Timberwolves

Shake Milton's Best Attributes Are Failing Him At the Worst Time

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In Season 5 of The Office, Michael Scott pauses before looking into the camera and saying, “And I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.” That quote came to mind while watching Minnesota Timberwolves guard Shake Milton this season. He’s getting the same open shots he has made his entire career, but they aren’t falling for some reason. He is driving in the lane and missing floaters he has always made, and he’s turning the ball over at an alarming rate. However, Milton continues to trudge on searching for why his best attributes are failing him right now, even going as far as ditching the leg sleeves.

The Wolves signed Milton expecting him to gel with their free-flowing offense and battle for the backup point guard because he has similar tendencies to Mike Conley. But Milton has had the worst start to a season of his career. He’s averaging career lows in field goal percentage (37.1%) and three-point percentage (22.9%), and he is shooting 78.5 % from the free-throw line (3rd worst of his career).

In addition to the poor percentages, he is also averaging his lowest totals since his rookie season in points (5.6), rebounds (1.8), assists (1.5) and minutes per game (15.9). These lows are mostly because everything Milton has excelled at in the past has failed him this season. Despite this, Milton continues to be aggressive and engaged.

Throughout his career, Milton had specific skills he excelled in and Minnesota’s front office valued. He developed an impressive floater in his time with the Philadelphia 76ers. He also proved to be a more than competent catch-and-shoot three-point shooter and rarely turned the ball over. But it feels like the Monstars have zapped Milton’s skills this season. Coming into the 2023-24 season, Milton’s floater was borderline elite. Last year, he shot 39.3% from three to ten feet, per NBA.com.

For context, Mike Conley shot 43.1% from that range in 2022-23. That 4% drop off from Conley, who has one of the best floaters in the NBA, had to give the Wolves hope that he could slide in and provide a similar production. But Milton has only shot 27.8% in 2023-24 on a similar volume to his career average. An 11.5% dip in percentage is concerning, especially when Milton is still getting open looks. Conversely, Conley has seen a surge in production, raising his percentage to 50% from three to ten feet this season.

Milton’s next superpower was his ability as a knockdown shooter. In the past, Milton was elite at catch-and-shoot three-pointers, shooting 40% in 2022-23. Furthermore, he shot even better on catch-and-shoot threes from above the break, shooting 41.9% overall from three. The ability to hit those shots in the flow of the offense had to have been appealing to the Wolves.

They probably believed they were getting a player who could provide spacing from the wings and not exclusively the corners. However, Milton has struggled this season, shooting a dismal 5.9% on those above-the-break threes and only 27.6% on catch-and-shoot threes. Perhaps most concerning is that Milton is shooting just 22.2% on open or wide-open three-point shots. Open is defined as a shot with the closest defender at four to six feet, and wide open is being more than six feet away. For context, Mike Conley is shooting 42.8% in those same shots.

Milton had always taken care of the ball before this season. In 2022-23, Milton had a solid 2.55 assist-to-turnover ratio. That gelled well with Chris Finch’s preference for players who don’t turn the ball over. But so far this year, Milton’s assist-to-turnover ratio plummeted to 1.36.

His more advanced numbers highlight more concerns. Milton’s assist percentage has fallen 9.4% points from 2022-23 to 2023-24, and his turnover percentage has risen 1.7% over that same timeframe. An easier explanation is that Milton’s usage percentage has dropped. However, he has increased his usage by 0.2%. That suggests that Milton is getting significantly fewer assists despite having relatively the same role as he has had throughout his career.

Milton has remained professional and a supportive teammate despite his struggles this season. You can frequently see Milton on the bench talking his teammates up. He meets with his coaches after his rotations and often smiles and meets players halfway down the court after big plays to give them a hug or a high five. Milton’s energy levels have also appeared high; he appears engaged on offense and defense. It’s a testament to Milton’s mental fortitude that he remains a good teammate despite his struggles, which may have given him continued opportunities in the rotation to turn his season around.

As the saying goes, basketball is a game of runs, meaning one team will go on a run of points. Meaning that when the offense gets cold, the opposing team will go on a run of their own. Throughout Milton’s first 18 games, he has been ice-cold on offense. So cold, in fact, that you have to assume that his run will be coming.

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