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Breaking Down the Wolves, Part III: The Unknowns

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Part III of an ongoing five-part series, aimed at breaking down the current state of the Wolves, focuses on three rookies in Minnesota: Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne and Glenn Robinson III

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed the first two parts of this series, you can check out Part I here and Part II here.

Tier III: The Unknowns

Zach LaVine

In his rookie season, LaVine has been thrown into the fire at point guard. In 54 games, the UCLA rookie has logged approximately 91 percent of his minutes at the wrong position, which has played into his rough first NBA campaign. It didn't take long to figure out that he should be playing off ball, a role that better suits his skillset. It's really that simple. LaVine is not a point guard.

Forcing him to take the reins of the Wolves offense – repeatedly accepting the same dire results in the name of development – is like a salesman that keeps leaving voicemails or sending emails to the same exact person, but never gets any sort of response. A good salesman doesn't badger the same contact over and over again if they aren't gaining any traction with that person, even if that individual is the ultimate decision maker that needs to be sold eventually.

A good salesman finds alternative contacts to get their foot in the door, to learn about the buyer and their needs, to establish credibility at a lower level. They talk to anybody that's willing to talk. They find people who are willing to provide information. And once they create a relationship the goal is to ultimately bridge the gap, to have these people help make the necessary connections. Which leads me to my point that Flip Saunders has been a bad salesman this season when it comes to LaVine.

Saunders continues to call the same contact to no avail. He knows he's getting nowhere in the sales cycle, but changes nothing about his process. He continues to play LaVine at point guard knowing exactly what he's going to get. LaVine, given the 1,126 minutes of data we have to assess, is likely going to flop at point guard when inserted into the game. This has been rehashed ad nauseam around these parts, yet we continue to see Saunders ignore the statistics LaVine ranks dead last in RPM at -7.77 (495th) – and continually opt to run him out at point guard.

Of all rotation players in the NBA, LaVine has been among the worst this season. But to be clear, that doesn't make him the worst player in the NBA, as some folks have alluded to throughout this season. And that definitely doesn't mean he's destined to become a bust.

What's important is that LaVine is still only 19-years-old. When the Wolves drafted him this past summer he was obviously a project. While he has a great deal of development ahead of him, it's also too early to put a ceiling on his game. He's a gym rat by all accounts, he badly wants to be great, he's a freakish athlete with a lighting quick first step and seemingly has the tools to become a microwave scorer through time like Jamal Crawford another lanky combo guard from the Seattle area who only thrived in the NBA when moved off the ball.

Over the course of his rookie season, he's shown flashes of good play. But for the most part watching him play point guard has been an exercise in patience, especially in today's world of instant everything. Needless to say, patience does not come easily to most Wolves fans when it comes to young players. Our hopes have been destroyed too many times. So when Saunders points over to the bench, gesturing for LaVine to come in at point guard, when it's painfully obvious what the results will most likely be, it's easy to be impatient. And truthfully, the Wolves can't put him in the game at point guard without expecting a quick 8-0 run by the other team. This has happened all season long.

Yet, not everything has been terrible. LaVine's 28 point game in a win over the Lakers – yes, I'm aware the Lakers are equally awful and that Jeremy Lin guarded him – was nice to see. He finished with 22 points and 10 assists against the Spurs (though it was in a blowout loss) the game after going for 17 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists against Houston. He dished a career-high 14 assists against Golden State in late December. And how about that third quarter show he put on at Target Center in a home win over the Boston Celtics on January 28? I absolutely loved that performance. The way he responded to an awful first half matched up against Avery Bradley was almost unbelievable. I wrote the following in my recap of that game:

Up until the 2:45 mark of the second quarter, LaVine looked severely overwhelmed by Avery Bradley's gritty on-ball defense; he couldn't do anything right. But one gorgeous pass by Andrew Wiggins to a streaking LaVine, resulting in a jaw dropping alley-oop from one rookie to another, sparked the 19-year-old UCLA product. LaVine had a put-back dunk 30 seconds later, coming off an 8-foot shot from Wiggins that rimmed out, and carried that positive momentum into halftime. He scored the first six points of the third quarter -- nailing a 21-foot jumper, two free throws, and a driving layup over Bradley -- causing Celtics coach Brad Stevens to call a rage timeout with 10:21 still left in the third. The Wolves were up 55-49 at this point. LaVine scored seven more points in the third, giving him 13 in the quarter.

