Minnesota Timberwolves 2018-19 Season in Review: The Guards(ish)

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA Today Sports)

It was a season of sideshows for the Minnesota Timberwolves — organizational warfare dampened expectations before a coaching change and bouts of the injury bug made mediocrity the backdrop of Karl-Anthony Towns’ second-half surge.

But 82 games were played nonetheless; Towns gave his team a chance every night, Josh Okogie emerged as a piece for the future, Dario Saric and Robert Covington quickly proved their worth and a trio of former Bulls exceeded expectations. Plenty can be gleaned from the campaign that was, so let’s begin this offseason by evaluating — with a statistical lens — the performance of 15 Wolves from last year’s roster.

To follow up a deep dive into the wings(ish), we’ll look at the guards(ish) today:

Josh Okogie

It’s a tale of two halves for Okogie, the Wolves’ 20th pick from last year’s draft. Not two halves of a game, but two halves of the court.

On the defensive end, Okogie is strong and fast; he’s tenacious and ferocious; he’s malleable and improving. Quite frankly, the Georgia Tech alumni showed a relatively rare maturity as a first-year wing-stopper. For much of last season — after Robert Covington went down — the 20-year-old guarded each opposing team’s premier perimeter threat. Mostly, he handled that challenge commendably.

Okogie was one of just two rookies last season (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) to post a steal rate greater than 2.0 percent and a block rate greater than 1.5 percent.

But Okogie struggled on the offensive end.

Sure, it’s a weird kind of encouraging that he never lost confidence in his shot and didn’t display a preference to isolate. Still, he wound up embodying several other concerns that populated his pre-draft scouting report: he doesn’t score with any level of consistency or efficiency, often struggles to control his handle and subsequently lacks in production as a passer.

Certainly, though, the future appears bright for Okogie; even on the offensive side of the ball, he’s already shown growth. Over the season’s final 25 games, he improved in a handful of important areas.

As things stand today, his low-end projection as a capable role player certainly suffices an organization’s expectations of a post-lottery pick. Okogie’s high-end outcome, then — the one in which he becomes a 3-point threat and, at least, an average play-maker — is one that truly moves the needle as it relates to the Wolves’ championship aspirations.

Tyus Jones

Throughout the 2017-18 season, Jones became somewhat of a statistical celebrity. Despite being allotted under 18 minutes per game and scoring with low volume and average efficiency, he posted the team’s best net rating outside of its two All-Stars. Even more astoundingly, he ranked seventh among NBA point guards by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, an advanced metric meant to isolate an individual’s worth on a per-possession basis.

For the most part, these somewhat shocking numbers are misleading; certainly, Jones was not among the 10 most valuable point guard in the league last season. But regardless, such a slew of positive indicators should signal that, at the very least, he was an ideal fit for the role he assumed.

Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy (USA Today Sports)

To begin the 2018-19 campaign, then, Jones’ priorities seemed to shift.

Through the season’s first month, he was attempting four more field goals per 100 possessions than he ever had before. To make matters worse, the floater that he relies on wasn’t going in at a reliable rate and, for the fourth consecutive season, Jones showed little growth from beyond the 3-point line.

Tyus Jones and Evan Turner were the only two players categorized as guards (by basketball-reference.com) to attempt fewer than 130 3-pointers in more than 1,500 minutes of playing time.

For Jones to take a meaningful step toward the echelon of unabashed starting point guards, he’ll need to become a much more willing and capable outside threat — especially given the limitations he’s demonstrated scoring through other means.

But nevertheless, he’s now indicated for most of four years that he can be a constructive piece of a productive team. As the Wolves’ 2018-19 season progressed, he began to more thoroughly embrace the tactical tendencies that made him reliable in the past. When all was said and done, Jones posted the highest assist-to-turnover rate the NBA has ever seen.

At this point in his young career, Jones — a restricted free agent — will seldom win a game for his team by independently out-classing an opponent; however, he’s even less likely to turn victory into defeat because of any sort of fumbled execution. Regardless of whether Gersson Rosas and his new regime are intent on pursuing a point guard of the future not named Jones, it’s quite possible that they’ll prioritize his return if his market doesn’t become more robust than anticipated.

