For Ryan Saunders and Andrew Wiggins, 'Keeping That Same Energy' Is Adjustment No. 1

Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

After drawing a foul on what could, really, only be described as an angry attack of the basket, Andrew Wiggins removed himself from the fray and walked towards the perimeter before stepping to the free-throw line. He was alone and staring into the distance when a camera grabbed a glimpse of Wiggins as he threw his right shoulder forward while his arms flexed for a split second. For the first time in a long time, Wiggins actions said what so many have been waiting to hear: get the f— off me.

It was LeBron James-esque but unlike Bron. Wiggins didn’t do it because the cameras were on him; he doesn’t care about that sort of thing. No, Monday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder marked (exactly) four-and-a-half years in the NBA for Wiggins and he decided on this night that the biggest change in the first night of the post-Tom Thibodeau era wouldn’t be about coaching schematics, rotations or playing time. Wiggins decided this night, much like Derrick Rose’s 50-point performance on Halloween, was going to be about proving something no one believed in: he can do this.

Wiggins scored nine more points (40), grabbed four more rebounds (10) and got to the free throw line six more times (18) than he had in any of the team’s first 40 games of the season.

Over Thibodeau’s two-and-a-half years at the helm, the former head coach may have used the phrase “second-effort mentality” 100 times in his dialogues with the media. For the first time in Wiggins’ career, that description defined every minute of the 38 he played. Apparently, all that needed to happen was someone else tell Wiggins to do it — his friend, Ryan Saunders.

Other than the “GTFOH” shoulder flex, another play of Wiggins’ popped; again, one reminiscent of Rose’s 50-point performance.

With under two minutes left in the game and the Wolves’ lead down to one, Wiggins stunted into the lane on a Dennis Schroder drive, showed on a kick out to Russell Westbrook and recovered to Paul George in the corner. To boot, he got a finger on the shot attempt, allowing the ball to flutter into the hands of Karl-Anthony Towns. Possession over.

The tri-fold effort mirrored Rose’s game-saving block against the Utah Jazz in a game he, like Wiggins, expended everything to seal a victory.

(I’m sure if there wasn’t time left on the clock after Wiggins’ block, Josh Okogie would have also hugged Andrew.)

Wiggins’ energy has long been an enigma — beyond mysterious, and only a safe bet to percolate in games against Cleveland (who drafted him, gave him the runabout and then traded him) and Toronto (his hometown team). Tuesday’s performance, similarly, had an extra something on the line as it was Saunders’ first game on the sidelines. The difference, however, is that the Wolves only play Cleveland twice a year and in Toronto once; Saunders will be Wiggins’ coach indefinitely, and maybe… forever.

The single-greatest feat Saunders could achieve as the team’s new head coach is to get Wiggins to “keep that same energy.” But there are other changes to come. Tuesday we saw remnants of a few.

Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Proddings for Pace

As the “Players Only” broadcast on NBA TV aptly noted, the first play Saunders called was a version of his father’s favorite “twist” set. A cool hat tip to the late Flip Saunders and maybe not so ironically, given the era Ryan’s father coached in, the result was a 20-foot 2-point jumper that came with 1.5 seconds remaining on the shot clock.

Enticing, for those who believe that this Timberwolves team is in desperate need of a kick up in pace, is the notion that after this play the Wolves only took six shots that came in the final four seconds of the shot clock. (And only two after Jeff Teague was ejected from the game.) A season ago, Thibodeau’s Wolves led the league with 705 field goal attempts “very late” in the shot clock, per Second Spectrum’s tracking data.

A coaches impact on the game is always secondary to the players there are, however, specific instances where the fingerprint of a coaches impetuses is prevalent. Calling the first play of the game is, of course, one. After timeouts (ATOs) is another. Another that can fly by unnoticed are after made free-throw plays.

Paul George’s second free throw finished off an 11-5 run in the middle of the first quarter for the Thunder. Between the two free throws, Saunders directed Teague to run one of the team’s after free-throw packages. The result was a canned Wiggins jumper that not only ended the Oklahoma City run but inspired a 17-7 burst by Saunders’ Wolves.

Little, New Rotation Tweaks

During pregame media availability, Saunders said, “not at the moment” when he was asked if there were plans to change the rotations Thibodeau had (firmly) installed. And broadly, the rotations of Tuesday night did mirror what the team had previously been rolling with. There were, however, a few small adjustments that did deviate from the Thibodeau construct.