Part of his horrid rookie season the Wolves are 12.8 points worse per 100 possessions with LaVine on the court than off is due to Saunders' roster construction, along with his ignorance in playing him at point guard when the numbers say he shouldn't be. I can understand his motives in this if he doesn't care about winning and simply wants to accelerate LaVine's learning curve; the point guard has to know where everyone is supposed to be and where the ball is supposed to go depending on what the defense is giving them.

Being dead last in RPM isn't as shocking when you consider how many minutes he's played out of position, filling in a role the team likely didn't intend for him to play this season, on a team missing their three best players for a huge chunk of the season (Rubio, Martin and Pekovic). When Rubio went down with his devastating ankle injury the team was left with scoring-guard Mo Williams as the only point guard on the roster and LaVine's role changed dramatically. As the team became fully healthy in February his minutes decreased to 11.9 per game.

Saunders has forced this point guard thing down his throat for too long already, though it remains to be seen how he will use him for the rest of the season. I've said it plenty of times before, but this probably bears repeating until coming to fruition: Lorenzo Brown should be running the point when Rubio takes a seat. LaVine is best suited to play off ball if the Wolves want him to realize his potential. I mean, LaVine struggles with some of the most basic point guard responsibilities. Running the pick-and-roll and defending it effectively without getting destroyed by screens is his kryptonite (he doesn't understand when to go under the screen and when to go over). Not to mention, he also dribbles the air out of the ball at the top of the key and has severe problems with throwing post entry passes. Nevertheless, Saunders keeps making the same sales call.

*LaVine's effective field goal percentage goes from 34.6 percent on pull-up jumpers (44.9 percent of his shots) to 49.0 percent in catch and shoot situations (13.3 percent of his shots).

Now, I'm fairly certain Saunders understands that LaVine is not a point guard. I believe he'll address this issue, or perhaps I'm more hopeful than anything, and find a more capable rotation player to fill that role during the offseason. I look at LaVine as an unknown for a variety of reasons, but when he plays off ball I start to see some of the things that could make him special down the road. He runs the court like he's California Chrome chasing the Triple Crown in transition, using his sensational speed to leave defenders in the dust. He's also good at attacking the rim for his slight frame and inexperience, and his shooting stroke in catch-in-shoot situations is much better than off the dribble*.

LaVine has a long ways to go, but at 19-years-old he's far from a hopeless cause. I still have full confidence that he can become a good player and when the Wolves drafted him it seemed clear that it would be at least two years before he started having a real consistently positive impact, given that he was a such a raw, inexperienced prospect – truly a home-run pick as Saunders discussed after the draft – coming out of college. The one thing I love about him is that he desperately wants to be great. He wants to be Kobe.

He's also shown the ability to create off the dribble, get to the rim and run in transition, which bodes well given the presence of Rubio – a true tactician in transition. I've also seen stretches of play on the defensive end that make me optimistic. I still vividly remember the game earlier this season against the Milwaukee Bucks at Target Center the night before Thanksgiving. LaVine played 37 minutes at point guard, matched-up against Brandon Knight, and the Wolves lost 103-86. But I came away impressed with his defensive effort that night.

Milwaukee led the game by one point with 6:57 remaining, 84-83. At that point, Knight was 1-9 from the floor with 2 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists, playing almost exclusively against LaVine in his 30 minutes. Entering the game Knight was averaging 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists in 33.5 mpg; a front-runner for the Most Improved Player Award. But to get back on track, his general ineffectiveness through the first three and a half quarters was a direct product of excellent defense by LaVine.

Knight couldn't handle the UCLA rookies combination of speed, athleticism and length. He really couldn't do anything until the Wolves got foul happy midway through the fourth. Then, he took over the game. Knight scored 13 fourth quarter points, fueled by eight free throw attempts (all makes) and two critical turnovers by LaVine. It was a rough finish for him, but that doesn't mean the game was a net negative.

