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An Analytical Look at the Timberwolves Free Agency Bargain Bin Signings

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The Timberwolves shopped in the bargain bin during free agency, they may have found some potential value.

Ryan Saunders is the new Minnesota Timberwolves head coach. Photo by Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Despite the attempted aggression by Gersson Rosas and the front office, the Timberwolves have ended up shopping in the bargain bin in free agency. Rosas and his new look team were largely handicapped by a mix of historical free agency irrelevancy and some bad contracts already on the roster. They went all in to get D’Angelo Russell, but the Golden State Warriors foiled Rosas’ aggressive plan, and the Wolves even ended up facilitating the move to get their high school crush to the better man.

While the Russell saga has drained Timberwolves fans, the incoming free agents should not be disrespected. The reality many should have been prepared for was that having one plan could have ended badly. But in reality, Rosas is just trying to make the most of the dismal situation he inherited. Given the fact Jeff Teague comes off the books next year, the low-cost moves that the Wolves have made make a great deal of sense.

Here is a quick reminder of the people who have joined the Wolves in Free Agency:

  • Jake Layman on a 3-year $11.5 million deal from the Portland Trail Blazers.
  • Jordan Bell on a one-year $1.6 million deal with the potential for another year of team control, from the Golden State Warriors.
  • Noah Vonleh on a one-year $1.8 million deal from the New York Knicks.
  • Shabazz Napier via trade from the Golden State Warriors, on a one-year $1.8 million contract.
  • Treveon Graham via trade from the Brooklyn Nets, on a one-year $1.6 million contract.

These names are hardly going to blow anyone away, and I understand the frustration. I’m not an eternal optimist with this team, but this is the right play from the front office. We had some refreshing aggression to try and get D’Angelo Russell, he was plan A, plan B and plan C. This isn’t because Rosas was arrogant or unprepared, it was just a reflection of the situation the Wolves found themselves in. Browsing the bargain bin for some players who will be hungry to try and stick in the NBA, is a very smart play. This gives the Wolves future flexibility as they are not overly-committed to anyone long-term, but it also gives them the potential to unearth a diamond in the rough. Nothing describes this group better than diamonds in the rough, and I will attempt to provide an analytical overview of each player.

Jake Layman

Layman was a fan favorite in Portland until the very end. He hit some big shots in their post-season and he was an admirable success story for Portland’s excellent development staff. Layman took a huge jump this year as his field-goal percentage went up from 30% to 51% on higher volume. Though his three-point shooting numbers didn’t match his promising mechanics, he was still a highly efficient player as he ranked 13TH among all guards and wings in true shooting percentage. Gersson Rosas was more known for scouting than analytics in Houston, but Layman is a very Morey-like player. 83% of his shots came either at the rim or from three-point range. He was in the 79th percentile for frequency of shots coming at the rim, which is impressive for a secondary wing.

Layman’s most notable skill is one that is criminally undervalued in the NBA- Off-Ball movement.

It is always hard to analyse and characterize this skill set because a lot of off-ball movement will come courtesy of the scheme and offensive sets. What was impressive about Layman is he made a lot of smart freelance cuts to find space for open jump shots. He was also adept at finding driving angles which isn’t surprising given how frequently he got to the rim. Under Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves were awful at incorporating off-ball movers into their sets. Shooters would usually get looks via double teams which did admittedly come frequently when Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns played together. But this has not been a team that has really had a lot of off-ball motion and off-ball intelligence, Layman can change this.

The play below is an example of what he can bring to the table.

Evan Turner attempts to back up the smaller defender, and Layman’s role here is to space the floor. Turner runs into some trouble and Layman makes a really intelligent cut into some space to give Turner a very easy dump-off pass. So many wing players would have just stood in the corner but Layman sensed danger and moved into some space which essentially triggers a defensive transition.

Layman also possessed great chemistry in the pick-and-roll game as one of the three ‘supporting players,’ consistently readjusting to create easier passing angles for his team-mates as you can see in the play below.

This sort of stuff appears simple to the naked eye, but you wouldn’t believe how many knockdown shooters rob themselves of easy points by failing to readjust when their team-mate finds himself under defensive pressure.

Basketball is a game of space. It’s about creating, attacking and utilizing all of the space given to you. Nothing illustrates this more than the rise of deep threes, NBA teams want to use every inch of the court that is available to them. Having a guy like Jake Layman who can utilize space in freelance situations to create easier opportunities, is highly valuable.

