We made it, Timberwolves fans.
Karl-Anthony Towns, the greatest offensive big in basketball, is back tonight. D’Angelo Russell, the smoothest killer in the game, is back tonight. Josh Okogie, the do-it-all hype man with endless energy, is back tonight. NBA Star Malik Beasley, a human microwave with a huge chip on his shoulder, is back tonight. Ricky Rubio, our favorite city’s favorite son, is back tonight.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are back, baby.
March 10, 2020 was the last time the Minnesota Timberwolves took the court against an NBA opponent. 277 painfully long days later, we get to watch our favorite team lace ‘em up against the Memphis Grizzlies to kick off the 2020 NBA Preseason.
Since that 117-111 loss in Houston, plenty has changed for the Wolves. Minneapolis’s favorite son, Ricky Rubio, is back in Minneapolis conducting the presto melody of Pablo Prigioni’s offense. Anthony Edwards was drafted No. 1 overall in November’s NBA Draft and has crushed every interview since, leaving Wolves faithful itching for its chance to see him unleashed on the floor. And most importantly, Karl-Anthony Towns’s left wrist is 100 percent, meaning the league’s best offensive big man will be back wreaking havoc from all over the floor and in the starting five tonight.
Rubio, Edwards, and Towns will help breathe new life into team that is capable of exceeding expectations and getting back to the playoffs for just the second time since 2004. Tonight’s Saturday night matinee may have no impact on Minnesota’s playoff chase, but it will provide some useful insights as to how the Wolves intend to play - on both ends of the court - on their path back to the postseason. With that in mind, here are the five things I’m going to be watching for tonight.
#1 - What position will Josh Okogie play the most?
Last week, Ryan Saunders hinted that Josh Okogie would be in the mix for playing the 4 spot next to KAT. On Monday, Okogie was confident he’d be ready to play the PJ Tucker role for the Wolves if called upon.
Okogie on playing the 4: Says he played the 5 when he was younger. Says he's ready for a PJ Tucker role if they need it. "Let KAT play the 4, I'll play the 5."— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) December 7, 2020
This past season, the Wolves expanded Okogie’s defensive versatility in terms of his matchups, per BBall Index:
- Point guards: 25.8 percent of his minutes
- Shooting guards: 33.6 percent
- Small forwards: 19.2 percent
- Power forwards: 14.9 percent
- Centers: 6.4 percent
Okogie has limited experience defending up, but he’s listed at 6-foot-5, 212 pounds, with a 7-foot wingspan and elite athleticism. He’s capable of guarding 4s and small-ball 5s, but I’m curious to see who is on the floor when he does so.
Are Malik Beasley and Anthony Edwards guarding the wings? Can this work if D’Angelo Russell is forced to guard opposing point guards instead of being hidden away the ball on a shooting guard? Does Okogie effectively play the 5 as a screener, cutter, and corner shooter on offense with KAT at the 4 on the perimeter?
I would be rather shocked if Okogie played the 4 spot on defense alongside someone other than Karl-Anthony Towns, but time will tell. Ryan Saunders will get funky with lineups tonight and how Okogie is utilized will be top of mind for me.
#2 - Who is Jake Layman going to play the most minutes with?
If there was only one player on the Wolves I could buy stock in heading into this season, it would be Jake Layman. Layman played in just 23 games last season because of his battle with a nagging turf toe injury, but when he played, he was excellent in his role as a cutter, spot-up shooter, and versatile defender. Layman will start tonight alongside D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Josh Okogie, and Karl-Anthony Towns, but Ryan Saunders has already hinted at Russell and Towns playing reduced minutes in the preseason.
So, when those two leave the floor presumably after halftime, who will Layman run with? At 6-foot-9, 209 pounds, the Maryland product is big enough to play the 4 with the way the Wolves play, especially if he’s next to Towns. But the Wolves’ backup C is Ed Davis, who is also 6-foot-9 and just nine pounds heavier than Layman. When Towns exits, Layman’s role becomes more interesting. Does he share the wing with a shooter in Malik Beasley around a frontcourt of Jarred Vanderbilt and Ed Davis? Does he still play the 4 if Memphis plays a Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. frontcourt with bench players? I love Layman’s potential as a starting 4 next to KAT on offense because of how he cuts off of Towns and makes life easier for him when he has the ball on the block. Since Ed Davis isn’t going to be posting guys up all night, that makes me think he’ll get some run with Jarred Vanderbilt, who is a better passer than Davis. Keep your eye on Layman, as he’ll be one of the most shuffled-around players in tonight’s game.
#3 - How much will Anthony Edwards have the ball in his hands on offense?
Last season, Minnesota tried to draw upon Jarrett Culver’s success with the ball in his hands as a third point guard to make him more comfortable at the NBA level. At Georgia, Anthony Edwards showed flashes of greatness as a playmaker when the defense collapsed on him, surely showing more upside in that department than Culver. Edwards is a hyper-explosive athlete who does well navigating screens and attacking the rim like he’s seeking revenge. In his first media availability as a Timberwolf last weekend, Edwards said he didn’t care what his role was and stressed he’s going to be a star in his role.