Is LaVine a point guard? Absolutely not. But that was already clear. He's playing the position out of necessity with Rubio out nursing his ankle injury, and moreover poor roster construction -- if you list a player as the third point guard on the depth chart perhaps that player should be comfortable, and able, to set-up an NBA offense and execute various sets. So don't be mad at LaVine, it's really not his fault, blame the architect instead and let's give the 19-year-old rookie some credit for his defensive work on Knight, who was invisible through three quarters.

To be honest, I have high hopes for LaVine as a wing scorer down the road but I came away from this game impressed with his work defensively more than anything. He had lapses late in the game, but his defensive effort was inspiring as a whole.

Moving forward, I'm sure Saunders will continue to run LaVine at point guard but over the last three games he's started to play him off ball more, having Kevin Martin or Gary Neal do more of the ball handling. This is a welcome change because the organization absolutely needs to scrap the point guard experiment from happening outside of emergency situations. Stop stunting his growth as a prospect already. It's simple, play him off the ball and develop him at the position he'll be filling long-term.

I can't imagine the coaching staff not knowing the on/off court numbers with LaVine. How much more evidence do they need? Playing him at point guard might have accelerated his understanding of the game, but it's also helped the Wolves lose plenty of winnable games. The coaches know what happens when he runs the show, so the motivations behind this are questionable at best.

Ultimately, I believe in LaVine as a prospect no matter what picture RPM or any advanced metric might paint. I believe he can become a very good player through time once the team starts to develop him in the role that he's meant to play. Good thing he doesn't lack confidence, because the season he's had probably would have scarred most rookies for life. Yet, Zach's confidence has not be shaken and neither has my confidence in him. I still have high hopes for him as a big-time scoring two-guard in the future, especially next to Rubio.

Contract

Team 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17* 2017-18*
Minnesota Timberwolves $2,055,840 $2,148,360 $2,240,880 $3,202,217

*Team option

Note: I won't spend as much time on Payne and GRIII because there's less to say about them given their smaller sample sizes. Also, playing LaVine at point guard has probably been one the most frustrating developments of this season, so I had a lot more to say about that...

Adreian Payne

February 10, 2015: the Atlanta Hawks trade first round pick Adreian Payne, the 15th overall selection in the 2014 NBA draft, to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for a 2017 1st round draft pick (lottery protected from 2017-2020).

Payne was buried on the Hawks depth chart behind a loaded front court that includes Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Mike Scott, Pero Antic, Elton Brand, and Mike Muscala. I don't want to spend too much time rationalizing the trade – I want to talk about what he's done in a Wolves uniform and what his future might look like in Minneapolis instead – but it's certainly worrisome that Atlanta was willing to sell him so quickly based on their internal evaluation; he was a part of their organization for less than 8 months. Moreover, they won't see any returns on their original investment until 2017 at the earliest. Even if they have no current need for additional front court production it's rather clear that they soured on Payne, who is old for a rookie (24), and believed that recouping an asset for him was the wise play before his value depreciated across the league.

Payne only played in three games for Atlanta, logging 19 minutes of playing time for one of the NBA's best teams. With the Wolves, he's received a much larger opportunity but has struggled mightily with his shot thus far. Through six games he's played 136 minutes. It's a small sample size to assess. Let's talk about it anyways.

Here are his advanced stats:

Payne came out of Michigan State as a big stretch 4 who could shoot, rebound and defend. 95 percent of his minutes have come at power forward with the Wolves, though he could probably play some center in small-ball lineups if necessary. He's quick for his size and plays above the rim, but like most rookies he's an incredibly sloppy player right now that often gets tunnel vision when he touches the ball. He's collected only one assist to go with eight turnovers with the Wolves.

In terms of his shot, well, it's a slow set shot with kind of an awkward wind up. It hasn't been falling yet – 27.1 percent of his shots are 2-point attempts coming from 16+ feet but not 3-pointers, and he's only hitting 23.1 percent of these. Payne is getting open looks, he's just not hitting them. I'd like to believe with more game experience – he's appeared jittery at times, wanting to prove his worth right out of the gate – he will start to boost his percentages.

One thing that stood out to me against the Memphis Grizzlies last Saturday was Payne's inability to set a strong screen on the first go-around. He has plenty of work to do in learning how to become a solid screen setter – an area that Garnett should be able to assist him. When he went to set a high screen for Rubio he had to re-set or adjust his screen almost every time, often multiple times. Him and Rubio were not on the same page in the pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop. Payne is still getting good looks although his screens haven't been perfect, but giving Rubio an excellent pick puts serious pressure on the defense to collapse on him in the lane. This is when Rubio is at his best.

