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Blistering Beasley: Shooting Breakout or Outlier?

Was the impending free agent’s end of season numbers the new normal or just an aberration?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

After a long, boring and news-less layoff, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been thrust into the spotlight over the recent days with the news that Wolves and Lynx Owner Glen Taylor is willing to sell both the Wolves and Lynx and is actively fielding offers. According to ESPN, the Minnesota Viking’s ownership group the Wilf family are rumored to be a serious contender, but, perhaps more importantly for Timberwolves diehards, The Athletic has reported that Wolves icon Kevin Garnett is a part of another group looking to purchase the franchise.

If and when the 79-year-old decides to pull the trigger on a sale, only one thing will be certain: the Timberwolves will remain in Minnesota.

“People have inquired who are interested, and very interested and have the money, but they want to move a team,” Taylor told The Athletic. “They are not a candidate. We’ve made that very clear. In those terms, nothing has changed. We got a good team here. We think we have a good future and we want to do anything we can to keep it that way.”

While that kind of stability is music to the ears of Twin Cities natives, no other guarantees are made once the franchises transfer hands. And while mass changes are unlikely, no matter how well President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas has performed or how revered Head Coach Ryan Saunders is within the player group, no job can be deemed safe when the new owners get their ability to wipe the slate clean.

One thing is a certainty, though. The upcoming free agency and draft are this team’s next chances to alter the losing track they’ve been stuck on for the better part of 30 years. There are plenty of interesting conversations to be had around those offseason splendors, but perhaps none more so than the future of impending free agency Malik Beasley.

After arriving from the Denver Nuggets in the four-team trade that was headlined by Robert Covington moving to the Houston Rockets and Clint Capela heading to the Atlanta Hawks, the 23-year-old immediately made his mark in Minnesota. Starting all 14 games before the pandemic-induced suspension, the guard averaged 20.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists per night, scorching the net with a 47.2 percent clip from the field and 42.6 percent clip from behind the 3-point line.

It’s a far cry from the player that struggled to crack 20 minutes a night in Colorado. However, that volatile output throughout the season has made it tough to estimate the contract Beasley will land, and the financial strain caused by COVID-19 has thrown another wrench in the mix. The question is simple, was Beasley’s offensive explosion a case of a gem that had been waiting to be unearthed, or was it simply an outlier performance that will likely never be repeated?

If it’s the former, Minnesota could pull off a free agency heist if they can get him for anything below $15 million annually. Although, if it’s just a flash in the pan and Beasley can’t hit the dizzying highs he did in the super small sample size, the Timberwolves could be tying up far too much money on a streaky scorer who struggles to defend.

The first check in Beasley’s box is how he performed when given the chance as a starter in Denver’s 2018-19 campaign. Here is how that stretch of 18 games stacks up against his run in Minnesota, sorted by per 36 minute numbers to make for an even comparison.

As you can see, Beasley took on a bigger share of the team’s overall scoring in Minnesota, and took a small hit in terms of efficiency (although, nobody is complaining about those smoking hot percentages). He has clearly shown that he can get hot and stay hot for long periods from all over the floor within two completely different systems that were heading toward very different goals.

Beasley is already known as a subpar defender and a fairly pedestrian rebounder and playmaker, which figures to continue and should weave its way into contract negotiations. What he has always done and did better than ever in Minnesota is score the ball from all three levels, namely from behind the 3-point arc.

In both starting stints, his long-range shooting has been nothing short of remarkable. However, keeping up the sort of volume and accuracy that he flashed in Minnesota for an entire season will provide a whole new set of challenges. So far this season, only 14 players were given the leeway to launch more than the 8.2 triples per game that Beasley put up during his short Wolves stint. Moreover, only Davis Bertans and Duncan Robinson crossed the 40 percent threshold and the sharpshooting Robinson (44.8%) was the lone man to eclipse Beasley’s 42.6 percent 3-point clip.

There is a real chance that the former Florida State Seminole is blossoming into an elite shooter, but the odds of him outgunning the vast majority of the league seems like a bit of a stretch. The likelihood takes another hit when you consider the abnormally exquisite numbers he produced as a pull-up shooter. These kinds of silky splashes became the norm during his time in Minnesota.

According to NBA Stats, Beasley attempted deep 2.6 pull-ups in his short Minnesota tenure, converting on a stunning 48.6 percent of those shots. To cement his absurd off-the-dribble antics, he scored 1.17 points per possession in those play types, ranking him in the 95th percentile league-wide. He also ranked in the 96th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, which often resulted in him launching a triple after getting the defender on his heels with the threat of his quick first step, per Synergy Sports.

The blink-of-an-eye release combined with the way he squares his body and gets his feet set in a split second makes him look the part of a world class pull-up shooter, but if the Gersson Rosas (or potential replacement?) is willing to lay down a large sum based on those aforementioned numbers becoming routine, history shows he could be in for a pretty rude awakening.

Since the NBA’s tracking data started recording pull-up shooting numbers back in the 2013-14 campaign, nobody has entered the same stratosphere percentage-wise with at least 2.5 attempts per game as the Wolves shooting guard. In fact, only Stephen Curry’s historical 2015-16 season has ever topped 43 percent.

It’s not only reasonable to expect exponential regression on Beasley’s off-the-dribble shooting, but he doesn’t need to hit at that godly level to be able to earn his money and his place as one of the league’s most exciting snipers. His efficiency dropping down to the 35-38 percent range seems plausible, and would still have him in the pantheon of damaging shooters like Khris Middleton, Zach LaVine, Paul George and Kemba Walker.

With the return of the offensive linchpin that is Karl-Anthony Towns, Beasley should see himself deployed more off the ball as a standstill bomber, allowing him to reduce the degree of difficulty on his shots and perhaps maintain some of the mind-boggling productivity he displayed before the season’s hiatus. Beasley ranked in the 87th percentile as a spot-up scorer in his Timberwolves tenancy, registering a blistering 67.9 percent effective field goal percentage (EFG%) from the 64 possessions that have ended with him shooting.

Again, regression to the mean is expected. According to Synergy Sports, Beasley’s EFG% was 54 percent (64th percentile) in his time with Denver this season, but it was back up to 62.5 percent (93rd percentile) through a 272-possession sample size in the 2018-19 campaign. It’s really not a stretch to see that regression as very minimal — ensuring his place as one of the league’s most accurate catch-and-shoot specialists.

It’s often normal to think of catch-and-shoot shots as simple open 3-pointers created by good ball movement and a spaced floor, and that is certainly the case at times. But it’s the capacity to hit high-difficulty, highly-contested shots like this that separate Beasley and other great off-catch marksmen from the run of the mill shooter.

Without a doubt, Gersson Rosas and his front office brigade know plenty more than we do about brokering a deal with a free agent at the negotiation table. They know all the things Malik Beasley has done throughout his career — which also means they know how unsustainable his late-season shooting exploits are.

There is strong evidence suggesting Beasley could be an ultra-effective shooter, but it’s very unlikely to be anything like jaw-dropping numbers he put up in his 14-game Wolves bonanza. With the returning Karl-Anthony Towns joining D’Angelo Russell (who is also a high-volume shotmaker), Beasley won’t have to be the sort of outlier game-changing shooter for the Timberwolves to survive — he just needs to play his role and hit shots when his number is called.

Hopefully, his contract and role in the team, whenever the 2020-21 season does roll around, will reflect that.