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Pick-and-Roll Offense: Finding Space in Minnesota

With Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio, the Minnesota Timberwolves have a pick-and-roll weapon. Giving them enough space will be key in the offensive progression.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Karl-Anthony Towns is among a new breed of center: Full-sized bigs who can stretch the floor as well as score in the paint.

Kristaps Porzingis, Brook Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins, Serge Ibaka, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Marc Gasol are allowing their teams to reap the benefits of being able to play their tallest player major minutes on the perimeter. The move away from the plodding center who gravitated to the paint has taken off this season. These few centers have gravitational pull all over the floor and because of that, they are a huge benefit to the spacing of their respective offenses.

Centers with 135 Three-Point Attempts and 1000 Minutes Played

Player 3PA G Mins 3P%
Player 3PA G Mins 3P%
Kristaps Porzingis 189 36 1227 0.402
Brook Lopez 188 36 1057 0.351
DeMarcus Cousins 188 39 1348 0.372
Serge Ibaka 155 41 1260 0.381
Karl-Anthony Towns 151 41 1465 0.305
Marc Gasol 138 41 1395 0.391

Earlier this month, Zach Lowe of ESPN detailed the reality of this evolution, specifically touching on the formerly perimeter-shy Lopez and Gasol:

Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol tried 97 triples between them over 16 combined seasons before this one. They've fired almost 300 so far, and we're barely into the New Year.”

Karl-Anthony Towns has made a similar adjustment in his second season in the NBA. Last season, 27.9 percent of Towns’ field-goal attempts were long two-point attempts (from 16 feet to the three-point arc.) This season, his shot frequency from that distance has dropped to 9.6 percent.

Even better, those long twos have turned into three-point attempts. Last season, only 7.7 percent of Towns’ shot attempts were three-pointers. This season he has nearly tripled that number—Towns now shoots 3.7 threes per game, 21.4 percent of his total shot attempts.

This added space by Towns should, in theory, open up the offense for his four teammates. However, due to skill set deficiencies and bad habits, Towns’ teammates are often failing to make use of this additional space. A place to begin is Towns’ front court partner Gorgui Dieng.

The Glass Ceiling of the Towns-Dieng Pairing

The pick-and-roll is not only the most utilized action in the NBA but also regarded as the most effective way to initiate an offense. So far this season, 24.5 percent of all plays that resulted in a shot, foul, or turnover have been executed by either the ball handler or the screener in a pick-and-roll, according to data from Synergy Sports.

In a league that is necessitating penetration and three-point shooting, there is no better way to create lanes to penetrate or ways in which to find open three-point shooters than to run the pick-and-roll. Like the other 29 teams in the league, the Wolves offense is also often initiated by the pick-and-roll.

Karl-Anthony Towns is the most frequent “screener” or “roll man” in the Wolves pick-and-roll this season. This is, of course, a good thing. Towns has the skill set to do everything out of the pick-and-roll—pop off the screen for a two or three-point shot, roll all the way to the rim, or the ability to catch in the mid-post and find open teammates.

Really, Towns is already a pick-and-roll beast—A Wolves pick-and-roll that uses Towns as the screener results in 1.11 points per possession. That is the best efficiency amongst screeners used in the pick-and-roll four-plus times per game, per Synergy Sports.

A lineup adjustment could see the offense flourish even more. 78.3 percent of the minutes Towns has played have been alongside Gorgui Dieng, entering Sunday’s game in Dallas.

What has kept the Towns-Dieng pairing afloat is the fact that Dieng has actually been a very capable shooter on long twos (16-feet to three-point arc) this season. 29.1 percent of Dieng’s shot attempts are long-twos that he converts at a 49.0 percent rate. For context—Dirk Nowitzki has shot 31.2 percent of his total career shots from this range and converted 47.5 percent of those shots.

There is the question of Dieng regressing on these type of shots (39.4 percent entering this season), but the bigger issue may be finding additional areas for Dieng to thrive. Specifically, the three-point shot is not a regular part of Dieng’s arsenal: He’s taken only 46 threes in his career, 25 of which have been corner threes. In part due to his three-point aversion, Dieng does not provide ideal spacing for Towns. Maybe even more important than finding ways for Dieng to thrive is simply finding ways to get him out of Towns’ way.

As you can see here, when Towns is in pick-and-roll action there is a propensity for Dieng to “dive” to the block. In this case, Towns opts to pass up the three and penetrate. It would have been ideal for Dieng to have flared to the corner. Towns would then have had the opportunity to penetrate all the way to the rim. Instead, Dieng desperately attempts to remove himself from the play completely. In this failed effort, he brings his defender directly to Towns.

