Since his arrival in Minnesota, Jeff Teague has been greeted with a certain level of animosity from the fans.
When you replace a longtime fan favorite like Ricky Rubio on an exorbitant 3-year, $57 million deal, hefty expectations follow. And when you fail to live up to those projections, it’s pretty obvious why he has faced some hostility.
In 2017-18, his first season as a Wolf, Teague was reliable yet unspectacular. He averaged 14.2 points per game, shooting a respectable 44.6% from the field and 36.8% from long-range, chipping in seven assists and three rebounds to round out an honest-looking campaign.
But the 31-year-old’s game was still riddled with warts. He flattened plenty of balls by over-dribbling and meandering around without a clear intention. He never seemed to fully unlock Karl-Anthony Towns’ immense pick-and-roll potential. Should we even talk about the ugly post-entry passing? And his reluctance to shoot 3-pointers despite having the ability to hit them spat in the face of every analytical model.
In year two, Teague’s flaws only grew more glaring. This time it was accompanied by nagging ankle and knee injuries that acted as the blustering wind forbidding him from righting his off-course ship. He finished the season scoring with his lowest points per game production and field goal percentage since his sophomore year and struggled to improve his fading reputation.
Now, after accepting his $19 million player option and officially returning for what is likely his final season in the Twin Cities, Teague has a lot to prove. Pretty much every season prediction you will find, Minnesota is on the outside of the playoff picture peering in. They have a generational talent in Towns and the gold standard of 3-and-D players in Robert Covington. The role players seem more than capable of producing and the rookies are intriguing — led by Jarrett Culver — but obviously rookies. And of course there’s Andrew Wiggins, who needs to figure out a way to positively contribute to this team.
But back to Teague. Even during an injury-riddled last season, his good games proved to be the bridge between the unwatchable Wolves that appeared so often and a team that can genuinely compete with anyone on their day. When the inconsistent point guard was on his game, Minnesota finally had a sidekick that was capable of taking some weight off of Towns’ shoulders.
He left the court a winner in nine of the 13 games where he scored 15 points or more last season, was victorious in 12 of the 15 games he registered 10 or more dimes and went 8-1 when he was smart enough to jack up at least four 3-point attempts. When you peruse those impressive numbers, it’s easy to see how Teague is a genuine barometer for this team. When he is fit and firing, he can offset his blemishes with a bunch of things that can help win games.
When he isn’t pounding the leather and is committed to going hard to the cup, Teague is shifty dribbler with a nose for finishing tough shots. He has great body control to contort his way around and through the tall trees and possesses an underrated array of pump-fakes which help him get to the charity stripe.
In the play below, he starts the break quickly with his speed and muddles Dennis Smith Jr. with an in-and-out handle to forcing DSJ to lose correct positioning. Teague then hits him with the slightest fake to shift his center of gravity off-kilter before finishing with a soft, off-hand floater.
That appetizing move is one that lives in Teague’s bag, he just has to use it. He is far too often caught sauntering the ball up the court and missing opportunities to maximize his quickness and impressive finishing ability. Perhaps last season his pestering injuries deterred him from going full steam ahead too often, but he simply isn’t anywhere near as effective at scoring in half-court sets.
Former president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau encouraged a slow, plodding offense. But with Gersson Rosas now at the POBO helm and Ryan Saunders accompanied by former Brooklyn Nets assistant Pablo Prigioni in shaping the offensive scheme, it seems likely that the new system will reflect much more kindly on Teague’s talents.
A more uptempo offense should bode well for the 10-year veteran, especially if he can maintain the clean bill of health he had enjoyed prior to his stint in Minnesota. As will Rosas, Saunders, and Prigioni’s philosophy in ball and player movement.
Thibs was a proponent of isolation basketball, especially from his guards. When the ball is rarely moving around players don’t want to cut hard and slither their way into open spaces, content instead to stand and watch the isolation unfold. It’s why someone like Rubio, who always looked to move the rock, constantly got the most out of his teammates.
Now, with his staff encouraging him to move the ball and his teammates to find cutting lanes, it’s easier to see Teague making smarter reads. He has always had the ability to find cutters and spot-up shooters, you simply don’t average seven or more assists in five separate seasons without high-level vision, but he needs a system that opens up the court for him to detect would-be scorers.
If he can use his aforementioned speed and craftiness to penetrate and collapse a defense before pinpointing a pass to players who are active and inspired to move without the ball, he adds a whole new dynamic to the Wolves offense. Watch how he reels in the defense and takes eyes of a streaking Towns, leaving his All-Star a runway to the rim.
Even with the system change, there is still an onus on Teague to fully buy-in. He needs to go all out in transition and find seams in the broken floor. He needs to throw away the 18-second dribble moves and attack early in the shot clock. He needs to adapt to the modern game and launch as many triples as he can — even if he thinks attacking the closeout and heading into traffic is a better idea. The higher-ups can only do so much, Teague needs to show that he can be the difference-maker this team craves.
When he is energized and playing to his full capabilities, Teague makes the Wolves run like a well-oiled machine. He can play the role as a bucket getter and table setter, who can put pressure on the rim and (in theory) knock down triples.
The Wolves made some shrewd moves this summer, but they also lost a bunch of offensive firepower. If Jeff Teague can make up some of that punch, they might just be able to sneak into the playoffs in the rugged West. And Teague might also play himself into another appealing deal next summer in the process.