possessions per Game Points per Possession Percentile (%)
2016-17 6.5 0.98 86th
2017-18 6.6 0.84 60th
Towns as PnR Roller Possessions per Game Points per Possession Percentile (%)
2016-17 4.4 1.23 88th
2017-18 3.8 1.16 69th

Towns, after averaging 1.23 PPP rolling to the basket on 4.4 chances per game in 2016-17, produced 1.16 PPP on 3.8 attempts with Teague at the helm. One of the league’s most versatile offensive threats, Towns should be utilized as much as is efficiently possible; his point guard’s role in making that happen is fundamental.

On the other side of the ball, stretches of inconsistent effort led to uninspiring defensive statistics for Teague. Per NBA.com/stats, his individual Defensive Rating (DRTG) of 108.7 was last among the starters, as were his 0.24 Defensive Win Shares added. Though sample sizes vary, the starting unit’s DRTG improved by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions when Teague was replaced by Tyus Jones.

Teague’s thick frame, quickness and basketball IQ have made him an effective stopper in the past. As recently as 2015, he received All-Defensive team votes from six different analysts. But as a member of the new-look Wolves, his man-to-man effort left something to be desired (video below).

According to a report by Sean Deveney at Sporting News, the long-time Atlanta Hawk went to Thibodeau during the year to suggest that Jones be allotted more minutes. Though Teague projects to play a largely similar role in 2018-19, it’s reasonable to expect a slight decrease in playing time as Jones and Derrick Rose pick up the slack.

Film Clipboard

The offense runs through Teague in Minnesota. To some extent, all offenses run through their point guard. But for many teams, when their lead ball-handler is their fourth- or fifth-best starter, they peel back that onus.

Thibodeau does the opposite, he empowers Teague.

Empowering the lead ball-handler on offense, just as much as ICE-ing or dropping the pick-and-roll on defense, is a staple of Thibodeau’s coaching tactics.

There was the Rose era but even in the thin times in Chicago, when Rose was sidelined, the desire to run through the point rarely wavered. So much so that the term “Thibs Dust” was born out of the way bench point guards — the likes of Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin and Aaron Brooks — were empowered (and succeeded) in a larger role than their spot in the pecking order suggested.

Teague is essentially a souped-up version of those players; capable of being a dynamic threat at all three levels of the floor. And that is why Thibodeau has been willing to lean on Teague to run the offense through.

But what does it mean to have the offense run through a player?

Quite simply, this can be illustrated by the total time of possession a player has the ball-in-hand while in the half-court. More explicitly, this is exemplified by the actions within the offense that lead said player to be the possession’s chief decision-maker, as Teague so often is.

With Teague, this is probably best illustrated by a juxtaposition of the way in which he is deployed compared to Tyus Jones.

Below is a classic action: The 1-5 pick-and-roll. The Wolves line up two guards, two players in the corners and have the big come to set a ball-screen. With the defending big (No. 77 Joffrey Lauvergne) dropping the coverage into the lane, Teague can go to work — kicking if help comes or finishing in isolation.

A key difference with Teague on the floor versus Jones is the function of Wiggins, who is positioned in the weakside corner on this play when the offense is running through Teague.

However, when Teague is not on the floor, the role of the point guard and weakside wing are often swapped — it becomes Jones’ job to man the corner while Wiggins is left to be the action’s decision-maker.

Minnesota fans will remember the heavy usage of this tactic during Thibodeau’s first year in Minnesota, often referred to as The Point Wiggins Experiment.

We also saw an iteration of this after Butler was added to the team. When Teague was injured, as he was for this matchup against Milwaukee, Jones started and brought the ball up the floor but the offense ran through Butler — again with Jones relegated to the corner.

This utilization of Teague, specifically his placement on the court, is a key reason why only 21 of his 228 attempts from deep last season came from the corner. Surely, Teague (and Thibodeau) recognize the corner 3 is the most-efficient perimeter shot to take but they must believe that relegating him to the corner would limit other proficiencies — such as Teague’s ability to create in the midrange.

Teague’s most unique stylistic characteristic is the way in which he prods the lane: Butt low, back straight, forehead high.

In stature, the way Teague penetrates almost looks as if he is in the defensive position one would use to stop a penetrator. His feet stay wide, almost chopping, so as to be able to change directions on a dime.

This is Teague taking advantage of every inch of his frame. The combination of his lacking height (6’0.25″) but very long arms (6’7.5″) allow him to keep the ball low — a key to an elite handle — while keeping his torso high enough to effectively see the floor.

Again, Jones presents a juxtaposition here.

Jeff Teague Tyus Jones
Height: 6’ 0.25” Height: 6’ 0.25”
Wingspan: 6’ 7.5” Wingspan: 6’ 5”

Due to physicality differences, Jones’ work in the lane is more barrelling cannonball than Teague’s smooth surfing. In part, this has to do with strength and athleticism. But attacking this way is also likely a product of classical conditioning due to Jones’ higher dribble.

This isn’t to say Teague’s style is perfect or even better than Jones’. In ways, it could be beneficial for Teague to adopt some of Jones’ willingness to embrace the deep ball. Last season, nearly 40 percent of Jones’ field goal attempts were from 3 whereas only 28 percent of Teague’s attempts were from deep.

Embracing the spot-up 3 could go a long way for Teague but it would be a true deviation from his ethos as a penetrator. Teague’s 3-point volume has only marginally increased from his Atlanta days; the lane remains his happy place.

More so than 3-point volume and effectiveness, the defensive end is where Teague could most stand to improve.

Unfortunately, much as penetration is burned into Teague’s tenor, so too is lethargy on the defensive end. This was probably the biggest — and most fair — point of contention in the Rubio-for-Teague swap. Rubio was an excellent point-of-attack defender, pressuring willingly while still being capable of staying in front of his man. Teague is more willing to allow the offense to come to him.

He is also much smaller than Rubio, something bigger guards have taken note of.

The point-of-attack is crucial for all teams on that side of the floor but in a defensive scheme that uses “drop coverage” against pick-and-rolls, it is arguably one of the most important facets to the Wolves defense.

Karl-Anthony Towns is usually the member of the defense that catches the most flack for Minnesota’s sustained inability to defend ball-screen action, but the point-of-attack defender and dropping big man are inherently a tandem in this scheme. To be a strong point-of-attack defender proactivity and strength to effectively elude screens are critical — and two weaknesses of Teague’s.

In the playoffs, Minnesota moved away from using Teague as the point-of-attack defender, hiding him off of Chris Paul. Butler — and even Rose — took on this duty more often in that series and performed admirably.

Still, Teague remained a liability off-ball due to his diminutive stature.

While Teague can be a boon in the diverse and dynamic ways he impacts the offensive end, much of his true worth will be determined this season in how he contributes to winning — or simply not falling apart — on the defensive end.

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