What, exactly, do the Minnesota Timberwolves have in rookie point guard Tyus Jones?
At this stage in his career, Jones' game is in an unformed state; who knows what his ceiling and role will be when the dust settles. In 37 appearances this season, Jones showed flashes of being a productive offensive player and game manager, but those flashes can only be so bright when a player has logged less than 600 minutes (1,000 is the typical arbitrary number before conclusions can start to be drawn). So, needless to say, not much is really known about Jones at the NBA level as of today. What is relatively known, however, is that what he lacks in athleticism he makes up for in cerebral play.
Basketball IQ is a nebulous factor of gameplay that is difficult to ascribe data to; it's more often left to the eye to pick up on and, from what he has shown thus far, Jones has "it." As can be seen in this video from a game (albeit a preseason game) against the Bulls, he just knows when to make the right pass, when to pull up in transition, and when to kick it out on a drive.
Jones' high basketball IQ is his greatest strength and he will most likely have to rely on that innate intelligence in order to be successful in the NBA. He possesses a skill that rarely, if ever, can be taught over the course of a career.
Along with his high basketball IQ, Jones displayed the ability to hit the three during his only year at Duke, where he shot 37.9 percent; however, that consistency didn't translate to this season. After starting a blistering 13 for 26, Jones converted only three of his final 27 attempts to finish the season with a woeful 30.2% from three. However, it's possible that that late season skid could represent bad luck more than his overall talent. With the way the game emphasizes the three-point shot as the focal point of many offenses, Jones should be able to find a nice niche within the league if he can shoot at least league average (typically around 35%) from behind the arc.
However, today's game also emphasizes shots near the rim, so it is imperative that Jones learns to finish better 10 feet and in, where he only converted 45.6% of his attempts. Nearly half (43.6% according to NBA.com) of his shot attempts this past season occurred within 8-feet of the hoop.
Jones is a decent rebounder for a guy of his size (3.0 rebounds per 36, according to Basketball Reference) and a strong passer. Passing data (according to NBA.com) suggests that Jones does a good job of putting his teammates in a position to score. The data looks at how frequently Jones passed to each player on the team and their various shooting percentages after said passes.
Again, the sample size is small, but Nemanja Bjelica ("pass to" frequency of 14.3%) and Shabazz Muhammad ("pass to" frequency of 15.7%) shot 54.5% and 53.0% respectively from the field after receiving a pass from Jones, while Zach LaVine ("pass to" frequency of 16.8%) shot 46.7% from three. It is difficult to draw definitive conclusions from this data as the number of shot attempts was low due to Jones' limited minutes this season, but they may be at least a somewhat decent indicator of how Jones puts his teammates in a position to be dangerous with the ball. Rebounding and passing are important tools to have in any point guard's toolbox, but especially for one who projects to be an important player off the bench.
Jones showed brief flashes — a nice pass, a made three, a strong finish around the hoop — on offense that made it seem like he has a bright future in the league, but those flashes became much dimmer on the other end of the court where he often struggled to keep his man in front of him. His biggest weaknesses are his size, lack of athleticism, and speed, and all of those factors combine to cause his trouble on defense; this was evident in an early March game against the San Antonio Spurs as point guards Andre Miller and Patty Mills blew past him on multiple occasions.
Jones will have to rely on his basketball smarts to make up for his deficiencies on the defensive end going forward. Jones had a defensive rating of 111 and a defensive box plus/minus of -2.0, both of which are pretty terrible, but there is a hope that new head coach Tom Thibodeau can work magic with him. Thibodeau has a history of turning undersized, low-level talent backup point guards into very serviceable players (Aaron Brooks, E'Twaun Moore, Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin, etc.), so who is to say the same can't be done with Jones?
This mostly goes without being said, but Jones will also have to grow into his body a little more, and adding strength would be a good thing. As David pointed out in his article for SB Nation's rookie week, Jones just isn't strong enough at this point to fight around screens. However, he is only 19 years old, so he has plenty of time to fill out his frame and figure out how to play defense to compensate for his physical limitations.
So what, exactly, do the Wolves have in Tyus Jones? It is difficult to say at the moment, but from what he has shown, it would appear as if the Wolves have a young point guard with a need to grow and improve his defense, but who also boasts a high basketball IQ, a work-in-progress three-point shot, and the passing ability and court vision to put his teammates in the best position to succeed. The Wolves don't need Jones to be a savior of the franchise or even to become a starter someday; what the franchise needs from Jones is for him to become a reliable backup, a role that is instrumental and of the utmost importance for a team wanting to win a championship.
So why not make Jones the primary backup point guard now? While it is possible that he may not be completely ready for that role for some of the reasons listed above, the best way to earn valuable experience is to see in-game action; practice and learning from the bench can only bring you along so far. Being the primary backup would allow for Jones to learn how to roll with the punches and learn on the fly; let him take his lumps and allow for him to grow as the season progresses.
Now this isn't to say that the Wolves don't need to acquire a third point guard this offseason. They must, but taking a look at the point guards who will be available this summer in free agency, most are either young and looking to get paid (read: overpaid) or are veterans who are on the verge of either being washed up or are already there. Ideally, it would be best if the Wolves were to bring on a veteran on a one-year deal who could either split time with Jones as the primary backup early in the year before conceding the title to Jones as the season progressed or who wouldn't mind playing 10 minutes or so a game. From that list linked earlier, only 38-year-old Jason Terry somewhat fits that description and, even then, he is more of a shooting guard anyway.
So, again, why not give Jones the title now? Ultimately the decision lies in the hands of Thibodeau, but Jones has the potential to be a very solid backup point guard and it will be interesting to see how he improves under the new regime.