Timberwolves Player Profiles: Tyus Jones

Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Johnson (@CjohnsNBA) contributed to this story.

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

Tyus Jones was just one block away from Target Center – attending a private NBA Draft party at The 508 Bar & Restaurant – when he learned that the Timberwolves had executed a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers to acquire Jones who was the 24th overall pick.

Since that night, the Apple Valley native has been immersed into a cult of native Minnesotan athletes — like Lindsay Whalen, Joe Mauer, Adam Thielen, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter — who play professionally in front of their hometown fans. Jones hasn’t disappointed, either: through three seasons, he has increased his games played from 37 (2015-16) to 82 (2017-18), his effective field-goal percentage from 41.0 to 52.6 and his on-court plus/minus from minus-3.6 to plus-2.2.

Let’s dig into his player preview.

Statistical Profile

• According to his Heatmap, Jones prefers to attack from the left side of the floor. Not only did 34 of his 44 corner 3s come from there, he also shows a preference for the left side above-the-break. Jones attempts a similar amount of shots from at the rim and floater-range, finding creative scoring opportunities that bypass his size and athletic shortcomings.
• He appeared in all 82 games for the first time in his career.
• Jones average career highs in minutes, points, rebounds, eFG%, FT% and steals.  
• Jones ranked seventh of 100 point guards by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic.

Role on the Wolves

When Jones was drafted, a combination of average athleticism and exquisite intellect projected him as a prototypical backup point guard at the NBA level. And that’s exactly what he’s been; filling in for Jeff Teague – and Ricky Rubio before that – as a rare steady option on a bleak second unit.

He seldom takes ill-advised shots and prioritizes the inclusion of his teammates while making steady strides on the defensive end of the floor. But he doesn’t possess the explosion, shooting or defensive abilities that most starting-caliber point guards do.

After a 2017-18 season during which Jones became a statistical darling to NBA fans and analysts, many – including Jones himself – have started to wonder whether he’s capable of more.

Jones finished the season seventh of 100 qualified players at his position by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus – an all-encompassing advanced stat that is among the most respected. By that category, he only ranks behind Chris Paul, James Harden, Steph Curry, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard.

When Jones was on the court last season, he improved nearly every lineup that he occupied. Among five-man combinations that saw more than 50 minutes of action, Jones was the point guard for each of the Wolves’ three most effective groups. Notably, the starting lineup improved by 15 points per 100 possessions in that regard when Jones was inserted for Teague.

On the other hand, Jones was only slightly better than league average by Basketball Reference’s box plus-minus while compiling per-36 numbers (10.2 points, 5.7 assists, 3.2 rebounds) and scoring splits (45.7%/34.9%/87.7%).

This would suggest Jones is in a proper role at this point of his young career.

There are reasons that Jones graded out so well last season, particularly when playing with the Wolves starting unit. In 2016-17, a year before this core was assembled, the team’s starting five — Teague, Butler, Wiggins, Gibson, Towns — combined for an inexecutable usage rate of 125.3 percent.

When they teamed up, it was mathematically certain that some (or all) members would have to embrace lesser roles.

In comparison to Teague — 20.6 percent usage rate in 2017-18 — Jones has always demanded fewer possessions. His usage rate of 12.7 percent last season was a career low, and a low among Wolves rotation players. When he controls an offense, Jones pushes the pace and defers to more ball dominant teammates.

In the context of the Wolves, this seems to provide players like Butler and Towns with an opportunity to further maximize their output.

Within that off-ball role, Jones will need to improve his 3-point shooting in order to provide maximum value. Last season, he shot just 34.9 percent from beyond the arc (a below-league-average number); he also struggled to capitalize on short-corner 3s, connecting on 15 of 44 attempts (34 percent).

It was reported this summer that Jones considered asking for a trade to a team that would allow him more opportunity to play, but was ultimately assured by Thibodeau that he would take on a more prominent role this coming season.

On a largely similar roster, it’s unclear exactly what that could entail.

Film Clipboard

In Teague’s profile, we talked about how the offense runs through Teague when he is in at the point. For Jones, we are going to talk about how it doesn’t. When quarterbacking the offense, Teague is given Peyton Manning-style freedoms to audible at the line and also has permission to scramble like Cam Newton.

Unlike Teague, Jones is asked to be Trent Dilfer: the “game manager” QB.

In function, this often looks like Jones bringing the ball up the floor and entering to a big and essentially getting out of the way.

Other times Jones will cross the halfcourt line and immediately deliver the ball to a wing — typically: Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins or Jamal Crawford. The offense would, then, run through that wing.

As you can see in both clips, Jones is frequently tasked with “replacing to the corner.” When the offense begins to run through Wiggins in the above clip, Jones cannot simply stand up top as he would be congesting the point-of-attack. With Wiggins raising up to receive the pass, the corner is the vacated area for Jones.

On this play, the result is an effective spot-up on a skip pass from Wiggins.

Last season, Jones became comfortable, in a variety of ways, operating out of the corner. While his shooting numbers on corner 3s left something to be desired, the precise routes Jones takes to his spot and the decisive decisions he makes rarely have an adverse effect on the offense.

Below is an example from that same game against the Pelicans in which Jones has replaced to the corner but then raises up to attack in a dribble hand-off with Gorgui Dieng.

It’s an interesting utility of the smallest player on the floor by Thibodeau; more traditionally we think of this role being saved for “3-and-D” wing players. With Thibodeau often desiring his wings to be offense initiators, Jones is the compromise. Becoming the rare 3-and-D point guard. Inherently, this limits Jones’ shot selection; it puts him in a box that says: spot up or attack, that’s it.

The majority of Jones’ other offensive usage thus comes from his play on the defensive end. If Jones scored in a game and it wasn’t a spot-up 3 or isolation attack, it was likely a “pick six” — to use another football analogy.

For the “D” part of his game, these active hands and playing the passing lane aren’t anything new. Despite entering the league with many questions about his defensive chops (given his size), Jones has had illustrated this skillset since day one.

Rubio was the only rotation player to have a higher steal percentage than Jones in any of Jones’ three seasons.

Here is rookie (19-year-old) Jones with the pick, hustle and finish:

The real development for Jones as a defender has come in his on-ball defense, often at the point-of-attack. While still small, Jones has added muscle that coupled with proper body placement makes him a cumbersome wall to move through. When defending the ball, he almost always keeps his sternum square with the opponent’s while still being able to effectively slide his feet laterally.

Jones’ best highlight of the year — The “Tyler” Jones dunk on LeBron — is actually a good example of this technique. Before getting out on the break ahead of James, Jones meets Dwyane Wade at the point-of-attack, squared and ready to stop the ball. As soon as Wade hesitates — because Jones is in sound position — he can reach.

The ball is poked away and it is off to the races.

Like the pick six, this ability to line up his opponent and find opportunities to gamble became a staple of Jones’ defensive contributions last season.

As covered in the Teague profile, point-of-attack defense was one of the softest parts of the Wolves defense last season. This is in large part due to the notion that defending the ball is one of Teague’s greatest weaknesses. Tangentially, it is fair to assume that at least part of the reason the Wolves received such an analytical boon with Jones in over Teague had to do with Jones’ added effectiveness at the point-of-attack.

In pick-and-roll defense, when the team opts to drop the big and not switch — as the Wolves almost unilaterally do — the guard is a critical component. Jones fights to avoid screens and angles the ball-handler to the big in ways that Teague does not.

One would imagine that Teague realizes the importance of this element of the game. But for one reason or the other, he has not committed to the same level of effort in execution that Jones does.

To be blunt: Jones tries harder.

Effort is a skill and Tyus Jones has that skill. He lacks some of the talent as a creator and scorer when compared to Teague but with the way Jones executes and the effort he gives, the Wolves will likely be looking to find additional ways to involve him this year.

That is, so he can see more than the 15.4 minutes he averaged in the 71 games he came off the bench last season.

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