Derrick Rose

To the surprise of many who had watched his downward trend over the last several seasons, Rose played a meaningful role in what minimal successes the Wolves enjoyed both on and off the court in 2018-19.

During and after Jimmy Butler’s forceful exit, Rose was a calming presence in the locker room. Instead of sitting idly by and focusing on his own production, the former MVP used both words and actions to inspire a dose of confidence throughout the fan base and a semblance of peace among the roster. Rose embraced a leadership mantra that effectively and importantly passed the team’s proverbial captaincy from Butler to Towns.

And before further dysfunction and a litany of injuries ultimately derailed the Wolves’ postseason dreams, Rose’s mostly consistent production helped this team bounce back after a disastrous 3-9 start; his talents as a scorer were often pivotal for a team that, outside of Towns, can be starved for consistent and efficient shot creation.

Last season, Derrick Rose became the first NBA player since 1987-88 to score more than 900 points in fewer than 1400 minutes of playing time.

But while his ability to get buckets was situationally valuable, Rose’s defensive shortcomings proved consistently problematic — an especially concerning trait on a team that’s building around an offensive-minded center. Between the Butler trade and Rose’s final game of the season, the Wolves’ defensive rating was nearly three points per 100 possessions better when Towns played without Rose than it was when the duo shared the floor.

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson (USA Today Sports)

After a season during which he proved that his tank still has some fuel but its reliability will be a concern, Rose’s unrestricted free agency will be fascinating to follow this summer. Though he may not be a perfect fit, the cap-strapped Wolves do possess Rose’s early bird rights, providing them more avenues to bring him back than they’ll have to lure other incoming free agents.

Jeff Teague

Following a 2017-18 season — Teague’s first in the Twin Cities — during which the long-time Atlanta Hawk was crucial in ending the Wolves’ famed playoff drought, a combination of frailty and poor play made his second campaign in Minnesota especially disappointing.

He played the fewest games of his career and fewer minutes than he has since 2010-11; he scored fewer points per 100 possessions than he has since his rookie campaign and did so on his lowest efficiency in nearly a decade; by almost every advanced metric, his effectiveness tanked.

For the first time in the last eight seasons, Teague’s team posted a negative net rating when he was on the floor in 2018-19.

Though these are certainly concerning trends, it’s quite possible that they’re just an unlucky, unhealthy blip on the radar of Teague’s 10-year career. And given that he picked up his $19 million player option for the 2019-20 season, Wolves’ brass — if they don’t find a suitable trade partner interested in inheriting his expiring contract — will hope that he’s due for a more fit and fortuitous effort next year.

Jerryd Bayless

If someone would have told you before the 2018-19 season began that Bayless would start six games at point guard for the Wolves, you probably would have cringed. Not because you had some preconceived bias against the 11-year veteran, but because he wasn’t even on the team and the Wolves had a pre-existing glut of capable ball handlers.

Photo Credit: Jeff Swinger (USA Today Sports)

That Bayless wound up filling a substantial hole for this team is representative of just how far sideways last season veered. At the time of his acquisition from the Philadelphia 76ers, most figured that he was part of that deal only to make salaries match, not to swing the equilibrium of value being transacted. Then, injuries to the three point guards ahead of him gave Bayless a chance to crack the rotation; he appeared in 34 of 50 contests to end the season — his minus-11.9 net rating over that period was by far the worst among Wolves rotation players.

Along with Jerred Terrell, Bayless was the only player to produce negative Win Shares per 48 minutes this season for the Wolves.

From Bayless’ perspective, though, it was a series of fortunate events that gave him a chance — before he would become an unrestricted free agent — to prove that he’s still an NBA talent. But instead, for the most part, he demonstrated two-way shortcomings that will make him a bottom-of-the-barrel option for point guard-hungry teams this upcoming summer.

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