Here, when the play breaks down, Dieng is just lingering in the lane. Ricky Rubio and Towns effectively improvise, but because Dieng is floating, his defender (Jared Dudley) is able to key in on Towns and draw the charge.

The Memphis Grizzlies often run similar action with their three-point shooting center Marc Gasol. On this play, Vince Carter (like Dieng) dives to the block but he reads the Gasol penetration, stepping out of the paint when Gasol decides to attack from the top of the key.

On top of Dieng’s contribution to clogging when off the ball, he also adversely effects Towns when it is Dieng who screens in the pick-and-roll.

The Wolves often run a version of the pick-and-roll action out of what is called the “Horns” play set. In Horns, both Dieng and Towns are available to be used as the screener at the top of the key. When the ball handler chooses to use Dieng for the screen, Dieng’s greatest strength of the long-two pop is negated because Towns is occupying much of this space. Dieng then dives to the block (again).

First, that is not a good effort on the screen. Dieng goes on to make matters worse by simply existing on the block, an area in which he is not a substantial threat. Dieng’s placement leaves Towns with the option to only go left as Dieng is occupying the entire right side of the lane.

Alongside Towns, Dieng can limit the pick-and-roll for the Wolves. Following a Dieng ball screen, the floor inherently shrinks. Adding the three-point shot to Dieng’s repertoire would be something he could work on in the off-season, but at this point, he is merely a passer at the top of the key.

Here, you can see plenty of space “above the break.” This is an area where many NBA bigs thrive in the modern NBA. They do this by reading the defense and popping out when beneficial. Not Dieng.

In this pick-and-roll with Rubio, the defense goes under the screen, rightfully daring Rubio to shoot. And because of this, the defenders are now even closer to the diving Dieng. Even a player of Rubio’s passing pedigree can not find Dieng.

Ricky Rubio in the Pick-and-Roll

The Wolves have utilized Andrew Wiggins as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, but it is often Ricky Rubio who instigates the pick-and-roll in Minnesota. With Rubio, there has been a great deal of success. Rubio can deal when even the smallest of passing lanes are available.

As you can see here, the primary defender (Emmanuel Mudiay) respects Rubio’s jump shot, this is indicated by going over the Dieng screen. The secondary defender (Jusuf Nurkic) is also respecting Rubio as a threat to penetrate all the way to the rim. When defended like this, a good passer is able to find a passing lane.

In what has been another rough shooting year for Rubio, it is becoming the norm for the defense to go under a screen when he’s handling. The most common offensive counter-punch to a pick-and-roll defender going under the screen is to have the ball handler take, what is now, an open jump shot.

An example of this is Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets. Walker is quick to recognize the defender going underneath the screen, immediately pulling up. This season, Walker has shot 170 three-point jumpers off the dribble, converting 38.2 percent of those threes.

This move simply is not in Rubio’s tool box. This season, Rubio has shot five three-pointers off the dribble and missed all of them. Since the 2013-14 season, Rubio has made 19 total pull-up three-pointers, 26.3 percent.

In the same time span, Rubio is only slightly better at pull-up twos, 34.4 percent. Giving Rubio an open pull-up jumper is an effective strategy for the defense no matter the distance. Teams are beginning to not even contest these looks.

If the Wolves could better stagger the minutes Rubio plays with Dieng this would take away from highlighting Rubio’s shooting deficiencies in the pick-and-roll. When Rubio uses Towns as the screener, the defense can not simply pack into the post. This is because Towns has become particularly adept at popping off of the screen for the three.

On this play, the on-ball defender does go under the screen, but with Towns, Rubio can quickly find him for an open three.

Andrew Wiggins’ Off-Ball Spacing

The paint has not only been clogged by Dieng’s diving to the block but also by the rest of the team’s understanding—or lack thereof—of off-ball spacing. Andrew Wiggins is a weapon that can and should be used as a weak-side cutter in the pick-and-roll action, but timing is crucial.

On these two plays, Wiggins is a few seconds late on his cut. Wiggins should be cutting as soon as the Towns ball screen is set. When executed properly Rubio should have a window to find Wiggins. If Wiggins cuts late, his defender can help on the Towns penetration. These scenarios often force Towns to take difficult contested shots.

Tom Thibodeau has consistently harped on the notion that the team needs to operate “on a string.” For Towns, the difficult shots he has taken this season can often be attributed to his teammates breaking of the string. This too often contributes to a wall of defenders that meet Towns.

Ways to Unleash Towns in the Pick-and-Roll

Less minutes for Dieng alongside both Towns and Rubio.

As alluded to earlier, Rubio and Dieng’s shooting deficiencies (Dieng’s from three and Rubio’s from everywhere) hurt the Wolves ability to utilize Towns in the pick-and-roll. The time the three share the court can, of course, not be completely eliminated. But a realistic adjustment is gravitating towards using Towns as the screener more often than they already do.