Noah Vonleh

Though it feels as if he has been around forever, Noah Vonleh is just 23 years old. One of many bad Charlotte Hornets draft pick, Vonleh spent last year in New York, and he was a surprising success story. Mitchell Robinson deservedly got the majority of the plaudits in New York, which is arguably the reason an intriguing and Swiss-army-knife player like Vonleh ended up joining a middle of the road team on a minimum deal.

David Fizdale tried his best to get the Knicks on the right path, and he ended up just embracing pretty much every concept known to man in order to get something to stick. The Knicks switched quite often, and Noah Vonleh was a surprising success story on switches. One of the most startling statistics that was unearthed regarding Vonleh was that only four players held Giannis Antetokounmpo to fewer possessions than him. Vonleh was able to use his length to nullify Giannis, and it does appear that having a four with some size is the way to beat the Milwaukee Bucks as a lot of their game relies on Giannis simply overpowering and bullying small-ball fours.

This particular match-up isn’t that relevant as Minnesota are not going to be playing Milwaukee much, but these statistics showcase Vonleh’s ability to match up to bigger players. This means he could very feasibly play stretches as the starting center, something Gersson Rosas mentioned in his Press Conference.

The play below basically encompasses Vonleh’s defensive positives from last year.

The cornerstone of the Bucks scheme is to create a favorable one on one against the opponents four. Here, the Bucks get Giannis against Vonleh. A lot of the time this is game over because Giannis is a bully, but Vonleh’s footwork is excellent. What impressed me most here though was the secondary action, where he defended the pick and roll to perfection and then was a deterrent at the rim for Malcolm Brogdon. Vonleh’s rim protection numbers are average but the pick and roll potential is there.

Offensively, Vonleh has never really developed anything resembling much positivity. His EFG% has never ranked about the 36th percentile. He struggles finishing at the rim as he ranked in just the 13th percentile here. This is worrying for a big man who will possibly be spending some time as a center with the bench units. His jump shooting numbers were good at the start of the year as you can see below. It is obvious he took a nosedive back to reality at the end of the year. Vonleh’s best attribute is his mid-range shooting as he ranked in the 87th percentile in efficiency from here last year. He also ranked in the 80th percentile here in his final year with Portland.

To put things simply, this is a defensive signing for the Wolves. His offensive game isn’t valuable in the slightest. The Taj Gibson comparisons are weak, the similarities end with the fact they are both defensive-minded fours without a reliable perimeter game. Gibson is a much better finisher at the rim than Vonleh and was able to take advantage of mismatches in the post when KAT was on the perimeter. I struggle to see Vonleh posting effective minutes at the four position. Ultimately, this signing signals to me that the Wolves want to try and embrace the switch-ability of Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver and Robert Covington.

Shabazz Napier

Fan favorite Tyus Jones got a well-earned payday as he joined the Memphis Grizzlies. His probable replacement at the backup point-guard role will be Shabazz Napier. The Wolves comically facilitated the D’Angelo Russell trade to Golden State. This meant Napier arrived along with Treveon Graham from the Nets via Golden State.

Despite his box score stats appearing to be uninspiring, Napier ranks very well in impact metrics. In Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus Minus, Napier ranks 52nd in the metric amongst 530 players. He ranks positively on both ends of the floor, which is likely why the Wolves decided to take a flier on him.

Napier ranked in the 81st percentile as a spot-up shooter and the 55th percentile as a Pick and roll ball handler. He took quite a high usage percentage this year, but his overall efficiency numbers from beyond the arc did drop as his percentage went from 38% to 33%.

One of the things that impresses me about Napier is how nifty he is. He consistently is able to navigate through traffic and this opens up passing lanes and moves defenses around. This is a potential reason why he ranks so well in impact metrics, he does a lot of things for a backup point guard that might not show up on the stat-sheet. That sounds an awful lot like Tyus Jones.

The play below is an example of Napier’s impressive acceleration.

The Bulls blitz the pick and roll in order to try and create a turnover. Though the blitz looks to lack organisation, it did ultimately create just a very small window. Many players would have to pass out of this, and the corner shooter is tightly marked. Napier shows good agility to just squeeze through the blitz, and he times the pass to Randae Hollis-Jefferson just as the Bulls attempt to recover on the pick and roll. From Chicago’s perspective, a three for a poor shooter is a good outcome, but the process Napier went through to get this shot impressed me.

