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Timberwolves Training Camp: The Fight for Playing Time

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How the fight for minutes among a young roster might play out.

2019-20 Minnesota Timberwolves Media Day Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Timberwolves have opened training camp with positive vibes amid the “culture change” engineered by new President Gersson Rosas and Head Coach Ryan Saunders. There is a clear difference in tone from the Tom Thibodeau era—more openness, more togetherness, and more fun.

Not unrelated: The roster is much younger than the last couple of iterations. Jeff Teague (31), Gorgui Dieng (29) and Robert Covington (29) are the elder statesmen on the squad, and the only players that can be said to be on the back end of their primes.

The bulk of the playing time will go to players 25 or younger this season, and the battle for that playing time, and how Saunders chooses to deploy those players is one of the most interesting plots of the Wolves season. It’s probably going too far to call the Wolves a deep team, but given the whole of the roster, there are a lot of guys with arguments to see the floor with some frequency.

This battle for playing time is yet another difference for the Wolves this season, as Thibs was famous for his strict rotations and reliance on a limited number of guys. That is almost certain to change this season, hopefully for the better.

We can break it down this way:

Point Guards

Jeff Teague
Shabazz Napier

Wings, loosely described:

Robert Covington
Andrew Wiggins
Josh Okogie
Jarrett Culver
Jake Layman

Bigs

Karl-Anthony Towns
Noah Vonleh
Jordan Bell
Gorgui Dieng

That leaves off Naz Reid, Jaylen Nowell, and whoever makes the team out of Keita Bates-Diop, Traveon Graham, and Tyrone Wallace.

Before we move on, a brief digression about Tyus Jones and the point guard spot. Last week, Jon Krawczynski wrote about the Wolves’ pursuit of a point guard solution in The Athletic. As we all know, the Wolves went hard after D’Angelo Russell this summer and view finding their point guard of the future one of the key elements in their team building project.

They chose not to match on Jones when he got a three year offer from the Memphis Grizzlies because they did not view him as a potential future starter on a good Wolves team, and did not want to tie up cap space on him when they are desperate for flexibility. I won’t dispute their evaluation of Jones here. But it still strikes me as a poor decision not to match; risk aversion so extreme it creates more risk than it mitigates.

First, it leaves them very thin at the point guard spot this year. Jeff Teague played half the season last year. If he gets hurt again, how many of us are looking forward to Shabazz Napier starting with no natural back up? I’m not. Going forward, Jones would have provided a nice bridge if the Wolves couldn’t find their star point guard in the summer of 2020. And even if they did have a chance to acquire their guy, Jones’ contract—roughly 2/$18 after this season, would almost certainly have been movable.

As it stands, they have no point guards under contract for 2020, in a thin free agent market with little or no projected cap space for next summer. Jones, at least, would have reduced the desperation.

/End digression.

As we know, there are four nailed on starters presuming Covington is healthy: Teague, Wiggins, Covington, and Towns. (I would not expect to see Covington much, if at all, in the preseason games. They are going to be very careful with him.) There are two directions they can go with that fifth starter spot: Either a second big in a more traditional set-up, or a third wing in a small-ball configuration with Covington as the putative power forward. For much of the off-season I expected them to go with a second big to start, but now I’m sensing they could go the other way, and perhaps start Culver to get more speed and play-making into the lineup.

This of course limits the available time for the bigs on the roster, and I expect Dieng once again to be the odd-man out. I wrote about him the other day: He’s in a very difficult spot. He’s not a bad player, but is on a team with a star center, which doesn’t do him any favors, and was benched last season under Saunders until injuries got him back in the rotation.

I doubt that Noah Vonleh (who Mike wrote about last week) or Jordan Bell (who Jake previewed) were given specific promises when the signed with the Wolves, but both agreed to one year deals in Minnesota with the idea they would have opportunities to play and possibly increase their value.

I expect those two to be the bench bigs, with Bell largely backing up Towns and Vonleh being the full-sized power forward when the Wolves field a more traditional two big lineup.

More interesting than who starts is how many minutes guys play. Last season, four players (ignoring Jimmy Butler) averaged 30+ minutes per game: Towns, Wiggins, Covington, and Teague. The year before, all five starters averaged at least 33 minutes per.

That will hopefully change this season. Other than Towns I see no reason for anyone to average over 30 minutes per game. The likelihood is that Wiggins does as well, but he certainly hasn’t earned it. I think they will limit Covington to try to keep him healthy, and provide opportunities for others.

While the team is very young as a whole, both Covington and Teague are veterans who need to stay available and especially be fresh for late game situations. Even assuming I’m right about Dieng being out of the mix, there are still ten players on that list above who will expect chances to play.

Another interesting question is whether Saunders keeps a traditional point guard (Teague or Napier) on the floor at all times. I expect him to do so at least early in the season, with Teague somewhere between 28-30 minutes, and Napier in the 18-20 minute range, which would match what he’s done the last couple of years in Portland then in Brooklyn.

But going a few minutes without a point guard would allow a few more minutes for one of the plethora of wings fighting for time. It really only works if Jarrett Culver can initiate the offense with reasonable efficiency, but I suspect it’s something they will take a look at, and might be forced into with any injury to one of their two point guards (though they might keep Tyrone Wallace on the roster for this very reason.)

All of this is to say, for the first time in a while, there are real battles for playing time, and a remarkable number of possible lineup combinations that the head coach could reasonably deploy. Seeing how this plays out, and what groups work, and what experiments are tried is one of the things I’m most looking forward to this season.

Unlike past seasons when we pretty much knew who was going to play, the rotation seems much more wide open this year, full of young players fighting to establish themselves in the league. Even if the wins don’t come, it makes for a much more intriguing season.