Charlie Johnson (@CjohnsNBA) contributed to this story.

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

When Anthony Tolliver was a member of the Timberwolves from 2010-12, he was a different player than he is today. He did some of the same things well, but in more areas than not, Tolliver’s game has evolved since his previous stint in Minnesota.

During the 2010-11 season – Tolliver’s first with the Wolves – he played 21 minutes a night under Head Coach Kurt Rambis. That year, the 6-foot-8 240-pound power-forward generated offensive production from every level of the floor; 32.5 percent of his points came from beyond the 3-point line, 12.4 percent were derived from the mid-range, 24.2 percent came via free-throws and the remaining 30.9 percent of his points were scored inside the paint.

At that point in his career, Tolliver focused on filling the stat sheet like a more traditional big man; the same season, he pulled down 7.8 boards per-36 minutes for a respectable rebounding rate of 12%.

Then, as a member of the Detroit Pistons in 2017-18, he demonstrated the severity of his evolution — one that has mirrored the modern NBA — to enjoy the most effective season of his career.

In 2017-18, a staggering 67.9 percent of Tolliver’s points were generated from deep. Meanwhile, just 1.4 percent came from the mid-range, 15.6 percent from the paint and the remaining 15.1 percent were a result of free-throw opportunities. As Tolliver’s shot selection has transformed, his propensity to hunt rebounds has diminished. His 7.6 percent rebound rate from a season ago fell far closer to that of Andrew Wiggins (6.9 percent) than it did to his predecessor, Nemanja Bjelica’s (11.5 percent).

In July, the Wolves signed Tolliver to a 1-year, $5.75 million deal using a portion of their non-taxpayer mid-level exception. Let’s dive into his player profile.

Statistical Profile

  • Tolliver’s heat map – illuminated both in the paint and beyond the arc – demonstrates why he only trailed Steph Curry by true-shooting percentage last season.
    • He finished the season with career-high marks in win shares (WS), win share per 48 minutes, box plus/minus (BPM), value over replacement player (VORP) and every efficiency measure.
    • Tolliver fired 7.5 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, the highest number of his NBA tenure.
    • Ranked 24th of 82 qualified power forwards by ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus

Role on Wolves

Last year, the Wolves’ starting-five ranked seventh in the NBA by net rating. Meanwhile, the backups were far less productive relative to bench units around the league. In the end, the Wolves’ reserves amassed the NBA’s 20th-best net rating (minus-3.4), primarily due to their league-worst defensive rating of 111.1.

“We wanted to address the defense of the second unit, and we think he’ll be a great fit,” Tom Thibodeau said of Tolliver soon after his acquisition, “whatever he’s asked to do, he does it. He always stars in his role. We can’t have enough guys like that.”

While the phrase, “[star] in his role,” may feel like lip service directed from coach to player, it’s a salient point within the context of this team’s second unit. More than just about any player that inhabited the Wolves’ bench last season, Tolliver knows exactly where he can add value within a lineup; in this regard, he’s similar to Tyus Jones.

And though his 3-point shooting immediately jumps out as an important addition to the Wolves, leadership and defense may be what sets him apart more than anything else.

Last year, Tolliver became a fan favorite in Detroit as a result of his propensity to do the little things – like set screens, take charges and communicate on defense – that help a team win. His leadership is part of what drove the Pistons’ bench to be one of the NBA’s best; they finished with the league’s top Defensive Rating and ninth-best Net Rating among second units, per nba.com/stats.

On a Wolves bench that lost Crawford and Bjelica — first and second in minutes per game among non-starters — Tolliver is in position to inspire a completely new identity. If he’s successful, that persona will be most apparent on the defensive end – where the Wolves’ backups have almost infinite room for improvement.

Though Tolliver isn’t a heralded individual defender – and his middling athleticism doesn’t lead to flashy plays – more often than not, he makes the right decision. What’s more, he’ll be extremely comfortable slotting into Thibodeau’s drop-coverage pick and roll scheme having spent last season in Stan Van Gundy’s similar system. Tolliver is reliable in help defense, an aspect of containment that the Wolves second unit – and team in general – struggled to grasp a season ago.

Though his role as the unit’s proverbial captain may be where Tolliver can make the greatest impact, his 3-point shooting is an excitable addition to a Wolves group that finished 2017-18 last in long-range attempts.

Tolliver ended last season with career-high marks in 3-point shooting (43.6 percent) and overall efficiency (66.3 percent true-shooting); he ranked seventh around the NBA in the former category and second in the latter. What’s more, he managed such successful clips while attempting more 3s per 36 minutes (7.5) than he has during any other year of his career.

