JOHNSON: Tyus Jones is Playing for a New Deal

Photo Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer (USA Today Sports)

When the Timberwolves traded for Tyus Jones on draft night in 2015, it just seemed like a nice story.

Then Wolves boss, Flip Saunders, had already selected the year’s prized possession, Karl-Anthony Towns. He then traded two second-round picks for Jones, whom the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted 24th overall. A front office jolted by optimism ultimately landed the hometown kid for what turned into Cedi Osman (31st overall pick) – current Cavaliers starting small forward – and Rakeem Christmas (36th overall pick), who is already out of the NBA.

But the clout that comes with being a local legend didn’t earn Jones a free pass. In reality, nothing’s been given to him; not since he joined the Wolves.

Jones wasn’t supposed to play much as a rookie. As an end-of-the-bench option, he appeared in 10 of the Wolves’ first 54 contests; they finished that stretch with 17 measly victories. Once the writing was on the wall – big, bold letters urging the organization to focus on developing its youth – Jones saw his first meaningful run in the pros.

The savvy floor general averaged 17.1 minutes per game – a strikingly familiar number – over his rookie season’s final 28 matchups. Jones had a difficult time scoring the basketball, as most teenage point guards do, but he displayed the sort of craft and determination that have endeared him to Wolves fans since he stepped on the court at Target Center.

Photo Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer (USA Today Sports)

Entering his second season in the league, Jones had made his case as a player worth watching. But during that summer – Tom Thibodeau’s first at the helm in the Twin Cities – the Wolves drafted Providence point guard Kris Dunn fifth overall. It wasn’t an indictment of Jones, who has yet to prove that he’s a bonafide starter; Dunn was, in the eyes many draft analysts, the third-best prospect in that year’s class.

Jones averaged a career-low 12.9 minutes per game in 2016-17. Still, that was when he earned the advanced-statistics title belt – one he’s donned with consistency since. That season, Jones’ plus-1.7 individual net rating was best among all Wolves players to see the floor in at least 20 games.

Then, a year later – after Dunn was traded – it appeared that Jones would finally settle in as the team’s backup point guard. Just days before their first preseason game, though, the Wolves signed Aaron Brooks, a hardened distributor who had previously played for Thibodeau with the Bulls.

It didn’t matter; Jones was better. He earned his keep as a vital contributor toward the franchise’s first playoff appearance in more than a decade.

Jones’ statistical saga is well documented. Despite averaging pedestrian per-36-minute counting stats, he’s thrived as a cog in the Wolves’ evolving wheel. In 2017-18, he was provocatively positive by on-court net rating, ranked seventh among all point-guards by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus and enjoyed resounding success when deployed with the starters. He’s rarely boasted flash, but has always seemed to get the job done.

Through the first three seasons of his young career, Jones has bulldozed schematic adversity like a snowplow razing the winter’s streets. Ultimately, however, the Wolves declined to offer him a contract extension when he qualified for one this offseason. In perusing the league’s landscape, this would seem to be an evaluation of supply and demand more than an indictment Jones; the NBA is littered with capable ball-handlers and more than a few of them are due to be free agents alongside the Wolves’ backup in 2019:

  • Kyrie Irving (player option)
  • Kemba Walker (unrestricted)
  • Goran Dragic (player option)
  • Eric Bledsoe (unrestricted)
  • Terry Rozier (restricted)
  • D’Angelo Russell (restricted)
  • Ricky Rubio (unrestricted)
  • Isaiah Thomas (unrestricted)
  • Darren Collison (unrestricted)
  • Spencer Dinwiddie (unrestricted)
  • Malcolm Brogdon (restricted)
  • Patrick Beverly (unrestricted)
  • Jeff Teague (player option)
  • Rajon Rondo (unrestricted)

Several players listed above have options that are likely to be executed; a number of others will probably stay put where they are. But there are a finite number of starting ones around the league and a limited dollar figure with which to pay them – the amount who ultimately explore new opportunities will greatly influence the robustness of Jones’ market.

It’s possible that another general manager will simply covet him more than Thibodeau has seemed to – and above others on this list of soon-to-be-available peers – but that could be a sensible risk based on the Wolves’ bulging balance sheet.

With all of that context laid to bare, Jones entered this 2018-19 campaign playing for a new deal. Next summer, he’ll test his value as a restricted free agent – the Wolves will be able to match any deal he’s offered and retain him for the life of that contract.

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA Today Sports)

It’s only been about a month, but it hasn’t been Jones’ best.

A look at his page on Basketball Reference might make one believe that his playing time has seen a boon, but that’s not totally true. Sans two games – at Portland and Golden State – when he was thrust into the Wolves’ starting lineup to alleviate a barrage of injury issues, he’s being allotted 16 minutes a night. Coincidentally, the same exact mark as his career-long average.

When he has been on the floor, Jones’ play is deviating from the norm in a way that suggests he’s aware of the dollar sign dangling in front of him.

Through 17 volatile games – 16 of which he’s has been active for – the 6-foot-1, 194-pound ball handler is attempting 11 field goals per 36 minutes. Prior to this season, Jones’ career high by that measure came when he was a rookie: 9.8 field-goal attempts.

Pursuant to this quantitative uptick, his field-goal percentage sits at a concerning career-low.

It doesn’t help that he’s attacking from inefficient spots on the floor. Instead of pouncing his way to the rim and producing with shrewd style, Jones is settling for mid-range shots – and more of them. He’s taking a quarter of his shots from further than 10 feet away from the basket and within the coveted 3-point line. From that area of the floor, he’s connecting at a tumultuous 24 percent clip. Though these can be easier attempts to fashion – partially because modern defenses are happy to oblige – they’re not ones that often lead to success.

He’s never posted monstrous stats; Jones’ value has always been intrinsic – manifest through the success of his team rather than the points or assists he amounts. But that worth is most evident to those who have watched him throughout his fabled tenure, less so to those who will be comparing his production to other free agents this summer.

It only makes sense that Jones would be motivated to polish his resume in a traditional sense. There’s nothing wrong with expanding his game, either. He should be doing just that – testing the boundaries of his potential. The problem is that it’s being done in a way that jeopardizes the systemic value he’s previously provided.

For the first time in his career, Jones’ play is resulting in negative win shares added – an advanced statistic that predicts the number of victories a player accounts for. After finishing last season with a plus-5.9 net rating – third among Wolves rotation players – he’s exhibited a minus-6.0 differential through this year’s first month.

Rather than impacting the game in heretofore immeasurable ways – as we’ve become accustomed to throughout his career – Jones seems to be pursuing more antiquated aspects of player evaluation.

Photo Credit: Tim Heitman (USA Today Sports)

Nevertheless, the 17 confusing contests this team has already played won’t be as useful a measuring stick as the remaining 65 on their season’s schedule. Plus, Jones has long been a streaky scorer, but he’s always affected the game regardless. And in ways, that’s still the case. Through the Wolves’ first 17 games, Jones leads the team by defensive rating — outside of newcomers Dario Saric and Robert Covington — and sits near the league’s top 20 in steal percentage.

But in the last week – since the Wolves bolstered their depth by trading Jimmy Butler – the fourth-year point guard has seen his role reduced; he’s averaging just 12.3 minutes in four games since the deal was announced.

Until he can couple his evolving playstyle with the way he led a lineup to success in the past, it will be difficult for Jones progress through this depth chart and set himself up for a prosperous free agency.

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