Through three preseason games, there are ten players who have seen significant time on the court: the starting five of Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng, and Karl-Anthony Towns, and the bench pieces of Kris Dunn, Brandon Rush, Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica, and Cole Aldrich. Those ten have each played more than 50 minutes; the next most is Tyus Jones with just 13.
Jones’ drop in importance early in preparation for next season isn’t a surprise: the Wolves’ first round draft pick plays his position and appears to have a much higher ceiling. However, there should also be a difference between Jones and the rest of the third tier of the roster.
Jones struggled for much of last season. Before the All-Star break, he played fewer minutes than every member of the Wolves’ roster, including Nikola Pekovic. The problems were expected: he was too slow to stay with most opponents on defense, and didn’t bring enough on offense, whether through shooting or creativity, to merit more time over (at that time) backup point guard LaVine’s development.
After the All-Star break, with LaVine moving to start at the 2, Tyus’ minutes soared, and his solid play off the bench was a part of the Wolves’ strong close to the season. The problems on defense remained, but his smart distribution on offense and willingness to take a shot every now and again were a good balance with the relentless aggression Muhammad provides.
Tyus brings stability and smarts to a bench lineup on offense. He had the best assist-to-turnover ratio of any rookie in last year’s draft class by a mile (3.27, next closest was OKC’s Cameron Payne at 2.45), which is totally ridiculous for a rookie point guard on a bad team.
He then had the best Las Vegas Summer League of literally any player in the NBA, winning the MVP as the Wolves ran through the playoff bracket all the way to the final, powered almost exclusively by Jones’ scoring and distribution after Dunn departed the tournament due to a possible concussion. Summer League is Summer League, and Jones looked way too good to be there.
That brings us to this season: what is Jones’ role on this team? He’s plenty good enough to get minutes, but will he be able to impress Tom Thibodeau enough to carve out any kind of niche? His question marks on defense likely present the biggest problem, but there may be some areas that he could excel.
Jones has shown flashes of a decent jumper in the NBA, and brings a different kind of “scoring” point guard than Dunn. The two showed the ability to play alongside each other for the two games they could in Vegas, and should the Wolves want to run a small-ball lineup off the bench, playing Dunn and Jones together makes more sense than Rubio and Dunn. Jones’ distribution could enable easier openings for Dunn, and Dunn’s presence on defense could make a lineup with Jones easier to work with.
Jones probably has the best three-point shot of any of the Wolves’ three point guards, which could give another opening: if the Wolves need lots of points in a hurry, a lineup of Jones-LaVine-Rush-Bjelica-Towns brings five distance shooters. It would be a horrific sieve defensively and will probably never see floor time, but it’s an idea.
Even if Jones doesn’t play, he’s exactly the right personality for a locker room, and will always do what needs to be done. After the Wolves’ second win of their four straight in the Vegas tournament, I asked Tyus if he felt any pressure to carry the load offensively, since he was about the only one scoring for the Wolves. His answer really stuck with me.
“If it’s scoring, so be it. If it’s passing and setting my teammates up, so be it. If it’s making the extra pass or just getting us in the offense and my teammates making plays, so be it. I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win. Today it was scoring the ball and just being ready to play and accepting the challenge, no matter what it is. You can’t look at it as pressure, you’ve got to look at it as a challenge. That’s why you work out, that’s why you put up extra shots, that’s why you go so hard in the offseason, for you to implement it in a game.”
More than likely, Jones will not play as much this year as he did after the All-Star Break last year, barring a trade of one of the two players above him in the pecking order, and that’s no surprise. However, he’s shown that he is a good enough player to get playing time and gives Thibodeau a different skill set to work with, and another piece to experiment with off the bench. I hope he gets his shot.