Timberwolves

Gobert Can Get Back To What Made Him Great In Utah

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves fans held their collective breath on Monday night as Karl-Anthony Towns lay on the court, clutching his calf in Washington. As he was running back in transition, he suddenly looked back at his leg and collapsed to the floor. His pain was obvious as he was helped off the court and back to the locker room. Non-contact injuries are scary, but, luckily for the Wolves, Towns avoided serious structural damage and should return to action in “several weeks.”

It’s been a strange year for Towns. His scoring and rebounding numbers are down significantly, but he’s been more successful in the role of playmaker, dishing out two assists per 100 possessions more than he was last season. The biggest reason for the change in his numbers is Minnesota’s addition of All-NBA center Rudy Gobert. Towns’ transition to playing next to Gobert has not looked smooth, and it’s clear he is still figuring out how to maximize his game without minimizing Gobert’s. However, KAT is very familiar with changing his game.

“I’ve been doing nothing but adjusting and changing,” Towns said before the season. “I don’t think there’s any player in the NBA, let alone star, that’s had to change their game as much as I’ve had to every single year to benefit the team.”

Once again, Towns is adjusting his game. For as much ado as we make about Towns adapting this year, Gobert must also adjust his game to fit with KAT. As the two work to reach symbiosis, it will take flexibility from both of them. Now that Towns will miss some time due to injury, Gobert has an opportunity to find his rhythm and get back to what made him so great in Utah.

Gobert’s struggles this year have been frustrating for Wolves fans, so much so that a certain notable Timberwolves podcast* proposed a trade that would send Gobert to Brooklyn in exchange for Ben Simmons.

*This was my podcast, The CnD NBA Show (available on all podcast platforms), and we were mostly joking. But I love Simmons’ game. I’ve wanted the Wolves to try and pair him with Towns for a long time.

It’s been a struggle this year as Gobert has not found his rhythm. He’s been bobbling passes, missing layups at the rim, and not having the expected impact on defense. Again, Rudy has had to change his game, and it’s clearly taking some getting used to.

Most glaringly, Gobert’s pick-and-roll possessions are way down. Last season, Gobert operated as the roll man on 26.8% of his team’s possessions, per Synergy Sports. That number is down to 18.6% this year. He has to find most of his offense through off-ball cutting and offensive rebounding. He is spending significantly less time directly involved in the primary action. For a player as limited offensively as Gobert, it’s hard to find ways to score unless he’s not in the middle of the play.

KAT is a brilliant floor spacer, of course. But he is far too dynamic an offensive player to stand in the corner and wait for the kick out. At the same time, Towns and Rudy’s pick-and-roll opportunities have been few and far between. While Towns has shown an ability to create for himself and others off the dribble, he has only run 10 pick-and-rolls as the ball handler.

Last season, the Utah Jazz ran more pick-and-rolls than any team in the league. Gobert would screen for a ball handler, and the offense would space out for Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, or Joe Ingles to make a play. Playing alongside Royce O’Neale or Bojan Bogdanovic at the power forward position afforded Gobert far more room to operate than playing with Towns.

It seems the lack of space that Gobert has shown up in his rim conversion numbers. For most of his career, Gobert has been near the top of the league at making shots near the rim. This season, his shooting percentage is down to 69% in the restricted area. He has far more pressure on him as he tries to convert because the Wolves aren’t as spaced out as the Jazz were.

Another big statistical anomaly is that Gobert’s free throw rate is way down to start the season. Last season his .864 rate was the 12th-highest in NBA history. That statistical accomplishment rivals seasons of dominant bigs like Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, and of course, Arnie “Old Ironsides” Johnson*

*Arnie Johnson played for the Rochester Royals from 1949 to 1953, winning an NBA championship in 1951. Johnson was born in Gonvick, Minn., and he was a free throw machine.

Bigs, especially offensively limited bigs, tend to dominate this category for two reasons. One, most of their shots are coming from the restricted area where the chance to get fouled is significantly higher than anywhere else on the floor. The other reason is that big men like Chandler, Jordan, and Gobert take fewer shots overall than perimeter players. Thus the ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts is higher.

This is particularly important for Gobert because he is shooting a career-high from the free-throw line. I know, it doesn’t feel like it. It seems like he is missing a lot of free throws. But at 73.7% from the stripe, he is on pace to blow his career 64% out of the water. With a bigger focus on Gobert in the primary action, whether or not he’s taking more shots, both defenders and officials should be more keyed in on him while Towns is out, and we should see that free throw rate start to climb.

With Towns out, Minnesota should be able to play a more conventional offense that allows Gobert and D’Angelo Russell to really find some chemistry. The Timberwolves have an opportunity to play a little smaller and give Gobert a little more room to operate so that he can find his rhythm. I worry that Chris Finch will opt to play Naz Reid in Towns’ stead to create a lineup that is more similar to a healthy Wolves team rather than going small. But even Reid doesn’t demand the ball the same way Towns does, so that shouldn’t be too detrimental to Gobert’s space. If Gobert can use this time without Towns to get himself going, the Timberwolves could look really dangerous once Towns returns.

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Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

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