How frustrating a season was it for the Wolves bench players? Here’s how frustrating it was: Tyus Jones, local hero, 21 years old, family in Apple Valley, back up point guard, was upset enough about his lack of opportunity that he was prepared to go into a meeting with Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden and ask for a trade.
Thibs-somewhat against type-managed to placate Jones by assuring him that he was a big part of their plans going forward, and that there would be more playing time in the absence of the departed Jamal Crawford. Whether this turns out to be true will be one of the stories to watch this season.
Before we review Jones’ 2017-18 season and look ahead to 2018-19, it’s worth noting that Jones is eligible for a contract extension this summer, as he is about to enter his fourth and final season of his rookie contract. He is in the same contractual position as Karl-Anthony Towns, whose extension saga is rightly getting the lion’s share of attention.
It’s unclear whether the Wolves will engage in extension talks with Jones this summer or not, and how receptive he will be if they do. There are a few similar players from his draft class that are in the same boat, and none of them have signed extensions. Terry Rozier in Boston and Delon Wright in Toronto are guys I’m thinking of. Players like this usually wind up hitting restricted free agency, which is a good situation for teams. (Aside: Sometimes being a second round pick or undrafted helps you; Fred VanVleet played only two seasons before he was a free agent, and he re-signed with the Raptors for 2 years and $18M.)
From the previous draft class, 2014, it’s somewhat hard to find comps, but very few players signed extensions after their third seasons (Andrew Wiggins being an exception.) Some of the players that reached restricted free agency did well for themselves: Dante Exum, despite significant injury problems, got $29M over three seasons from the Jazz. Kyle Anderson, got $37M over four from the Grizzlies, and the Spurs declined to match. On the other hand, back-up/marginal starter quality point guards with perceived limited upside didn’t do too well: Elfrid Payton took a one-year, $2.7M deal from the Pelicans, and Shabazz Napier took a two year, $3.7M deal from the Nets, though the second year is a team option.
Where Jones falls is unknown; it takes one team to value you to start driving your price up. It seems likely he’ll have a chance to test his market next summer as a restricted free agent. That is often a tough place for players, though it could work out well for him. There will be more money available than there was in this difficult summer, and teams will be aware that the Wolves themselves will likely be in a money pinch, meaning a good offer for Jones might not be matched.
A lot of course depends on his performance and opportunities this season. Let’s get to it.
2017-18 in Review
If Jamal Crawford was the ultimate cooler, fatal to nearly every lineup he was a part of, Tyus Jones was just the opposite. Things just seemed to work better when he was in the game. Overall, the Wolves were 5.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents with Jones on the floor, while they were +0.4/100 when he wasn’t out there. Even this pretty radically understates the difference. Roughly 1000 of his total 1400+ minutes were spent with Crawford on the floor. In the 430 minutes without Crawford, the team was a spectacular +22.2/100. Many of those minutes were when he subbed in for Jeff Teague as the starting point guard when Teague was injured. The starters+Jones lineup was their third most used lineup, with 261 total minutes, over which they were a hardly believeable +23.6/100.
We should avoid reading too much into these numbers. It’s impossible that extreme splits like this are sustainable, and in any sample there is going to be significant luck involved one way or another. It’s not as if Jones was doing obvious, or even non-obvious star-like stuff and dominating games when he was out there. He contributed in noticeable but not extreme ways to the team’s success. He took on a very low-usage role, which was appropriate with the starting group given the offensive prowess in the lineup, though he could and probably should have been more assertive in bench lineups.
One of his strengths was his contribution to team defense. The team was two points better per 100 with Jones out there instead of regular starter Teague, and the team played by far its best defense with Jones on the floor and Crawford off. Again, some of this was luck—for example, opponents shot much better on layups with Teague in the game vs. Jones, something I doubt either had a big influence on.
Still, credit where it’s due. The defensive metrics were all better with Jones, and the offense was off-the-charts efficient. This was not so much because of the kinds of shots they got, but because a) their more efficient scorers took a heavier load with Jones on the court, b) they got to the line more frequently, and c) they turned the ball over less. The starting unit offense was terrific with Teague as the point guard, it was beyond terrific with Jones.
Their most efficient scorers in the starting unit—Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, and Taj Gibson, used more of the possessions with Jones on the floor (67 percent vs. 62 percent with Teague.)
This synergy with the starters was borne largely from Jones’ ability to contribute quietly while staying mostly out of the way and allowing more talented teammates to shine. There is a lot of value in smart two-way play and understanding how to defer to stars, but Jones was and is a limited player. He is not a consistent creator of offense for himself or others, and asking him to take on a bigger role in the offense would not be wise. He improved significantly in finishing around the rim, but he was careful with his attempts as he must be. Perhaps the biggest improvement that is within his grasp is three point shooting. At 34 percent for his career, he’s not quite dangerous enough from beyond the arc. Getting that into the high 30s would be terrific for his efficiency and the Wolves’ spacing.
Unfortunately for Jones, his opportunities were limited. He started 11 games in place of Teague, and as we’ve discussed, he shined, posting a +18.3 in 33.7 minutes per game. As a reserve, however, he got only 15.4 minutes per game, posting a still excellent +2.3.
One imagines Jones’ frustrations became particularly acute after the Wolves brought in Derrick Rose. Despite suggestions from many, including Jeff Teague himself, that Jones should play more and that they should experiment with a two point guard look, Thibs disdained the idea until acquiring Rose, when all of a sudden he was thrilled to throw small and even tiny lineups out there as long as they included Rose.
Rose returns this year, apparently intended to take on the role inhabited last season by Crawford, so where does that leave Jones?
Having been assured of a bigger role this season, we must ask: Where will it come from? A healthy Jeff Teague remains the starting point guard, and likely to play around the 33 minutes per game he featured in last season.
That once again leaves Jones with about 15 minutes a game in a direct back up role. It will be interesting to see who he plays most with this season. Last year, Crawford was his top sharer of minutes, with over 1000 of Jones’ total 1467 minutes coming with Crawford on the floor.
Who will be Jones’ primary back court partner this season? Crawford took on an oversize role in that back up unit last season, posting a 25 percent usage rate when sharing the court with Jones, and often dribbling the air out of the ball. Will Rose have a similar role? He won’t chuck as much from the perimeter, but he is also used to dominating the ball and using a lot of possessions.
I could see a useful unit developing that defends reasonably well comprised of Jones along with one of the starting wings, Josh Okogie, Anthony Tolliver, and Gorgui Dieng. It’s not an offensive juggernaut, but if things go right it could hold its own, which is what the Wolves desperately need from their bench units.
Beyond those back up minutes, it’s hard to see where any “extra” minutes for Jones will come from. I’m dubious about the efficacy of super-small back courts no matter who is involved, but would be interested to see the Teague-Jones pairing a few minutes a night. Thibs has yet to show much interest in that, instead viewing Rose as a better small alternative at the off-guard spot.
Ultimately I expect a fairly similar year for Jones in terms of playing time and quality. While the out-sized +/- numbers will likely regress, he’ll probably once again bring smart play and decent defense to the table. My hope is we see an uptick in his three point shooting both in quantity and percentage, making him more of an effective floor spacer along with his other skills.
Advanced metrics loved Jones last season, and I expect them to love him again this season. After that, we’ll get a good sense of how the Wolves, and the league, value him when he likely hits restricted free agency next summer.
What do you envision for Tyus Jones this season? Whatever happens, we’ll always remember this sequence: