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Monday Musings: Taking the Next Step

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What can the Wolves young stars do to improve next season?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets - Game Five Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

While the Wolves now resemble a veteran team, especially compared to a few years ago when it seemed the only players above 30 only served as the designated “mentor,” the team is still reliant upon its young stars. The young talent on the Wolves is what made them so exciting a few years ago and while the Wolves have added a few new pieces in this draft, the central Wolves cornerstones remain Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. It seems fair to add Tyus Jones to this conversation as well, as his rapid rate of improvement and potential to serve as the Wolves starting point guard of the future means that he could be on the Wolves for a long time to come.

Each of these players certainly has different expectations. Towns has long been anointed as an NBA superstar and took steps towards living out that role last year with his first All-Star and All-NBA appearance. Jones was never supposed to be anything more than a solid backup point guard, but his play last year suggested that he might be a better fit long-term with the high-usage starters. Wiggins, as we all know, has given a max contract last year and now he is consistently facing the scrutiny that comes with it.

So what are we looking for from these three next year?

Tyus Jones - The first thing that we will be keeping an eye on is seeing if last year’s stats were an outlier. Jones’ RPM placed him as the 7th best point guard in the NBA and the lineups with the starters were one of the best starting five’s in the league in terms of plus-minus. Jones also shot a crazy high percentage at the rim last year, hitting 68 percent of shots from 0-3 feet as compared to around 53 percent the two years before.

While Jones is a serviceable three-point shooter at a career 34 percent, if he can get that number to 37-38 percent while increasing his three-point attempt rate, he would certainly become a better fit with the starters. One of the most frustrating things of last year was watching Jeff Teague pass up open three after open three. Whoever is the point guard for Wiggins and Towns needs to let it fly from deep, as those shots will always be there.

This is a huge year for Jones, as he will be heading into restricted free agency, assuming the Wolves do not extend him before the restricted free agency deadline. Depending on how this season goes for Jones, some other team might try to snap him up for a reasonable cost if they strike out on their aspirations, as good, cheap point guards are extremely valuable and the Wolves could possibly not have the cap space.

Karl-Anthony Towns - This is an easy one. Defense, defense, and more defense. Towns is already one of the best, if not the best, big man in the NBA on offense. Last year, his shooting splits were only comparable to one big man in NBA history, which was Dirk Nowitzki’s MVP season. Towns has a legit shot at putting up a 50-40-90 season, which is absolutely insane for a center.

However, on the other end of the court, Towns record is less auspicious. Towns has a maddening habit of chasing blocks, which often leaves his man wide open for a putback dunk if the shot misses. He also is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, while struggling to contain on pick-and-rolls. This is really nothing new, as centers have one of the hardest jobs in today’s NBA as they often have to be the central nerve of the defensive system while being able to protect the rim and extend out to the perimeter on pick-and-roll.

But we know Towns can do it. From December 18th to January 25th last year the Wolves were one of the best teams in the NBA and defense was one of the main reasons why. The usual starting lineup had a defensive rating of 106.4 over eight games, but the lineup with Jones had a defensive rating of an astounding 84.6 over seven games.

If Towns can become more consistent and grounded in his approach to defense, he could take some big strides this year.

Andrew Wiggins - It has always been difficult when figuring how what Wiggins could do to take the next step, because a lot of times it feels like the answer is, well, everything. His on-ball defense has certainly improved over the years, but his off-ball defense and rotations are still lax. While he has increased the number of threes he takes, that has come at the expense of shots at the rim rather than those damning long-twos. His handle, vision, and passing capabilities have incrementally improved, but he still struggles with creating for others.

Statistically, it has not seemed to matter, as Wiggins will often shoot the lights out for a stretch of games than regress the following stretch. His stats have remained relatively the same over the last four years regardless of lineup configurations.

So, what do we want to see from Wiggins this year? Unfortunately, the same thing as last year. Concentrated effort of dense, efficiency on offense, and bursts of athleticism in transition. Wiggins’ Island has fewer and fewer denizens after each passing season. Hopefully, he can prove us wrong and build up that real estate market.