Flash back to draft night 2015. The Minnesota Timberwolves had already drafted Karl-Anthony Towns with the first overall pick, making the night a wonderful success. However, they still had two second round picks to play with at #31 and #36, and while unlikely to get a significant player with either pick, the usual debate on whether the Wolves would sell the picks, pick a player to stash in Europe, or even make a trade slowly percolated.
At the same time, national champion point guard and Twin Cities native Tyus Jones continued to drift down the board. He could have gone at 16 to the Celtics (Terry Rozier). He could have gone at 19 or 20 (Jerian Grant and Delon Wright). As those names left the board, the conversations started: what if the Wolves can get Tyus Jones? Is it worth it? How much would they have to give up? He fits a need as a future backup point guard and is the best remaining prospect on the board.
The front office had the same thoughts, and traded those two second round picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers for pick number 24. Tyus Jones was returning home to Minnesota. It was a move that made a lot of sense for everyone at that point in the draft. Both John and Key brought up Tyus' name in thinking about the second round picks, and the reactions of bringing the hometown kid back home were heartwarming.
However, did it make sense on the basketball court? Jones' problems as a point guard prospect in the NBA were easy to pinpoint: he's not that big and not that fast. From his DraftExpress profile:
Jones has average physical tools for the point guard position by NBA standards, being measured around 6-1, with a 190 pound frame and a wingspan between 6-3 and 6-5. He's not an exceptional athlete on top of that, possessing just average speed in the open floor, without a great first step or vertical leap to compensate.
Jones was never going to be a point guard in the Isiah Thomas mold, where he could just use his speed to get open and get to the hoop. The appeal to Tyus was in his mental game: by all accounts he was (and is) very intelligent on the floor, able to find good openings, and is not afraid of big opportunities at big moments (as he showed on the biggest stage in college basketball).
It's taken most of a season of development for Sam Mitchell and the front office to feel comfortable playing Jones in live NBA action. Jones appeared in only ten of the Wolves' 54 games before the All-Star Break, averaging just 11 minutes in those games. He spent five games in the NBA D-League, and did what an NBA player should do in that environment: he tore it up. In six games, he averaged 24.7 points and 5.0 assists and was just 1.3% away from shooting 50-40-90.
In the eleven games since the All-Star Break, however, Jones has been set free, with the release of Andre Miller and Zach LaVine's move into the starting lineup at shooting guard. Jones has played in all but one of these games, averaging 16.7 minutes per outing. Per 36 minutes, his marks of 12.5 points and 6.9 assists are respectable for a backup point guard (per 36, he's actually scoring more than Ricky Rubio since the All-Star Break).
However, Jones has been playing with absolutely putrid bench lineups over those same ten games, and that has not made for pleasant watching. It is hard to expect a rookie point guard to have much success playing next to such NBA luminaries as Adreian Payne and Greg Smith, and Tayshaun Prince's move to the bench has not been the greatest success in these lineup combinations; they have significant trouble scoring and cannot defend anyone.
One thing that Jones brings, if he's given the opportunity, is a lack of fear when given an open shot, which he could give a dose of to some other members of the team. Here's a play from the Wolves' win over Boston from a couple weeks ago.
Jones only has a sliver of space to take that shot, but when he sees Tyler Zeller backing up to defend the drive rather than contest the shot, he immediately pulls the trigger, taking and making a nice shot.
He can also see some tricky passing angles, like this pick-and-roll play with Payne.
Jones' problems on defense are somewhat similar to Zach LaVine's last year in similar situations (and still this year to some extent). Jones is small enough that a well-set screen will just remove him from the play, and he isn't fast enough to compensate by ducking over or under without giving up an open look. It is a problem, but one that you would expect can improve as Jones continues to grow.
However, Jones can also sniff out bad passes and take advantage of them, and in the play below he straight up outworks two members of the Celtics, a simple detail but one that doesn't feel like the Wolves succeed in that often.
This play is the epitome of everything that Tyus Jones brings to a team: smarts, hustle, determination, and every other sports cliché you can think of. Jim Peterson said much of the same thing directly after this play (and the corner 3 that Jones drained the next possession):
You make the hustle play, you shoot the gap, you get the steal, you beat two Celtics to the basketball, and then you're a quick shooter [sic]. Amazing job by Tyus Jones, and this is will right here, this is why Tyus Jones is a winner, and this is why ultimately, for me, Tyus Jones is going to be a rotational player in this league.
Tyus' numbers are okay right now, and they can get better each time he takes the floor and competes against NBA talent. But plays like this don't happen often enough for the Wolves. He may not be the biggest or the fastest, but it is satisfying to watch sequences like the one above (and below, which is just fun) go the Wolves' way.
It will be interesting to see Jones' development over the next month and over the coming seasons.
(An aside: the Canis Hoopus Podcast will return next week. I am away from home this week and did not get anything pre-recorded, which is on me.)