More usage of a second big that spaces the floor.

If Rubio were more often paired with a screener who can threaten to shoot the three (other than Towns and not Dieng) the middle of the floor would have more space. Here, after the initial high ball screen, Nemanja Bjelica has the option of either operating out of the high post or flaring back out for a lightly contested three.

Bjelica or even Shabazz Muhammad could present additional options in the middle of the floor than Dieng. Again, this is due to Dieng’s struggles to do much more than shoot a long two. Muhammad would show more of a propensity to use his dribble in attacking the rim. (Granted his decision-making is often one-dimensional).

Bjelica has also shown flashes of passing abilities while on the move. If Bjelica were utilized in the way the Golden State Warriors use Draymond Green in the pick and roll, the Wolves may have more ways in which to find surrounding shooters. The Wolves do not have Kevin Durant on the kick, but Zach LaVine is a worthy beneficiary for that action.

More pick-and-roll with a ball-handler that can shoot off the dribble.

This is not a calling for Rubio’s head and also not a hill I’m personally willing to die on, but more exploration of the pick-and-roll without Rubio seems worthy. Again, in addition to, not in place of Rubio.

The Wolves have tried this with Andrew Wiggins this season. In that exploration, the Wolves have swapped out passing ability for shooting ability. Wiggins has not been a terrific distributor out of the pick-and-roll, but if that develops there is an upside Rubio can not unlock. This would, again, be seen by the on-ball defender not going under the screen.

If the on-ball defender goes over the screen, the big man has to at least “show” or “hedge” onto the guard. When executed properly, the showing big man can be taken advantage of by dropping a “pocket pass” to the rolling big man.

While the Wolves can work on developing this with Wiggins, there is another option.

Hint: It’s using the ball handler in the last three clips.

More Tyus Jones in the pick-and-roll

When the Wolves use Wiggins as the instigator of the pick-and-roll Kris Dunn or Rubio are often relegated to the corner. Rubio has shot 25.7 percent from the corner this season and Dunn has taken a mere nine threes from the corner.

If the Wolves were to use Jones as the pick-and-roll ball handler, the presence of a lesser shooter in the corner could be removed. Rubio or Dunn would not need to be on the floor as Jones could be the point guard. This would then surround the pick-and-roll with shooters on the perimeter.

Yes, the sample size is small but the Wolves have seen success with Jones. He adds an additional shooter to the mix as a whole. Jones not only has an ability to pull-up from two or three-point range following the screen but also, as the ball is swung, a Jones jump shot is a better final destination for the offense than the same shot by Dunn or Rubio.

If nothing else, Jones as the ball handler will force opponents to go over the screen in the pick-and-roll. This would be different than the way in which Dunn and Rubio are typically guarded.

This is a difficult calculus as eliminating Dunn’s minutes is not warranted as a top-five pick and Rubio still deserves starter minutes. But even if it were only a small stint of minutes in each game that Jones played, the Wolves would gather more experience against the way a pick-and-roll is more commonly defended.

This has been an exercise in examining the Wolves’ pick-and-role offense, with an eye for where it could improve.

But it’s important to note the offense has not been bad this season, and that despite their youth and imperfections, it has been relatively successful from an Offensive Rating standpoint. And for a team on a 28-win pace, that’s a glimmer of hope.

It’s hard to preach patience in Minnesota, but it is good to know there is no longer a massive talent discrepancy between the Wolves and the rest of the league. The issues are instead a lack of fit and execution. But, again… stepping back… wasn’t this to be expected from a team starting two centers and three twenty-one-year-olds?

It should not be lost that those three best players are terrific assets and that the second center isn’t too bad of a role player himself. All four are having positive seasons, even if the results haven’t tallied in the win column.

I need to remind myself that talent deficiencies are not a problem for the Wolves. I need to believe that the fit and execution will come together. We’ve seen it intermittently, the next step is consistency.

Yes, the Wolves want to unleash Karl-Anthony Towns, but maybe that has already begun. Maybe it is simply something that takes time.

For now, it’s okay to be pleased with the fact that the team’s best player is doing a great deal of almost everything. His improvements are not limited to optimizing his shot selection in just one season.

Karl-Anthony Towns is already one of the rarest offensive gifts in the league today—a center who can operate from both the interior and perimeter. This fact and time will eventually lead to great spacing for the Wolves offense. While the game does require five players operating on a string, there is little reason to believe in that not going to come to fruition in Minnesota.

It may take some time, but there is solace in knowing that it is largely correctable issues that stand in the way of the Wolves offense becoming truly elite.