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Minnesota Timberwolves Starters Mid-Quarter Report Card

A check-in on how the Timberwolves starting unit has fared through 11 games.

After a few weeks in a new school year, you know a lot as a teacher. The initial class excitement has worn down, and you’ve settled into your daily routines. You usually have some sense of whether or not you are being effective with your teaching, but whatever perception you have can be turned on its head when the first test day arrives. You had all these hopes and ideas—but there’s the hard data right in front you.

This is when students and teachers assess if there is any actual learning going on. Perhaps you’ll find that your summer preparation is paying dividends—or perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board and try something new for the next unit.

A month ago, I set out to establish a system to grade the Minnesota Timberwolves. I wanted to take eleven games to give the team a chance to establish itself, before writing the first report card. While this is still a very small sample size, we’ve now got a little bit of statistical data to see how each player is doing. But first, two important things to remember:

1. These grades are roles-based, so that stats I’m looking at for each player are different.

2. Roles on the team can change as the roster and playing time changes—I may alter or add some statistical categories as we see more of this team step into their identity.

Since this is a mid-quarter report, be sure to take the following grades (and at times blunt assessments) with a small-sample-size grain of salt. The Wolves are only 11 games into an 82 game season—there is a lot more of this team’s story to be told.

D’Angelo Russell Mid-Quarter Grade: 64% (D)

D-Lo’s three stats were based on this idea: If he develops chemistry with Rudy Gobert, we should see some of the “Brooklyn All-Star” D-Lo who has the right mix of being a willing passer and effective scorer. Defensively, his marker was all about just being a league-average defender who posts career best defensive numbers with the help from the team’s new center.

So how has the year started? His assist numbers are at a low during his Wolves tenure while his turnovers are at a high. He currently has a career-worst TS%, highlighted by a career worst percentage from the 3-point line. Simply put, the struggling group of starters is being led by a player who is passing less often and shooting poorer than any year before. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Defensively, he’s been just below a net-zero defender, which for him is currently a career best season. Like the Wolves defense as a whole, the eye-test here seems pretty shaky - easy to call to mind moments from games where he’s beat easily off the dribble or is losing his man on a back cut. But the early returns do point to Russell being *gulp* much better defensively than offensively. That is not a good sign for anyone.

Should the starters continue to struggle and Russell doesn’t rise out of it, it would not be surprising to see his place as a starter (or maybe more likely closer) given to someone else just like it was in last year’s playoffs.

Anthony Edwards Mid-Quarter Grade: 72% (C-)

My offensive markers for Ant are based on this: 3-pointers are going to come and go, but getting to the rim and drawing fouls will last forever.

He has flashed superstar moments, specifically when he enters into a zone on his 3-point shooting. However, even with some game-changing stretches, Edwards’ 3-point shooting is hovering around 35% which would be just below league average (though with his high volume, nothing to scoff at).

The problem is, Ant is at career lows in both his finishing and making free throws. He’s been okay at drawing fouls, but shooting just 68.2% from the line. Lastly, he’s 21st in the league in turnovers per game, setting a career high at 3.2 (joined by Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns, who are also in the top 25 turnovers per game).

I chose stocks to mark Edwards’ defensive engagement - anyone who has followed Ant’s career closely knows that he can flash elite defensive ability when matched up 1-on-1 with a marquee player on the other team, but he also has a tendency to fall off defensively when he’s playing off-ball against a team like the Thunder on a Monday night. Being right at the top of the “D” range of this stat seems like a fair indicator of his defensive performance so far this season.

Overall, I think Edwards’ season has been reflective of the team as a whole: Flashing brief moments of promise, but poor shooting and the struggle to adjust to a new defensive scheme has kept him from making a leap at this point in the season.

Jaden McDaniels Mid-Quarter Grade: 65% (D)

Sometimes teachers need to have hard conversations with a parent about a student they really like. This student was probably great to have in class, participating well and making the environment fun. But then test time came, and you had to make a phone call.

For this report, that hard phone call is for McDaniels. His fouling issues are back, he is shooting a career low from 3, and defensively he’s just been slightly above average. His value as a player the team refused to include in a trade package has been overshadowed by moments where his fouling and frustration lead him to be a non-factor in games.

McDaniels just needs to be better. If his current play continues, losing his position as a starter is maybe an even more likely scenario than it is with McDaniels. You have an established vet in Kyle Anderson that Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch has spoken glowingly of ready to come in.

Karl-Anthony Towns Mid-Quarter Grade: 82% (B-)

KAT’s three stats are based on his adjusting to being a 4 - he needs to adapt his game to be more of an efficient passer and an effective outside shooter, all while continuing to be the same kind of winning player that he was at the 5.

By my estimation, Towns is doing the most to adjust his game to the Wolves’ new look starters - he’s passing the ball better than he ever has in his career (even his “forced” passes are ticking down), and he’s shooting more threes than last year (4.9 per game to 6.0 this year). The best praise I can give him over the other returning Wolves players is that it really seems like he is trying to do something new with his game to fit a new roster.

These changes are coming with just a few bumps along the way. He is having a career worst year for turnovers, averaging 3.2 per game, and he’s having his worst TS% year since he was a rookie. Despite a noticeable effort to switch up his game offensive, these changes just haven’t clicked yet.

While I’m not tracking a specific defensive stat, I’ll note here that his defensive numbers are just pretty meh. He has shown moments where he is quick enough on his feet to guard on the perimeter, and then has other moments where he’s completely lost his man - whether by screen or rotation. Like the team as a whole, he shows small flashes of being good on this end, just too many mental lapses while adapting to a new role.

Without playing too much of the prognosticating game, I would bet that this intentional shift in offensive focus is going in the right direction. His advanced stats on both ends of the floor have been ticking up since a slow start (which may coincide more with getting back into game shape following his training camp hospitalization). Setting aside the bigger question of if our two-big lineup can hang with certain lineups come playoff time, I’m encouraged by what he is doing.

Rudy Gobert Mid-Quarter Grade: 78% (C+)

This is one of those shoulder-shrug grades due to the even more limited sample size that we have with Gobert. His first stat is a team-oriented stat based on the fact that he was brought in to shore up defensive weaknesses, including rebounding. The eye test shows you that, thus far, the defensive changes that the team has instituted has been a struggle for the rest of the roster.

Through eleven games, the team is the 9th-ranked defense in the league, currently above the 13th place position the Wolves finished in last year. I don’t think any of the Wolves brass would be content with just a slight defensive improvement when they traded the farm for this generation’s best defensive player.

It’s clear the Wolves offense functions best when Rudy is getting lobs and offensive rebounds rather than post-ups. To this point, Gobert is grabbing more offensive boards* than any point in his career and that has been a boon for the struggling Wolves’ offense.

While Rudy has only played 9 games due to Covid (insert patient zero 2020 joke), the bottom line is that he has just been pretty good defensively - they made the trade with designs that he would be elite.

*I changed one of Rudy’s measuring stats from my original system: OBPM to offensive rebounds per game. Rebounding was such a weakness last year—and something he was specifically brought in to fix. With so much of Rudy’s work dedicated to put backs and dunks, I thought it would be a more helpful stat to track, hitting on both his offensive impact and activity on the glass.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Summary So Far

If you average out all the “grades” of the starters here, you’ll finish with a 72%, a “C-”. After last night’s loss against the New York Knicks, that feels a little high for a team showing joyless, uninspired basketball. If you are a life-long Wolves fan, the all-too-familiar, creeping cynicism that the team is coasting slowly towards their franchise mean of irrelevance is hard to shake. Like the feeling you get as a Vikings fan when their kicker trots out on the field for a game winning kick - the ghosts of the past never quite leave your side.

Check back tomorrow for part two, where I’ll break down the bench grades, give an overall team grade, and offer a little glimpse of hope for this team’s prospects going forward. After all, one bad test in the beginning of the year can be a perspective-shift for students just as much as it is for their teachers. A poor grade early on can be the very catalyst needed to help you be successful the rest of the year.