Napier just plays with control when attacking downhill. His rim finishing numbers don’t blow you away but he is able to create opportunities for others with a variety of moves that display acceleration. The play below is another one that showcases this.

Napier runs a simple 1-5 High PnR with Ed Davis. The Raptors attempt to funnel him to the strong side, but he executes a nice crossover to get the downhill angle. Napier once again shows patience and control, and hits Ed Davis at the right time. Napier seems to be very effective at using deception and taking what the defense gives him in pick and roll situations.

The key for Napier being an upgrade on Tyus Jones will come with regards to his shooting. Napier was in the 37th percentile for perimeter shooting efficiency last year. This was a huge downgrade on the previous campaign where he ranked in the 74th percentile, and the previous one where he ranked in the 60th percentile. Napier is capable of being a solid off-ball guy. The Wolves appear to be valuing intelligence when shopping in the bargain bin, Napier demonstrates this.

To get Napier for nothing is pretty impressive. Tyus will be missed, but Napier will make a lot less than him this year and it’s fair to speculate that he might well be better. His shooting needs to return to the levels it was at in Portland, but his intelligence as a ball handler means he will be able to stick as a player even if the shots don’t always fall.

Unusually for a backup point guard, Napier could be a neutral or even a positive on the defensive end. Here is him blocking John Wall, who has a clear size advantage over him in the post.

Napier’s metrics are impressive, and the tape tells me the Wolves have a capable and solid backup point guard. When you have the opportunity to acquire one of these for pittance, you take it.

Treveon Graham

Probably the least known of the Wolves pickups, Graham is very much a boom or bust flier. Graham is a freak athlete who possesses a 6’10 wingspan to go alongside his 6’6 height. He spent the majority of his time for the Nets at shooting guard, and defense was really the only thing he brought to the table. The Nets’ have jacked up a lot of threes under Kenny Atkinson. A few players have almost suffered from this philosophy, seeing their percentages suffer while doing what the coaching staff asked of them. Graham shot 30% from downtown for Brooklyn on 3.7 attempts per game. He was inefficient from everywhere else too. He ranked in the 18th percentile at the rim and the 40th percentile from mid-range. His 43.2 EFG% was good for the 8th percentile. This was a massive downgrade from being in the 83rd percentile in his final year in Charlotte.

Graham was efficient in Charlotte, but the fact they didn’t extend him a qualifying offer at the end of the 17-18 season might suggest they believed his shooting numbers were not likely to stick.

Due to the Wolves already having a couple of guards and wings with questionable jump shot, it is difficult to see Graham carving out a huge role. But, the Wolves may see enough in his defensive tape to feel he fits their rotation. The Wolves rotation does look as if it will have some switchable pieces. Graham does fit this nicely. The play below is what Graham is all about.

The Kings were really good at optimizing their back-court. They used a lot of high screens and they maximized their back court in different ways. They allowed Fox to have driving angles early in the shot clock. Given his speed, this just scares opposing defenses and forces rotations. These screens were also used to maximize Hield, who is an elite shooter who possesses the necessary footwork to be able to shoot off the dribble. On this particular play, the Kings run their staple double-high screen action and get Hield to attack across it. Graham stays with him the entire time and forces the contested mid-range jump shot. Even if Hield doesn’t end up shooting, these actions are still deadly because more often than not, the defender dies on the double-screens at the top of the key. If teams opt to switch these screens then one of the two bigs can roll to the rim or post-up the smaller player.

To nullify this set, the first defender has to win at the point of action. Graham did this repeatedly in this game, which was his best game of the year. The Kings had a five-point lead at the half and ended up losing by 29. Graham’s defense on Hield was a big part of this. Part of this was on the Kings not having enough ‘wrinkles’ in their scheme. Wrinkles are essentially your responses when your set play is shut down or nullified. Even so, this game was Graham showcasing his talent. He earned the trust of Kenny Atkinson and was one of their starting wings for a lot of the year. Even with his shooting woes he was still somewhat valuable.

Graham is a scheme-versatile player. He has the wingspan to be able to switch and he has the discipline to be able to fight through contact and maintain structure and verticality. On the play below against the Spurs, he took away the initial dribble hand-off action between LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. Afterwards he recovered to close off the driving lane when DeRozan tried to use Graham’s aggressiveness against him and cut to the basket.

