Tyus Jones has earned his opportunity with the Minnesota Timberwolves

After years of struggling for playing time, it is finally time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to make Tyus Jones the full-time backup point guard.

For the first time in recent memory, the Minnesota Timberwolves enter an NBA season with significant expectations. After the acquisitions of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and Jamal Crawford, most expect the Wolves to enter the playoff picture. However, the roster remains incomplete leaving an unsettled playing rotation.

Point Guard?

Rumor has it that Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden want a veteran point guard, which the market usually carries at a surplus. The likes of Aaron Brooks, Isaiah Canaan, and CJ Watson remain available.  Those players have a choice to opt for a higher salary abroad or accept the veteran minimum in the NBA.

For the Wolves, a decision regarding a veteran guard needs to remain a choice over a third-string point guard. Tyus Jones finally deserves his shot as a full-time backup point guard. Let’s consider why.

Playing time struggles

Jones joined the league two years ago and continually battled for playing time. In his rookie season, he competed with Zach LaVine and Andre Miller. Additionally, Jones spent a brief stint with the Idaho Stampede of the D-League (now G-League), during which Jones averaged 24.7 points, 5.0 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. Stampede coach Dean Cooper raved about his performance—he noted Jones’ unexpected maturity: “It’s like talking to a 35-year old guy… he does a good job running a team.” And perhaps most importantly, his natural feel for the position: “From the guys I’ve worked with [including Randy Foye, Steve Francis, Andre Miller, Jeremy Lin, and Patrick Beverly] he has been the guy who came in most like a point guard.”

After six games, Jones returned to the Wolves. His main competition at the time, LaVine, was an experimental option. LaVine gained valuable experience and became a competent secondary ball-handler; however, he was never meant to be a point guard. From that point on, Jones' playing time quietly increased as the season progressed.

The following year, competition switched to Kris Dunn, Thibodeau’s first draft pick and likely a poor selection. Dunn edged upon incompetence offensively and occasionally stumbled on defense. Dunn is off to Chicago in the Butler trade, where he should benefit from an increased role. Dunn, even at the young age of 23, had genuinely concerning rookie-year struggles. Again, Jones eventually discovered the court.

Jones' gifts

With the Wolves, Jones has consistently displayed an innate ability to score the ball. He accommodates for his smaller stature with an already polished runner, 92nd percentile via Synergy, and already ranks in the 65th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler. To further break that down, he rarely takes a premature jump shot out of the pick-and-roll (only twice all season according to Synergy), but if the defense sticks to outside shooters, he can penetrate the lane and rely upon his runner.

Beyond scoring, Jones has a knack for making the right pass—perhaps mentor Ricky Rubio rubbed off. He can nonchalantly blend his priorities into the complex flow of a basketball game. In 2016-17, Jones averaged less than two turnovers per 36 minutes while approaching seven assists per 36 minutes. Moreover, he commands respect as a floor-spacer with his 73rd percentile spot-up jump shot alongside his 41% three-point field goal percentage (38.9% over two seasons).

Defensive struggles

Albeit, Jones has mostly struggled on the defensive end. He struggles to keep up with quicker point guards and physical ones bully him. However, he averaged over two steals per 36 minutes, while rarely straying from the flow of the game. Furthermore, Synergy ranks him in the 61st percentile defensively, likely a product of his second-nature feel for the sport. Watch Jones and you quickly gain the sense that he is a step ahead mentally, without losing a step to a derived thought process.

Picking apart his defensive ranking highlights his physical deficiencies. He is in the 96th percentile in spot-up shooting defense—likely a result of his one-step ahead instincts. However, it simply takes less athletically to contest a jump shot. Jones falls to the 26th percentile in pick-and-roll defense. While his struggles are partly a consequence of frail rim protection, which can improve if Dieng moves to the bench unit, at a certain point, no amount of basketball knowledge can thwart a superior athlete attacking off of a well-set screen. 

Situation moving forward

In a league filled with an established array of veteran point guards, in addition to an annual fresh crop, Jones likely tops out as a bench-unit leader. That fills the Wolves need, though. Over the past two seasons, Jones has struggled to settle into a groove, as he has consistently fought for his rotational spot. Expect Thibodeau to sign another veteran guard, but I hope that he initially offers Jones, the full-time role as the backup point guard.

If Jones can perform, the Wolves hold his option for the following season. They can return him and then enter the nuances of restricted free agency the next year. Even if management wants to avoid paying a substantial salary, they can leverage Jones as an asset. Worst-case scenario, Minnesota receives two seasons of a competently led bench unit by a locally-grown fan favorite.

If the experiment ultimately fails, Thibodeau can use a third point guard. Or, if he signs another bench guard—Tony Allen comes to mind—he can elect Crawford as the de facto bench point guard.

Cap situation

After years of unused cap space, the Wolves finally find themselves in the complex realm of salary-cap management. Salary-cap structuring is pivotal for long-term flexibility, an issue the organization has avoided through a lack of retainable talent. But after a productive off-season, the Wolves are already encountering critical salary negotiations (Andrew Wiggins).

As max-salaries begin to bog down their books, it is crucial that Minnesota internally develops talent. Skill growth goes beyond an immediate result; it creates assets and thus increases organizational value. ‘Trusting the Process’ has stigmatized asset collecting, as it has grown to imply that gaining assets requires losing. Even as Boston collects upon its assets, the Celtics depend upon Brooklyn to lose, but implementing a prudent process should entail improving assets.  It should not just be hoarding draft picks, which begins with player development. This version of the process allows for tangible results (winning) while maintaining a long-term outlook. As the Wolves aim to escape mediocrity and leap into playoff contention, subtle organizational facets like player development exponentially bound in importance.

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