Good ol’ preseason basketball. Yes, the result literally means nothing. The Timberwolves lost to the Suns 111 to 106, by the way. But it’s hard to not take at least something from basketball actually being played. And for the Wolves, who have replaced eight of the 15 roster spots with new faces this season, it was impossible to not be intrigued by the new and more modern system Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas had been talking about all summer in action. They certainly played faster. They were certainly committed to bombing more 3s. And they certainly looked like a team that was, well, still figuring it out combined with half of the roster being new.
From super small-ball to Point Culver, here’s what popped, for me, in the preseason opener.
Jarrett Culver Actually Played Point guard
The combination of Jarrett Culver playing a pseudo point forward role at Texas Tech and the Wolves’ lack of a third point guard on the roster behind Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier led to the assumption that Culver would eventually get some run directing the offense this season. The surprise in the preseason opener was that this was the role he far and away looked most comfortable in.
Specifically, it was when the ball was in his hands and moving from north-to-south following a ball-screen that Culver looked in his element. Part of that comes from the notion that Culver looked very shaky to start the game when he happened to be flanking Teague or Napier. Culver got called for a travel early and airballed his first 3. But when he came out in the second quarter orchestrating an offense while surrounded by Josh Okogie, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns, he showcased a quick and properly-timed first step that got him to the rim with ease.
Tyrone Wallace (non-guaranteed contract) and Jordan McLaughlin (two-way contract) also got some time initiating the offense once the starters hung it up in the second half. But neither of them figure to be a real threat for the minutes that will inevitably come up for that third lead ball-handler role. Another thing, and perhaps what gives me the most belief that Culver will play this role during the regular season, was that Wiggins didn’t receive many reps at the point-of-attack. (It was a weird night for Wiggins, though — he picked up five first half fouls that threw out of any sort of real rhythm.) I’d bet on a decent amount of Point Culver once the games start to matter.
Small-ball definitely happened
The Wolves’ first possession was a fairly quick-twitch pindown action for Towns that freed him above-the-break. KAT’s defender, DeAndre Ayton, was slow to get around the screen and out to contest the shot — so naturally, Towns canned it. The next possession saw Towns quickly receive a touch at the top-of-the-key. Decisively, Towns found Wiggins for a hand-off that led to an and-one. The offense was small and it was fast, and it caught Phoenix off-guard. Really, whenever KAT and the starters played, the offense looked great.
But with that speed borne out of a smaller roster, the lack of size came with consequences on the defensive end. Ayton bruised every Wolves’ big not named KAT, especially Noah Vonleh. Nothing happened to quell the prevailing fear that this team is in serious trouble on the inside when they play big teams — like Philadelphia, Denver, Toronto, etc. — during the regular season.
Covington, as advertised, really did play almost exclusively as the power forward. The whole one point guard, three wings and one big deal that Saunders and Rosas have been talking about was definitely a thing. It was interesting to see how Covington specifically was used in this roster mix. With Phoenix starting two big players in Ayton and Dario Saric, Covington took the Saric assignment and was not defending the point-of-attack at all, really. The Wolves started defensively with Layman on Phoenix’s main point-of-attack threat, Devin Booker. Treveon Graham later took over that Booker assignment and Covington stayed on Saric or Frank Kaminsky. (Side note: Graham was the first sub into the game and played a bunch with more sure-fire rotation pieces — it was the role many would have figured Josh Okogie would fill.)
With such a small sample size of healthy Covington from last season, it’s hard to know what level of disservice the Wolves are giving themselves with Covington not being used on the opponent’s main offensive threat from the wing. Last year, Covington was very helpful defending the likes of Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker, and that’s hard to dismiss. But the reality back then was that the Wolves could afford to put Covington on a smaller player back then because he was playing with two other traditional bigs in those situations (Towns, Saric and Taj Gibson). To what degree this limits Covington’s defensive impact is worth monitoring.
That said, Covington had a filthy recovery block off of a switch onto Booker. On that play at least, his knee issue had no impact on his explosiveness. It was a fantastic defensive play that reminded just what a weapon he is defensively, regardless of position. After the game, Covington said, “I ain’t my old self just yet. Once I get in shape, then I’ll be my old self. Once I get my legs under me, get a good feel and a good rhythm, old Cov will be back.”
Jake Layman Started
There was more than a decent amount of uncertainty surrounding who would fill the Wolves fifth starter role when the games actually began. All five of Layman, Culver, Vonleh, Josh Okogie and Jordan Bell had a legitimate case for sliding into a starter role that would complement Teague, Wiggins, Covington and Towns. But ultimately the decision was to go with the biggest of the three wing options in Layman.
Now, just because Layman started it’s no lock that this is his role indefinitely. Saunders specifically said at practice on Tuesday that they may try different starting lineups throughout the preseason. Still, Layman got the nod, and to his credit when he was out there playing with that group they felt big enough. After all, the grouping of Wiggins, Covington and Layman are not small as a wing trio, even if Covington is the de facto power forward.
Throughout the summer, Rosas said he wants opponents to react to the Wolves’ speed more than he wants his team to react to the size of the opponent. That proved true in the opener against a big Phoenix team. Especially against a smaller Brooklyn team in the actual season opener, the safest money is on Layman being the fifth starter to begin the season.
Particularly when KAT was on the floor, the offense had a true direction: 3-balls and downhill action. And that led to a very 2019 shot chart, particularly in the first half (where Towns played 15 of his 19 minutes).
In total, the Wolves took 39 shots from beyond-the-arc, and 22 from there in the first half. The Wolves only took more than 39 shots from deep six times all of last season. Now, they only made eight of those 39 attempts, good for 20.5 percent. But the real message here is that even though the Wolves didn’t add any true shooting threat this summer, they are still going to let the 3s rip.
If you can get over the dismal efficiency, the glass looks half-full when acknowledging that only 11 of their field goal attempts came from the midrange. Wiggins, on his own, shot 4.5 times per game from that range last season. That said, Wiggins did shoot (and miss) twice from the midrange in just 11 minutes of action. Extrapolate that out to the 35 minutes a night he played last season and you have 6.5 midrange attempts. So… still stuff to work on there. But as a team, this does feel like a positive direction — particularly if Towns continues to bomb. KAT took eight of his 13 shots from beyond-the-arc, making three of them.