Still, Tolliver shouldn’t be expected to duplicate the same quantity or quality of takes from deep during his return to the Wolves.

What’s more important is that he plays with the same decisive nature that was displayed in Detroit; a resolute tendency that sets him apart from Bjelica, the player he was signed to replace.

While Bjelica frustrated onlookers with his inclination to catch a pass on the perimeter and either pump fake a shot or hold onto the ball, Tolliver exhibits inverse tendencies; he either catches and shoots immediately or moves the ball to a teammate in order to facilitate fluidity on offense.

Not only did 68 percent of Tolliver’s points come from beyond the arc last season, almost all (4.5) of his 4.6 3-point attempts per game were catch-and-shoot opportunities, an encouraging addition to a team that has relied on creators to fashion shots for themselves in the past. Tolliver won’t take the ball away from superior offensive options, but he’ll provide them a world-class outlet on the perimeter.

Film Clipboard

While the statistics and shot chart paint a pretty picture of a modern day stretch-4, the film on Anthony Tolliver beyond-the-arc takes things to a whole new level. In Detroit, he filled up his usage with the actions a coach would like to see a tertiary big perform while also rarely detracting anything from the teammates he shares the floor with.

On film, this apparent three key veins: decisiveness, diverse utility and spatial awareness.

Decisiveness

Tolliver’s ability to think on his feet quickly will be the largest departure from the Nemanja Bjelica experience. Sometimes being a decisive offensive player comes with the reputation of being a chucker. With Tolliver, this isn’t the case — he is just as willing to feed a teammate for a better look as he is to pursue his own.

In the above clip, Tolliver has the awareness to first look for Andre Drummond under the hoop. The Pistons big man has landed the miniature Jose Calderon on a switch and Tolliver sees the mismatch but does not force it. Tolliver recognizes Calderon receiving help on the backside from J.R. Smith and, intelligently, opts keep the ball moving.

Organically, the ball finds it way back to Tolliver when becomes open for a spot-up. Not only is this a high percentage look, but also comes with the added bonus of Drummond being in place — with Calderon still on him — for the offensive rebound.

Another area Tolliver added quick-twitch decision-making was on the perimeter when he began to be “run off the line” by opponents who feared him as a threat from deep. Watch how quickly Tolliver decides to attack the close out on these three buckets in the below clip.

Those finishes are funky, but the decision to attack is sound.

Diverse Utility

The best stretch-bigs in the NBA are able to weaponize their threat from deep in numerous ways, but the list of big men who can punish a defense at all three levels is short. The majority of stretch-bigs who come off the bench have one utility: spot-up shooting. The Channing Fryes of the world.

In Detroit, Tolliver found ways to be able to abuse teams from 3 even when he was on the move. You can see this in action during this traditional “Horns” set — an action the Wolves also often implement. Tolliver shows the ability to amalgamate from paint presence to 3-point threat in a matter of seconds.

That dribble-handoff play may remind some of the chemistry Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine showed during the 2016-17 campaign under Tom Thibodeau.

The difference between Tolliver and Dieng — even if Dieng can theoretically hit from deep — is the speed in which Toliver is able to pull the trigger. It takes two seconds in the Tolliver clip for the entirety of the action (handoff to jump shot) to occur. Dieng’s shot alone takes two seconds to get off. It was a good look with Dieng. It’s a great look with Tolliver.

Spatial Awareness

The most important factor in being a player who “stretches” the floor is being a dangerous weapon from deep. Tolliver clearly has that in spades. Another slightly less valuable factor is being cognizant of where space is on the floor. With Tolliver, he will always have the latter — saving some of his value even if his 3-point percentage is to drop.

The minutia Tolliver uses to gain even one extra step of space is just next level. On this play, he slide-steps one stride to the left while the pass is already in the air. Without the slide, Tolliver would have to catch, dribble left and then load up. Even with one of the quickest triggers in the league, if he had done that, Kelly Olynyk blocks this shot. Instead: three points.

Here are three more on-the-fly Pythagorean Theorem calculations by Tolliver.

Nemanja Bjelica is and will always be a more dynamic player than Tolliver. I’m a believer in the notion that, on the right team, Bjelica could star in a playoff series. But Anthony Tolliver is more likely to “star in his role” for the 2018-19 Timberwolves.

To find additional Zone Coverage player profiles follow the below. Links to be updated throughout the preseason.


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