ATLANTA — Jeff Teague is an open gym lurker. “He’ll stay in the gym at the practice facility, just walk around, shoot and dribble the ball for an hour,” says Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders.
Since Teague returned to the Wolves lineup on Nov. 13 after missing four games with an illness, he’s been spending more time in that gym, walking around, shooting, dribbling and thinking. On his mind has been that Nov. 13 game against the San Antonio Spurs. On that night, because he was returning from an extended absence, he came off the bench. Jarrett Culver started in his place, but it was Andrew Wiggins who was the point guard.
“I just noticed it when we played San Antonio,” said Teague. “I’m like, ‘wow, that kinda worked.’ So I was like, shit, we was going through a little struggle, maybe a little switch-up could give us a little spark.”
On one of his practice facility walkabouts, Saunders joined Teague. As Saunders puts it, the two began having “casual conversations” about a different role for Teague. Both the coach and player knew the team had found something in running the offense through Wiggins at the point, and because of that, eventually, the two came to the conclusion together that a switch-up was best. Culver, who Teague refers to as more of a “scorer” than himself, would take the starting spot, and the 31-year-old point guard would move to the backup point guard role. Point Wiggins would then have more bandwidth.
“Wig was playing so great at that time,” said Teague. “(He was) running the point and doing things like that, and I just wanted him to get back to that place that he was in.”
Teague recognized that his ball-dominant ways were restricting Wiggins. In the Wolves’ new system, Wiggins has been unlocked by playing without another true point guard. Due to the happenstance of both Teague and Shabazz Napier missing significant time this season, Wiggins had played the majority of his 435 minutes this season, prior to the Atlanta game (when the starting lineup change was put into action), without Teague or Napier on the floor. And in those minutes the Wolves were heavily outscoring opponents.
“We just talked about where he was comfortable,” said Saunders of his conversations with Teague. “He said: ‘Hey, I just want to win, man. I’m good with whatever role you want me in.’ I can’t say enough positive things about that interaction and how he handled that.”
It’s only natural to draw the parallel between Saunders’s decision from last season to bench Taj Gibson in favor of Dario Saric. But Saunders says this time was different — because starting Saric was his idea.
“I think it was different in that we were trying to learn more about Dario last year, and how he fit next to KAT,” said Saunders. “It wasn’t brought up to me by Taj to necessarily move Dario into the starting lineup.”
Outside of this move being Teague’s idea, the other difference between the role shiftings is timing. Gibson was moved to a bench role 55 games into the season, and went on to only play 328 minutes for the rest of the season. This season’s Wolves were only 16 games into their season when the move was made, and Teague figures to — and expects to — have a substantial role going forward.
Even if Wiggins is given the point guard demarcation, the Wolves still only have three point guards on the roster. Teague will split the backup duties with Napier, and the two will also play frequently next to Wiggins. Teague and Napier will also play alongside each other. Napier has (very effectively) played 11% of the minutes he has been healthy for this season next to Teague. That pairing’s minutes will likely only increase whenever Napier is able to return from his hamstring injury.
“I still get the chance to play significant minutes,” said Teague postgame, after playing 31 minutes in the victory. “Starter or not, I just want Wigs and those guys to get a chance to be aggressive at the beginning of the game, let them play with that sense of urgency.”
In Teague’s eyes, or at least in his words, this move is about Wiggins. And why wouldn’t it be? Wiggins is ballin’ this year. In the first game with the new starting lineup, Wiggins scored 25 points on 9-of-19 shooting (3-of-6 from deep) — production that mirrors his season-long averages of 25.2 points per game on 47% shooting from the field (34% from deep).
“He was just playing at a high, high level, and I loved it,” says Teague of what he saw from Wiggins when Teague was sidelined. “I’m just a huge fan, he’s one of my good friends. I was just so happy for him. And I’m like, ‘I don’t want that to stop.’ He’s been getting enough criticism for whatever, so I’m like I don’t want that to stop.”
The shift means more playing time for Teague with Josh Okogie and Gorgui Dieng, two other players Teague says he is “really close” with off the court. He thinks he has good chemistry with them, and given the void Napier and Jake Layman’s injuries currently present, Teague feels this role will be more positively impactful. He prefers to play with players who like to be fed the ball, he says, more so than players who can create shots for themselves. It’s why he had so much success with Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap back when he was All-Star in Atlanta. He brings that up often.
“That’s the story of my life,” says Teague. “I always took a backseat for the better of the team. At times in my career, I knew I could shoot a lot more… but it always worked better for the team if I’m doing what I’m doing.
“That’s my whole thing: I always want guys to want to play with me. Like, ‘damn, he’s gonna give me the ball, he’s gonna do this.’ And I take pride in that.”
This is Teague’s role going forward. In a weird sort of way, he’s Wiggins’ backup. For now, he seems cool with that. He and Saunders both say nothing is “set in stone,” but they agree this is best for now. They mutually came to this decision on this basis of understanding that this team’s ceiling increases if this Wiggins sustains.
“My whole thing was trying to get Wig to be Wig,” said Teague. “He had that spark when I was out. I seen it. And as a fan, as a friend, you don’t want to mess that up. You don’t want to hold that back. You want that to keep going.”