Gibson and Saric Share the Floor

Entering the game, Taj Gibson and Dario Saric had been on the floor together for one total minute in Saric’s 26 games as a Timberwolf. But late in the second quarter, Saunders decided to play the two alongside each other to close the half.

Whether this is a sign of things to come is yet to be determined. When Saric entered the game it was after Gorgui Dieng had picked up his third foul of the half, and Towns, also, had three fouls of his own. Still, when this happened in previous Thibodeau-led seasons, the play of Thibodeau would have been to go to the third-string center (Cole Aldrich or Jordan Hill). Last season, before Jimmy Butler was injured and Nemanja Bjelica slid over to the small forward position, Gibson and Bjelica — last season’s Saric — only shared the floor for 113 total minutes (where they tallied an elite plus-11.7 net-rating).

Gibson is trying his damnedest to become a stretchier bug but he really is a center in this NBA. Pairing him with the actually stretchy Saric would be an exciting, new maneuver.

Shrinking the Length of Wiggins’ Stints

In the Wolves’ three games prior to Tuesday, the team had been without Robert Covington. Thibodeau responded to Covington’s absence by simply extending the length of Wiggins’ first shift in those games. Against Boston, Wiggins played the first 15.5 minutes of the game; against Orlando, the first 14.5 minutes; and against Los Angeles, the first 16.

When asked about the shift at practice on Saturday, Josh Okogie called it “The Wigs Shift” and laughingly said, “Wigs be coming to the bench like a dog that hasn’t drunk water in like three days.”

Okogie would know as he is the player who has been checking in for Wiggins at the end of those marathon shifts. He, again, was that guy Tuesday, this time after 14 consecutive minutes to start the game. It is, however, worth noting that Saunders sent Okogie to the scorer’s table almost immediately after the second quarter started; the Wolves just didn’t get a whistle for 2:12.

In the second half, The Wigs Shift was shortened to 10 minutes. This was, at least in part, due to Wiggins picking up his fourth foul late in the third quarter. Nonetheless, a trend moving in a direction that will allow Wiggins to maintain some of that energy.

Dual Point Guards: Teague and Jones

While Tyus Jones has shared the floor with Rose — in a dual point guard role — for 373 minutes this season, Jones and Teague had only played four minutes together in 2018-19 entering Tuesday night’s game. Saunders changed this against Oklahoma City, and this adjustment had nothing to do with foul trouble.

Anthony Tolliver has shifted down to the small forward position in the absence of Covington and this has left the self-proclaimed “not the quickest guy in the world” Tolliver in adverse defensive matchups. The Thunder’s wing trio of Paul George, Hamidou Diallo and Terrance Ferguson — three hyper-athletic (and way younger than Tolliver) wings — were causing serious defensive issues during Tolliver’s first stint.

Saunders countered by making the downshift adjustment of Teague for Tolliver just four minutes into the second quarter. This slid Okogie over to Diallo and, well, those two are basically the same person, so it was a far better matchup. Good on the toes thinking by Saunders.

Acting on Shot Selection

Whenever Thibodeau was asked anything along the lines of the “efficiency” of his offense he would banter a response acknowledging three-point shots are good but that the “best shots” are those at the rim and at the free throw line. He wasn’t wrong. Statistically, the free throw line is best, shots at the rim second and then 3s (with corner 3s the best of the 3-point batch).

Saunders’ Wolves enacted this strategy.

The Wolves shot a season-high of 40 free throws — with Towns only shooting three — on Tuesday. They also took 37 of their 90 field goal attempts from within five feet, that 41.1 percent frequency was up from their season average of 32.8 percent frequency from that distance, per NBA.com. Additionally, they shot 31 3-pointers (their 14th-most of the season), making 11 (13th-most of the season). To boot 32.3 percent of those 3-point attempts (10) came from the corners, up from the 23.8 percent frequency they had been shooting under Thibodeau.

The reality of these “efficient” shots is that they trigger a Jacob’s Ladder of sorts: Collapse the defense by consistently getting to the rim; find kick outs above-the-break; make the defense respect those above-the-break 3s and it’s one more pass to the corner.

Wiggins and his 11 shots at the rim, to go along with 18 free throws instigated the chain reaction all night, including the final 3 of the game — by Okogie — that sealed the victory for the Wolves.

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