It's Time to Appreciate Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones may not fill up the stat sheet but that doesn't stop him from making an impact.

Since day one, Tyus Jones has succeeded at basketball. In high school he was a five-year varsity starter, he won Minnesota Mr. Basketball, he received All-American honors, he was named the nation’s number four recruit, and he earned a scholarship to Duke where continued to thrive. After leading a young, star-studded Duke team to a National Championship and earning the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Cleveland selected Jones with the 24th overall pick and promptly traded him to his hometown Timberwolves. Jones has spent his NBA career as a back-up. Compared to his amateur success this may seem like a disappointment, but Jones is actually one of the Timberwolves' most valuable and unsung pieces.

Last season Jones emerged as an important contributor for the Timberwolves. His role off the bench (and 11 starts) provided the calming presence of a player who knew his role and played it to perfection. Before you start throwing a fit, I do realize that 5.1 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 17.9 minutes per game seems inconsequential, but to find his true impact we will have to dig deeper than the box score numbers. Every team requires a player to sacrifice and focus on excelling at the little things, which is exactly what Tyus Jones does.

The Timberwolves saw massive success in lineup productivity when Tyus Jones played with the other four starters. There were 94 different five-man lineups that played over 200 minutes together last year and the combination of Jones, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, and Karl-Anthony Towns recorded the highest net rating of plus 23.5. Their offensive rating jumped from 110.8 to 118.4, which ranked fourth among these lineups. More impressively, their defensive rating dropped from their horrible average of 108.4 to a suffocating 94.9, which ranked second among these lineups. These numbers are extremely impressive and should be an encouraging sign for a team that struggled so much with bench production last year.

It also doesn’t mean that Jones is a better player than Jeff Teague.

The reason that these lineup numbers are so different with Jones instead of Teague is that Jones is a much better complement to the ball-dominant play of Butler and Towns. Butler and Towns are at their best when they have the offense flowing through them. Jeff Teague is also at his best in these situations. Teague is a very nice player and by no means is this intended as a slight to him. Let’s instead look at how Jones is able to open up the floor for his teammates and why he deserves your appreciation.

With low scoring and assist numbers, it is easy to question Jones’s offensive impact. While the point guard position has developed into a score first position, Jones’s focus is to get the ball into the hands of Minnesota's primary scorers and space the floor. He is fully aware of how he can best help the team succeed and plays to his strengths. When shooting off the dribble, Jones scored just .692 points per possession which placed him in just the 28th percentile, per Synergy. However, his shooting efficiency skyrockets when he shoots off of a pass. In catch and shoot situations he scored 1.12 points per possession, which put him in the 68th percentile.

In these clips, we see how effective Jones is at moving off the ball. His main focus is to let the play develop as designed. The end result of a play usually isn’t for Jones but this doesn’t stop him from always making sure he is still an option if the play doesn’t properly develop. His natural floor awareness and instincts on positioning are evident as he frequently slides to the open spot on the floor for an easy kick out pass, with the corner being his favorite.

Even though Jones doesn’t take the traditional ball-dominant approach, he is still a very good playmaker and extremely efficient with the ball per Synergy. Last season he ranked in the 98th percentile on points responsible for creating (points per possession plus points assisted on) with an extraordinary 1.484 points per possession (for comparison, Chris Paul was at 1.528). His assist to turnover ratio was an impressive 4.0, which ranked only behind Darren Collison and Spencer Dinwiddie among players who played more than 20 games, and he averaged 2.391 points per assist. Jones’s ability to take care of the ball and set up his teammates for quality scoring opportunities is obvious. The Timberwolves ran the league’s 22nd slowest offense last season so taking care of the ball and creating the most efficient scoring opportunities is vital when possessions are so limited.

