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How Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have improved under Flip Saunders

Shut up.

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

This community widely agrees that Flip Saunders isn't the best coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Saunders has taken plenty of flack this season as many believe his coaching style is outdated. The most recent bashing occurred last night. (I disagree with a few of the things that are said in this article.)

Saunders may not be the best coach and his overall philosophy may derive from the stone age but by no means is he misusing Andrew Wiggins.

The favorite to win Rookie of the Year

Sure, it'd be nice if Wiggins added another weapon to his arsenal--that much is obvious--but historically he hasn't even been a very good 3pt shooter. He made below 35% of his 3PA at Kansas; was 34-of-95 on 3PA (35.6%) prior to the All-Star Break; and is a glaring 4-of-25 (......16%.....) since. He's made just 31.7% of his 3pt attempts this season.

David Thorpe claims Wiggins 'looks like he could be a guy who could be a 40 percent 3-point shooter in a few seasons — he's not going to do it for a year or two.'

So, what happens until then? We watch Wiggins flounder around the court unsure of what to do?

Are we supposed to just ignore the progress Wiggins has made in just one season?

One could make the argument that throughout the year Saunders has convinced Wiggins to settle for less outside shots, and instead focus on becoming more aggressive by attacking the paint and getting the FT line. These are advantageous skills that I don't mind seeing Wiggins develop before the 3pt shot.

His strengths and weaknesses coming out of college were well documented. In one season at Kansas, Wiggins was a below average shooter (as was indicated by his 45.7% eFG% in halfcourt situations) reluctant to attack the rim, even though Wiggins was an efficient scorer when he successfully got to the basket. According to Hoop-Math 36.5% of Wiggins' FGA in college came at the rim; 33.6% were 2pt jumpers; and 29.9% were 3pt shots.

But Wiggins remained somewhat passive during his first few months in the NBA.

In November, Wiggins was habitually settling for outside shots rather than trying to get closer to the bucket. Perhaps he was just getting a feel for the NBA game--the transition from college to pro ball as a 19 y/o isn't exactly easy.

Merely 26.5% of his FGA came from inside the restricted area; 46.1% were from the mid-range area; and 12.5% were from 3pt range. Wiggins scored 32.5% of his points in the paint; 26.3% from the mid-range area; and 18.8% from 3pt range.

Bestowed a heftier workload after the Wolves had been decimated by injuries Wiggins seemingly turned up the aggressiveness in December, when he settled for fewer outside shots while frequently attacking the painted area. Wiggins scored 42.9% of his points in the paint; 25.6% from the mid-range area; and 9.1% from 3pt range.

Games/Minutes Points %PTS (2PT) %PitP %2PT-MR %PTS (3PT) %2PT FGA %3PT FGA
November 13 / 389 160 58.8% 32.5% 26.3% 18.8% 83.2% 16.8%
December 15 / 509 219 68.5% 42.9% 25.6% 8.2% 90.9% 8.2%

It's encouraging to know that Wiggins' assertiveness hasn't gone away as the season has gone on. He's continued attacking the paint by driving to the rim; taking more shots from inside the painted area and getting to the FT line.

Since the season began Wiggins 3PA have gradually decreased. While it might be hard for a lot of you to cope with this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Instead of sacrificing 3PA in order to take more mid-range jump shots he's become a more efficient scorer by getting inside the painted area and to the FT line.

Before the All-Star Break: Wiggins averaged .64 points per drive behind 3.2 drives per 36 minutes; 48.9% of his FGA came from inside the paint and he scored 21.6% of his points from the FT line.

Since the All-Star Break: Wiggins is averaging .91 points per drive behind 3.9 drives per 36 minutes; 55.3% of his FGA have come from inside the paint and he has scored 29.6% of his points from the FT line.

Games/Minutes Points %PTS (2PT) %PitP %2PT-MR %PTS (3PT) %2PT FGA %3PT FGA
Pre-ASB 53 / 1829 806 65.8% 44.9% 20.8% 12.7% 86.3% 13.7%
Post-ASB 25 / 972 497 68% 49.5% 18.5% 2.4% 93.5%


To better illustrate Wiggins playing style I bring you Matt D'Anna. Months ago, D'Anna introduced NBA Hunting Grounds, or TeamSPACE, over at Nylon Calculus. You can read more about them here--but I'll give you the gist.

The concept of a Hunting Ground directly applies to the way a basketball player "hunts" for scoring opportunities. The areas on the court an individual regularly visits (either by personal choice, coaching discretion, or the guidance of teammates) are typically driven by the likelihood of success.

All players have preferred areas they will consistently (and predictably) attempt shots from; the clusters of continued successes over the course of a game, season, and career become their Hunting Grounds.

Here is Wiggins' Hunting Ground (pre- and post-ASB).

Wiggins Hunting Ground

Wiggins' activity space (the overall amount of court space his shooting occupies) increased and moved in the second half of the season. No longer does he have any more activity from behind the arc, but there's a glowing (red) influx in the painted area. Wiggins' activity has become more concentrated as the season has progressed--virtually no 3s, more focused midrange, and heavy concentrations at the rim.

Jim Peterson pointed out last night that Wiggins has had 41, 3-point play opportunities this season. This figure is respectable even when compared to league leaders; LeBron James (62); DeMarcus Cousins (57); Eric Bledsoe (51); Anthony Davis (49) and James Harden (49).

So, wait a while.

I have no doubts that Wiggins will work to become a better 3-point shooter in due time--he might even become one under Saunders. For those that don't believe that's possible I encourage you to look at the progress Zach LaVine has made this season.

Prior to the All-Star Break, 41.3% of LaVine's FGA came from the mid-range area. That's....not ideal. Only 39% of his FGA attempts occurred in the painted area while just 18.6% were 3PA.

But as the season has progressed LaVine has done a better job of getting near the rim. He's also taking better shots; 43.2% of his FGA since the All-Star Break occurred inside the painted area. LaVine has attempted as many mid-range jump shots as he has 3-pointers (74, or 28.3% of all FGA) and is scoring more frequently from beyond the 3-point line.

Games/Minutes Points %PTS (2PT) %PitP %2PT-MR %PTS (3PT) %2PT FGA %3PT FGA
Pre-ASB 48 / 1041 366 67.2% 41% 26.2% 15.6% 80.5% 19.5%
Post-ASB 25 / 699 314 53.5% 37.6% 15.9% 25.8% 71.6% 28.4%

Here are LaVine's Hunting Grounds (pre- and post-ASB).

Zach LaVine Hunting Ground

Most of LaVine's shooting at the elbows disappeared. He moved back to and is more active at above-the-break 3-pointers. LaVine, in a good way, appears to have simplified his game throughout the year; taking more corner and above-the-break 3s while also attacking the rim.

Stop worrying....for now


I understand there are many of you who just hate Flip Saunders. And this season has been anything but awesome; it's been terrible. I'm not trying to change your mind.

There are times I get upset with Saunders' decisions--I am of the opinion there is probably a better person for the job out there somewhere. But I don't dismiss steps taken in the right direction (even if there are only a few of them) in order to fuel or participate in hatefilled discussion--one that usually will rehash all of the mistakes made by the Timberwolves over the years.

As rookies, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have made significant strides throughout the season--this cannot and should not be ignored.