Last year, the Wolves had one of the worst benches in the NBA. The group was primarily led by Shabazz Muhammad, who was the first one off the bench, followed by Kris Dunn, Nemanja Bjelica, Brandon Rush, and Tyus Jones. Cole Aldrich played nominally throughout the year and Omri Casspi and Lance Stephenson played a few short stints as well. Adreian Payne, and all he brought to the table, was also present.
The group, as one might suspect, does not necessarily fit very well together, especially once Rush was forced into the starting lineup after Zach LaVine’s injury. Bjelica’s injury did not help the cause either.
While not necessarily a good barometer of bench performance, the Wolves were in either last or second to last in bench scoring throughout the previous season. Part of this was due to Thibs not trusting the bench and playing the starters extraordinarily heavy minutes, but again, this brings us back to the bench’s inability to perform.
This year, the bench is made up of a few familiar names, but certainly with different roles and responsibilities.
The group this year features Jamal Crawford, Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones, and Muhammad. There certainly was a massive skill-infusion into that group with Crawford and his ability to create on offense, as well with Dieng moving to the bench.
Bjelica has continued building on his strong play at the end of last season and Jones is having moderate success taking over the lead back-up point guard duties.
Thus far, it certainly seems as if the Wolves have a good bench unit for one of the first times in recent memory. However, that does come with the usual caveat about the team’s wing depth, as it only took a respiratory illness to Butler to reveal how thin the lineup becomes once Shabazz is moved into the starting group.
Crawford and Bjelica, in particular, have been great this year.
Although many of us may decried the use of resources when signing Crawford, the 37-year-old veteran still has some game left in him. Crawford has been playing the most minutes per game of any bench player at 20.2 per game and is scoring 10.8 points per game on 40.7 shooting from the field. That is not necessarily an extraordinary shooting percentage, but Crawford is currently making 43.6 percent of his threes which has been making up the difference for his poor shooting inside the arc. Crawford has also been relatively successful distributing and is posting his highest assist percentage since 2011-2012.
Bjelica has been shooting lights out from three, 62.5 percent, which certainly will revert to the mean throughout the rest of the year. But his big shots have been huge for the bench unit and he has been playing well within his game. One easy way to see how Bjelica has been adapting to the NBA is the number of fouls he picks up.
In his first year, Bjelica couldn’t help but pick up tons of small, pointless fouls as he was simply not used to playing here in America. This year, his fouls per 100 possessions is 4.4, a full 2.8 player fouls per 100 possessions less than his first year in the NBA.
Dieng and Muhammad have had the roughest starts. Dieng, in particular, seems to be taking time to get used to his new role, which certainly makes sense as his playing time has radically changed this year. However, he has been getting back on track as his recent games against the Pelicans and Hornets were his best this year.
Muhammad might simply be the odd man out in this group. He still has not adjusted to playing within a team-driven system and he has been shooting abysmally from the field (36 percent) so far. He also has not made a single three-pointer.
However, overall the bench is much improved this year and the Timberwolves are better for it.