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Should Jarrett Culver Stick With The Starters?

Does Andrew Wiggins benefit from playing without a ball-dominant point guard?

The talented rookie from Texas Tech says he’s been watching a lot of pick-and-roll film lately and the game is slowing down for him.
| Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

The early season renaissance of Andrew Wiggins is one of the hottest topics across the league. As Seth Partnow of The Athletic put it, “I don’t want to say it’s unprecedented. But it is unusual.” Questions are flooding the internet, along with plenty of I Told You So’s, as the latest chapter of this internet bloodsport, as Zach Lowe once described it, rages on.

Where did this upgraded version of Wiggins suddenly come from? How exactly is this happening after 400 career games through 14,384 minutes in five years? How much blood does Thibs carry on his hands? Is this New Wiggins sustainable? We’ve seen dominant flashes before only to be bamboozled into believing a real corner had been turned. But this Wiggins, as many others have stated, feels much different.

The intention of this post is not to take a deep dive into his numbers or improved ball skills, shot selection, or overall shift in his approach, but rather expand on some thoughts that crossed my mind while watching one of the league’s most scrutinized players dice up the Spurs to continue a blistering start under the only person, Ryan Saunders, that’s coached him every year of his career.

How can the coaching staff help sustain This Andrew Wiggins?

My idea is simple: keep rookie Jarrett Culver in the starting lineup and allow him to keep getting valuable reps alongside Towns and Wiggins, which will pay-off tenfold down the line. That means moving Jeff Teague to a full-time bench role now that he’s returned from a 4-game absence that coincided with eye-opening performances from Wiggins.

While Twitter doesn’t get to make the decision, the responses to this lineup suggestion were heavily in favor.

My friend Andy G, also known as Punch Drunk Wolves on the internet, wrote a prescient column one week ago titled “KNEEJERK: Why Jarrett Culver should stay on as the starting point guard.” In that article, he outlines four points.

His final point was this:

Fourth, and finally, playing Culver at starting point guard is more likely to unleash the best possible version of Wiggins than playing Teague has. This observation is not related to Wig’s performance last night (30 points, 6 assists) as much as it is related to the predictability of Wig’s performance last night. Throughout his career, a consistency among Wig’s frustrating inconsistency has been this: the more ball-dominant guards that surround him, the more likely it is that he will float around or just disappear. On the contrary, when the Wolves have played with either a barely-competent point guard (Rookie Zach LaVine, and some of the third-stringers who have gotten minutes during various tanking stretches) or the uber-unselfish Ricky Rubio, Wiggins shows his best stuff. This has been true all the way back to his rookie season, when Flip Saunders eventually pulled Kevin Martin out of the lineup because it was clear that his aggressive pursuit of shots was organically reducing Wig’s effectiveness. When Zach LaVine became a legit scorer, it was his ACL tear and extended absence that spurred the best version of Wig that’s ever been seen, before or since. When Thibs remade the roster with Jimmy Butler, Teague, and Derrick Rose, Wig shriveled up into the overpaid nice guy that so many criticize today. Would Wig be better with Culver than he has been with Teague? Well, a one-game sample size says yes, and the aesthetics and psychological dynamics of a younger, and less-ball dominant point guard suggest that it would develop into a trend. Wiggins will never demand the ball. That isn’t who he is, and it’s a deeply-enough-ingrained part of his psyche that it ain’t changing. The only way he’ll ever approximate a player worthy of his max deal is to have the ball flow his way naturally enough times that he has no choice but to keep attacking. That’s what we saw last night, and that’s what we’d be more likely to see in the future with somebody like Culver at point guard, versus somebody like Teague.

A week ago, the idea of keeping Culver in the starting lineup was intriguing and, while worrisome in regards to the inevitable speedbumps rookies create, a seemingly worthwhile exploration. The Wolves also got waxed by Memphis and having a veteran like Teague stick with the starters felt like the safe play for the time being. Now, it seems almost too obvious to stick with Culver. There are numerous benefits to keeping the starters the same (that is: Culver, Wiggins, Graham, Covington, Towns) and as coaches have said for decades, it’s not about who starts, but who finishes.

If Teague goes back to starting that guarantees significant minutes with him and Wiggins sharing the court. The result of that will be less time for Wiggins to be the primary initiator and ultimately fewer opportunities to hammer opponents with the dynamic pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, two-man game that’s worked marvelously with Towns, as the other three Wolves spread the floor wide to create significant driving and cutting lanes that have spurred what we’ve recently witnessed. Towns and Wiggins have finally made this *THEIR* Wolves team. After all these years, it’s finally theirs.

The reintroduction of Teague into the starting lineup only threatens the progress that’s been made in the past week. The game is slowing down for Culver with every possession. “It for sure feels that way,” he said last night. “Coaches and I watch a lot of film. They help me a lot. With the work I put in, my teammates helping me out, film, it helps the game slow down.” That seems obvious to the naked eye, especially on nights when the youngster from Lubbock, Texas walked out of Target Center with a clear win over opposing point guard, and one of the league’s tougher defenders, in Dejounte Murray.

Not only has Culver been watching plenty of pick-and-roll film to improve on the fly, but he’s now in a wonderful developmental position to execute his findings in real-time next to the cornerstones that figure to surround him for years to come.

“I think things are slowing down for him, especially off the pick-and-rolls. You’re seeing some of the things he was great at Texas Tech, in terms of the way he was able to freeze defenders, the way he was able to get to the rim, and he’s able to see the floor, too,” said Saunders. “He wants to be coached hard, too. And he’s responding.”

Coach Saunders reminded me last night about the positionless style this new Wolves team is pushing alongside a high-octane, run-and-gun offense when I asked about Culver starting at the point and looking more comfortable. “I’m glad you bring that up,” said Saunders.

“We don’t necessarily talk about positions. Like, Wigg could be the starting point guard, JC could be the starting point guard at the moment, but when we started Josh [Okogie] the other night, you can say Josh was the starting point guard. The way we’re playing, all of those guys are able to handle so it’s almost positionless, but we do have one big in there at all times. For the most part, we have wings that can all handle.”

All of the positive 3-man lineup combinations this season.
Basketball Reference

Although the samples remain small, the numbers above suggest that Culver is not hindering the starting lineup. Instead, as we can see, he’s been quite successful alongside the three main stalwarts. (The four-man combo of Culver-Covington-Wiggins-Towns is a +19.8/100 in about 57 minutes.)

After Teague starred off the bench in his return to the lineup to the tune of 18 points and six assists in 23 minutes, Saunders was also asked by Britt Robson of The Athletic about what Teague can offer off the bench playing with guys who are not natural scorers. Is that something Ryan would look at staying with?

“I don’t know,” Saunders admitted.

“The winning takes care of itself if you do the little things right. Those guys have fully bought into that, but whatever we do moving forward as a group, we do it as a group and I am going to bring it up again because it is a real thing. You have guys in Noah Vonleh and Gorgui Dieng who both deserve solid minutes and we have tried to give teams different looks when KAT isn’t on the floor in terms of, Noah is a little bit quicker and Gorgui protects the rim a little better. They both have some strengths, but that is just the fact that those guys give themselves up for the group and the fact that they want each other to do well, that is just what that locker room is. Whatever we do, in terms of starting lineup, end-of-the-game lineup, these guys have been great in terms of wanting to help each other.”

A night from now, the answer to Should Jarrett Culver Stick With The Starters? will be answered for the first time by Saunders. Will Jeff Teague also buy-in to coming off the bench in a new-found role that could help both sustain the Good Wiggins Vibes and boost the second unit? And for that matter, how does Shabazz Napier fit into all of this once his right hamstring strain completely heals?

While these questions pale in comparison to the most significant debate over what’s next to come for Wiggins, and how best to bottle this up for long-time distribution, they’re closely intertwined. Whatever happens next, at least these conversations about lineup combinations can legitimately reflect optimism, as opposed to asking “What’s least damaging?”

Jarrett Culver has, like many rookies, struggled at times this season. But he is a talented young player who appears to be finding his niche next to the Wolves’ stars, where he doesn’t need to do as much. Andrew Wiggins especially seems to benefit. Given that Jeff Teague is in the final year of his contract, I think it would benefit the franchise to give Culver a longer stretch in the starting lineup to see if these benefits are real.