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Assessing Anthony Tolliver’s Fit With the Wolves

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In what has been their only major free agency move to date, the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Anthony Tolliver to a one-year $5 million deal. The Wolves hard-capped themselves by signing him, and the move signalled the end of Nemanja Bjelica’s time in Minnesota. Tolliver is coming off a productive season with the Detroit Pistons. Stan Van Gundy’s outfit were marred by an outdated scheme reliant on mid-range shots and poor shot selection. One of the only players who really had any kind of modern offensive value was Anthony Tolliver, as he shot 43% from three and wasn’t guilty of chucking up mid-range shots.

At the age of 33, we need to be realistic about Tolliver’s limitations. He is not going to be able to collapse the defense in the way Bjelica could. He is not going to do much other than shoot spot-up jumpers and occasionally be used as the second screener in Spain PnR sets, but he is a good fit with the rest of the roster. Tolliver is a high volume shooting stretch four who isn’t really going to move around much, but in a team that has five ball handlers in Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Tyus Jones and Derrick Rose, Tolliver’s skillset fits excellently.

Nearly 50% of Tolliver’s offensive usage came on spot-ups, and he was 6th in the NBA in spot-up frequency. Detroit often used him as a corner-standing stretch four to create extra angles for Ish Smith and Reggie Jackson. Tolliver was not only high in volume, but high in efficiency as he ranked in the 97th percentile as a spot-up shooter. He was legitimately one of the most valuable bench players in the entire NBA last season. It isn’t surprising he didn’t get mentioned as such, because he played on a bad team and has a game that doesn’t exactly excite many people. Detroit’s bench was 9th in net rating and Minnesota’s was 21st. I believe Tolliver was such an important part of Detroit’s second unit success, that I could see the Pistons and Wolves swapping places in these rankings in the 18-19 season.

Detroit didn’t have much positivity from their guard position as Avery Bradley struggled and Ish Smith continued to be inconsistent but Tolliver did his best to relieve some of this by creating a good repertoire with Smith. Of all Smith’s qualified two-man lineups, his best one in net rating contained Tolliver. Without even diving into the tape this makes a lot of sense, as Smith is a downhill guard and Tolliver is a disciplined and effective stretch four who teams genuinely fear. There is no reason that Tolliver cannot have a similar impact with Derrick Rose and Tyus Jones next season. Both players like to attack downhill but often lacked the space to do it when Taj Gibson was on the floor.

When I originally heard the news that Layden and Thibodeau had hard-capped themselves and replaced a player I believe to be better than Tolliver in Nemanja Bjelica, I wasn’t impressed. Bjelica has room to grow and one of my main gripes with Thibodeau is that he did not utilize him widely enough. Bjelica has the potential to be a point forward for a bench unit, and I think Brett Brown’s sets that give spot-up shooters an opportunity to attack downhill will make a better use of him. Thibodeau’s sets are underrated across the NBA but they didn’t exactly give Bjelica a wide role. He shot well from three, but he has the potential to offer more than just shooting. One of the most noticeable things in Thibodeau’s sets are that shooters don’t really work in motion. Shooters often get their looks from just standing still and taking an advantage of a double team in this offense. If Thibs is going to roll out mostly the same sets as last year (they ranked fourth in offensive efficiency so he probably will) then we may have to begrudgingly admit that Tolliver is a better fit than Bjelica.

Essentially, Minnesota uses shooters in a narrow fashion without any real variety. This is why it makes some sense to have Tolliver over a player like Bjelica, who I still think has room to grow even at the age of 30. This move also emphasizes a win now philosophy from the front office. They went for a sure thing over a player who could have a wider variety in terms of usage, and it makes sense given the way the rest of the roster looks.

Tolliver is not an elite defender by any means, and I question whether he can ever switch onto guards, something Belly could do at times, but Tolly is excellent at drawing charges and that should help. Of the 369 qualified players, Anthony Tolliver ranked 13th in the NBA at charges drawn per game. He will be able to defend players inside, and he should help provide some defensive relief on the interior to a team that badly needs it. Slow and steady isn’t something that is necessarily attractive in a defender, but Minnesota needs someone like this on the roster.

Tolliver actually may end up being the most valuable bench piece next season. Though he may not post eye-popping numbers, a lot of the value of a stretch big is what they do for the other players they share the court with. Derrick Rose isn’t popular amongst Wolves fans and I’m not a fan either, but he does have value as a downhill point guard who can get quick buckets. A bench unit with Rose, Josh Okogie, Tyus Jones, Gorgui Dieng, and Tolliver looks decent but somewhat unpredictable, and that’s why the Tolliver signing has grown on me. I like that he is a consistent vet that can tie all of those pieces together. He is going to shoot over 38% from three and play decent defense regardless of what is happening around him.

I spoke to Duncan Smith of The Athletic Detroit about Tolliver’s importance to the Pistons last season. “Tolliver was important both from a leadership perspective and his play on the court,” Smith said.

“A fairly inexperienced team, the Pistons benefited from his experience, and for a decent stretch of the season he was one of the best shooters in the league.”

This fits with what most have suggested, Tolliver will bring high volume and efficient spot-up shooting to a team that already has a high variety of ball handlers.

As for the weaknesses in his game, Smith told me that Tolliver isn’t much of a rebounder or playmaker. On many rosters this would be a problem, but the Wolves mostly need him to be that stretch four who can offer space and knock down threes, above all else.

While Tolliver is not the most exciting signing in the world, he is the type of player every roster needs. He will provide a consistent and steady form of production and should help create extra driving angles for teammates. His ability to draw chargers is the main aspect of his defensive game that gets credit, but his hustle and communication on that end should help him be a decent team defender. Bjelica will be missed, and his game is more diverse, but Tolliver’s spot-up shooting should provide instant relief as the Wolves look to win their first playoff series since 2004.