Compared to Anthony Bennett, Payne's aggressiveness and enthusiasm for attacking the offensive glass, tipping the ball to keep it alive as well as contesting shots near the rim, is a welcome sight. He plays harder than AB in this regard, from the eye test, and plays with more confidence on the court (i.e. he simply goes out and plays instead of looking at the coaching staff everytime he screws up, fearful that he's going to be pulled out of the game).

While Payne still looks like he's playing 1000 mph out there at times, making errors because of it, I've already started to prefer him over Bennett. He doesn't look lost or overwhelmed on the court. He looks a rookie that hasn't played many minutes. A rookie still figuring out where he fits in. Occasionally he can be overly aggressive defending post players, as seen against Taj Gibson last Friday in Chicago, but he has the tools to be an above-average defender.

Next season, Payne will probably be used as a rotational big. I believe he forecasts as a solid backup power forward/center off the bench that can block shots, rebound, and space the defense offensively. With the right seasoning, he could become a valuable 3-and-D big man, which plenty of teams would love to have in today's NBA. The real question surrounding Payne is how much better can he become. That's exactly why he's an unknown for me. I really have no idea. But I've liked some of the things he's shown through six games with the team. His shot will start to fall, he's getting too many good looks for it not to.

Check out Zachary Bennett's post here if you're looking for GIFs/analysis on Adreian Payne.

Contract

Team 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17* 2017-18*
Minnesota Timberwolves $1,855,320 $1,938,840 $2,022,240 $3,100,094

*Team option

Glenn Robinson III

Trying to understand what the organization's plans are with GRIII makes my head hurt. I know he's good friends with all of the young guys on the team, especially Wiggins and LaVine, but it's tough to put a finger on how the team views his future. He's played 108 minutes in 25 games this season with 34 DNP-CD's. And almost all of those minutes have come in garbage time when the game has already been decided. It's weird because the organization has bent over backwards to keep GRIII and Saunders and GM Milt Newton have consistently talked about liking his skillset and athleticism on the wing, referencing the good things he does in practice.

The reality is this: he doesn't have a guaranteed contract for next season. How can the front office truly evaluate him if they don't give him any meaningful minutes in a real live NBA game? What's worse is that that he can't even get on the court ahead of Chase Budinger. In case you haven't been paying attention, Budinger might be the worst player in the NBA. This pains me to write, since I've been a Bud apologist for years, but there's absolutely no reason he should get minutes over GRIII. And I say this with almost no clue of what Robinson III can bring to the table.

Budinger has proven to be astonishingly ineffective through 682 minutes this season. He is not in the long-term plans of the organization. There is no way he could be. Bud's game was built on athleticism, now that's completely gone after his knee surgeries there is no light at the end of the tunnel – just a plane ticket overseas.

Another thing that irks me in regards to GRIII is how Saunders plays Wiggins 42 minutes one night, talks in the postgame press conference about how tired Wiggy looked, and yet he still can't decrease his minutes in the moment, opting to ride the future rookie of the year for almost the entire game. Why not let Robinson III get a little run to decrease the mileage on Wiggins? I worry that the coaching staff is asking so much of Wiggins already and wearing him down at an incredible rate during his rookie season. If he must play 40+ minutes to ensure a victory for some larger cause, like making a playoff run, that's one thing, but the Wolves are 13-46. Why run up the mileage on him before the team is relevant?

Over the last 23 games, Saunders needs to get GRIII on the court to evaluate him in a meaningful setting, and also in the name of giving Wiggins a bit of a break. Maybe it's just me, but deciding whether or not to keep him this summer based on what he's done in practice seems like poor process. I want to see what he can do in transition, at Michigan he was an excellent lob threat cutting backdoor against inattentive defenders. I want to know if he can defend, rebound, and shoot from deep. And I don't think I'm the only one. The only way to find out is to give him playing time.

Contract

Team 2014-15
Minnesota Timberwolves $507,336

Part IV will focus on three players... Time is running out for these three.