The ability to cover space and recover without fouling is what makes defenders great. Graham has showed some real promise on this end. In his run of starts throughout January, Graham was tasked with defending the likes of Buddy Hield, DeMar DeRozan and Khris Middleton. He always gave it his best and showed the ability to fight through screens and disrupt actions. He will fight hard for a rotation spot and due to this mix of size and discipline, he might fit into Gersson Rosas’ master-plan in the long run.

Graham looked to be a money-ball style 3-and-D wing in Charlotte. Last year was a down year but it was disrupted by injury. He has the chance to carve out a nice role in Minnesota. He’s not a big name, but he might be the most under the radar of the Wolves free agents.

The offensive game has to improve. If it doesn’t, all the good work he does on the defensive side of the ball will be completely neutralized by his sub-par shooting and play-making. He does have a nice jump shooting stroke, and I think he can at least be a passable offensive threat because of this. His future value to the Wolves depends on this because they already have a lot of good defenders.

Like a lot of our free agents, Graham isn’t going to be the difference between a playoff run and mediocrity. He does however bring some positives to the table which need to be acknowledged.

Jordan Bell

Arguably the most hyped of the Wolves’ free agents, Bell joined the team on a minimum deal. If you were to tell people at the end of his rookie year that Bell would be cast out of Golden State and end up signing the minimum with a likely non-playoff team, you’d have been laughed at. Rookie year Bell is what the Wolves will be hoping to get. His second year was plagued by inconsistency and at times a complete lack of intelligence. He blows you away with his athleticism. No bench player has had more highlight reel plays in the last two years. Part of this is because Bell played for the best team in the League. But he does show flashes that he can become a formidable weak-side shot blocker which makes him an intriguing fit next to KAT.

On this play, Bell rotates across perfectly to block Tobias Harris. His timing on blocks has always been particular excellent, and his ability to take long strides before making these blocks makes him formidable.

On the play below, Bell covers for Alfonzo McKinnie’s terrible over-reach. He quite literally takes the ball out of Jalen Brunson’s hands as he goes to lay it up. He is monstrous when he is just being tasked with making one-step reads. He’s great going and attacking someone who is about to lay the ball up.

Where Bell has struggled is with lapses when he is out in space. Everyone who evaluates defense has a totally different way of doing it. Many have fallen in love with Bell’s physical tools. But judging defense purely on size is a flawed way of doing things. Size is important as I noted in the Treveon Graham segment. But the difference between these two is that Graham is able to combine his size with intelligence to produce consistent play. Bell is a terrific shot blocker, but people routinely under-evaluate intelligent plays as they don’t necessarily blow you away when you watch them for the first time.

On this play, Bell looks completely lost against Gordon Hayward on the switch.

The right play here would be to sit back and give Hayward the illusion that he has an open shot. With Bell’s wingspan he would be able to still contest. Bell’s closeout was over-aggressive and Hayward just completely blew by him. There wasn’t too much of a recovery either.

There is a lot to like with Jordan Bell. The size is great and he’s a formidable shot blocker on the interior. He also does want to play defense though, he doubled down on his effort in the Playoffs and played a legitimate role in a couple of the Warriors playoff wins. He showed real mental toughness to hang with two of the more critical and vocal guys in the NBA in Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. He’s been through a lot in the last two seasons, and you could argue that the fact he played for the Warriors meant every play he made was under the microscope. This was the case whether it was a good play or a bad play.

If Bell can cut out the lapses and play out in space, then the Wolves have a potential starter on their hands. Like every signing the Wolves made, Bell is worth a punt. He’s a great shot blocker who does have some nice instincts around the rim. His timing on his blocks is great and this is enough to tell me that he does have a feel for the game. What he has to avoid, is allowing himself to coast because he has elite size and athleticism. He has to maintain the effort he showed in the playoffs. Avoiding plays like the one below will be important.

Conclusion

The best part of the Wolves off-season is that when they struck out on Russell, they avoided handing out the 8-10 million per year contracts that can hamper flexibility in the future. The Wolves browsed the reduced section and took fliers on some products with potential. We have to be realistic, the likelihood of these guys being absolute game changers is unlikely. But the Wolves are hoping that one of these players can become a long-term piece.

Just because these players are not all-stars does not mean they may not become valuable. The Wolves appear to be embracing analytics because a lot of these players ranked really well in impact metrics. Their starting lineup will likely consist of Jeff Teague, Josh Okogie (or Andrew Wiggins), Jarrett Culver, Robert Covington and Karl-Anthony Towns. Most of these guys will be playing for bench roles, but they can help the Wolves form an identity based on defensive prowess and intelligence.