Edwards says he's going to be a star his role, whatever it may be.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) December 6, 2020
He's excited to come in and compete no matter the Wolves will have him doing early on.
He also mentioned it’ll be easier to play off the ball and get open looks while playing with guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, which suggests that he’ll see the floor with those two at some point tonight. When he’s playing with the bench unit, however, I hope Ryan Saunders is unafraid of leveraging Edwards’s unique blend of size and explosiveness as an on-ball shot creator here and there. Minnesota lacked true shot creators off the bench last season and Edwards should give them a huge boost as one from the jump. Whether it be involving him in simple high ball screens or Spain PnR/drag screens, Edwards has the potential to turn any possession into points with the ball in his hands. Before D’Angelo Russell came to town in February, I can’t remember the last time the Timberwolves had a player like that.
When he’s playing off-ball, I’ll be watching how much he moves. At times during his lone season at Georgia, he put on display just how deadly he can be as a cutter with his elite agility and lightning quick change of direction ability. Too often, however, he remained stagnant on the perimeter, just waiting for the ball to get swung back to him so he could go to work off the dribble. If Edwards wants to maximize his effectiveness as a rookie, he’ll have to do a much better job hunting open space as a shooter, cutting whenever possible, and sprinting everywhere he goes. If he doesn’t see much time with the ball in his hands, his scoring will have a linear relationship with how hard he works off the ball. The harder he cuts and runs to open space, the more opportunities he’ll have to score.
#4 - If Rubio and Russell share the backcourt, who joins them on the wing?
It’s no secret that Ryan Saunders wants to maximize D’Angelo Russell on the offensive end of the floor. That means Russell will be spending time at the 2, presumably with Ricky Rubio conducting the show. Since Rubio and Russell are two of the league’s elite playmakers, it will be fascinating to see how Saunders makes use of them on the floor together. Does Saunders send two of Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie, and Jake Layman out there to cut off Rubio and Russell until the lights at Target Center turn off? Do Rubio and KAT run PnR with D-Lo spotted up in the opposite corner as a short roll passing target? Can Jarrett Culver play the 3 with KAT at the 5 and in order to make life as easy as possible for him? Saunders will no doubt get creative with how he pieces lineups together tonight and I can’t wait to see how it plays out, specifically with his backcourt.
#5 - Will the Wolves energy and positivity keep them in the game if things go south early?
The Timberwolves had not one, but two double-digit losing streaks last season. Sure, this team had ill-fitting pieces last season and didn’t really gel on the floor because of it, but they had minimal fight in them for a team with some solid veterans in Jeff Teague (maybe less solid) and Robert Covington, to go along with young, energetic leaders like Josh Okogie and Karl-Anthony Towns. With Ryan Saunders heading into year two, he has this group seemingly tight as can be and practicing with high energy all the time. If there’s anything that absolutely needs to translate onto the floor in order for the Timberwolves to have success this season, it is the energy and leadership we’ve seen from Josh Okogie and D’Angelo Russell. The Wolves are still very young and will undoubtedly fall behind in games because of either lapses on the defensive end or stretches where there’s a lid on the goal. Instead of losing their energy and rolling over like last season, this team needs to rely on its energy to get it back into games, especially when you consider this season will be played largely without fans. Teams that can consistently manufacture their own energy are going to have more success than those who don’t. The positivity and belief in each other is awesome to see, but I’m eager to see what happens when this team faces some adversity on the floor. Who will the leaders be? How will Ryan Saunders manage the huddles? Is Karl-Anthony Towns going to be as vocal as D-Lo and Okogie? Tonight, we’ll get some answers.
For those looking for more information on all the different lineup combinations we’ll see tonight, I will be updating a spreadsheet live throughout the game, which you can view in real time here. I’ll be tracking the number of lineup combinations, each player’s minutes and +/- at each position, and what percentage of their minutes they play at each position.
No matter what happens tonight, I couldn’t be more thankful for each and every one of you loyal Canis readers that has read all of our content throughout a stretch of 276 days without live Timberwolves basketball to talk about. It’s been a blessing to be able to interact with all of you and find some comfort in the midst of a global pandemic through talking hoops, the draft, and our beloved Wolves.
With tip-off on the horizon, we want to hear what you guys are watching for! Join the discussion tonight in our Game Preview thread at 6:30 PM central time and on Twitter @canishoopus, where our team will be tweeting throughout the night.
Author’s note: As we all get ready to listen to the best commentary battery in the NBA, I want to give a quick shoutout to the best color commentator in the game, Fox Sports North’s Jim Petersen. Jim underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery in September, and thankfully, is back healthy and calling games this season. All of us at Canis Hoopus are thinking about you and your family, JP, and couldn’t be happier to see you back at Target Center this evening with Dave Benz and Marney Gellner.