Jones also showed a big improvement in his ability to score in ways other than beyond the arc this last season. His navigation of the pick and roll was arguably the most important improvement. The league is using the pick and roll more than ever. Last season his average points per possession when running the pick and roll rose from .851 to .989. In the below clip we see Jones’s comfort running the pick and roll. As Butler sets the screen we see Jones dibble to the middle of the floor with a bit of a hesitation. This creates a bit of space and allows him the ability to either attack the rim or dump it off to Butler as he rolls. Jones quickly recognizes that Mike James is unable to fight through Butler’s pick and that Devin Booker is guarding Butler far too tightly, which leaves the middle of the floor wide open. As Jones turns the corner he sees that the rest of the Suns aren’t shading over to help at all so he will be able to attack the rim and finish with an easy runner. Jones excelled with these shot attempts last season scoring 1.185 points per possession, which put him in the 93rd percentile.

Just because Jones doesn’t fill up the stat sheet doesn’t mean he isn’t an important offensive player. He is extremely efficient and almost always makes the right read. Instead of ensuring he gets his shot attempts by taking ill-advised jumpers off the dribble, he makes sure that the ball gets in the hands of their stars while finding the open spaces off the ball. He rarely turns the ball over and uses his impressive vision to set his teammates up for easy buckets. Jones is constantly perfecting the little things that helped the Timberwolves perform at a high offensive level.

The more glaring improvement for the Timberwolves when Jones enters the game is on the defensive end. Jones has seen a massive improvement in his defense as his career has progressed. The Timberwolves' defensive rating with Jones on the floor dropped from 108.2 two seasons ago to a much better 105.7 last season and I already touched on the 94.9 defensive rating the team has when he plays with the other four starters. His steal numbers have increased and last year he allowed just .886 points per possession, which puts him in the 63rd percentile and similar to Avery Bradley and Fred VanVleet. Per Cleaning the Glass, Jones had an impressive steal percentage of 2.9%, which ranked him in the 96th percentile among guards. His quick hands allow him to pick opponents' pockets and his high instincts lead to him jumping passing lanes.

Jones’s defensive numbers have improved but the more important improvement has come with his defensive positioning, most notably in navigating picks. We’ve seen a massive increase in willingness to switch on picks league-wide but the Timberwolves are still one of the few teams to try and fight through every pick. Due to Jones’s lack of natural size and athleticism, he has to find other ways to fight through and disrupt plays. Much like how he operates on offense, Jones uses his high IQ and awareness to make up for physical shortcomings. In the below clip he stays tight on Dragic’s hip the entire time. This allows him to avoid the pick from Olynyk and stay between the ball and Dragic which leads to a steal.

Here is another great example of how Jones is able to navigate the pick and be a nuisance on defense. Jones is aware of Evans’ playmaking ability and knows that Gibson is sagging back in support, so Jones correctly decides to stay tight on Evans’ hip and go over the screen. By not leaving Evans’ hip, he funnels the play directly into a double with Gibson and forces a pass out to Chalmers. As Chalmers attacks the closeout, Jones stays home as the help defender to cut off the drive while still denying Evans the ball. Once Chalmers realizes his lane is cutoff he tries to kick it back out to Evans but Jones has positioned himself perfectly that he is able to steal the pass and take it the other way for an easy two points.

For some reason, the ideology around who can be a good defender has turned into those who are only great athletes. While this obviously helps, having a high level of effort and basketball IQ is far more important. Jones doesn’t let his lack of pure athleticism bring down his defensive impact. He utilizes his awareness and high basketball IQ to avoid picks, contest shot attempts, and create turnovers.

Judging the importance of a player can be difficult. The easiest and most obvious route is to jump straight to the box score. This can be reliable when looking at the stars but it will never give you the full picture on the type of impact that role players have. Tyus Jones isn’t an elite offensive or defensive player but he makes the team better because he plays to his strengths. He opens up the floor on offense with his unselfish, intelligent play. His high basketball IQ makes him a handful to deal with on defense as he forces a lot of turnovers.

This is a very important season for the Timberwolves. Jones has done nothing but improve every year and this season shouldn’t be any different. To see his true impact you will need to look past just the box score. Jones may not be the most talented point guard on the roster but he could easily be the most important.

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