One of the most interesting dynamics you observe in a classroom is group project time. Teachers face a dilemma: do you allow the students to choose their own group (resulting in friends grouping up to the possible detriment of productivity) or do you select the group (a choice that could be full of interpersonal hurdles you aren’t aware of). Regardless of which route you take, the shifting dynamics of a group will change the kind of work students do on a project.
The best part of choosing groups for the students is seeing someone thrive in a new role. The quiet student who was happy going-along to get-along found themselves tasked with a bit of leadership, and found, to their surprise, they wore it well.
Welcome to the second quarter of the Minnesota Timberwolves season, where the group dynamics have completely shifted due to key absences. Now players are discovering (or re-discovering) things about themselves.
Kyle Anderson is the new starter. Anthony Edwards is now the team’s point guard(?). D’Angelo Russell is hunting his shot unlike anytime before this season. Jaden McDaniels is taking fadeaway jumpers in the paint. Rudy Gobert is getting a lot more touches on the offensive end.
Are these things good? Are they working? Well, let’s dig into the numbers a bit and find out.
Check out the first quarter report cards for more about why I changed some of the stats I’ll be looking into for the next twenty games. Three important reminders:
1. These grades are roles-based, so the 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 statistical categories as we see this team step into their identity.
3. These grades are for the second quarter of the season and will only involve stats accrued in the twenty games between November 30th and January 8th.
D’Angelo Russell Second Quarter Check-In: 90% (A-)
D-Lo has been shooting the ball so well that he is top 12 in the league in TS% for these last 10 games. It is him, a bunch of big men and Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant. In fact, this stretch of shooting has been so special that it’s breaking my grading system, vaulting his overall grade into the “A” range despite some turnover trouble.
As for the assists, I may need to change that stat in the 2nd half of the season as Russell’s role may change with Ant taking on more of the initiating offense responsibilities. In the preseason article, I envisioned an “A” season for Russell that unlocks his playmaking abilities and where he sets a career high in assists per game, but 31 games in, I don’t think that version of Russell is actually what this team needs.
The best version of Russell to this point has been the quick decision-maker, confident in his ability to shoot or immediately break down a defense off the dribble and score. His assists will come, but the overall playmaking duties may move to another player.
Bottom line is that D’Angelo has been a different player, and if he can continue to play like this when the team is fully healthy (a big question considering how his touches will go down), this kind of improvement and mindset change can set the stage for a better team.
Anthony Edwards Second Quarter Check-In: 95% (A)
Over the past three games, Edwards has averaged 27.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 9 assists. He’s smiling on the court, has fans chanting “We want Ant” and is exuding enough charm to get away with tossing a ball towards his coach after a timeout call while he was on a triple-double hunt. He’s making Timberwolves basketball fun again.
Many of us longtime Wolves fans are encouraged by this lead playmaker role that Ant is stepping into. It’s not just a good omen for the team’s success this season; it has franchise-altering effects going forward. If what we have been seeing over these last three games becomes more of the norm rather than the exception, an All-NBA team is not out of the question.
Even more encouraging is that it’s not just on the offensive side. Edwards has been much more disruptive on defense, averaging three steals a game so far this quarter. His off-ball lapses are less noticeable, and his 1-on-1 defense comes close to an elite tier. Let’s hope that this third-year “leap” is going straight into flight.
Jaden McDaniels Second Quarter Check-In: 86% (B)
Jaden McDaniels was shutting down Luka Dončić on Monday night before Luka was ejected, an ejection that was based a lot in his frustration caused by Jaden’s defense. The play that ultimately got Dončić booted may have also been the first time that Jaden got a friendly whistle this year as, yes, McDaniels did foul him.
Fouls remain the biggest question for Jaden on a night-to-night basis as they can completely disrupt his rhythm and playing time. Since he is often tasked with guarding the other team’s best/most dynamic perimeter player, fouls are going to come with the territory. On almost every night, he is going to match up with players who are gifted at drawing fouls. He is doing the dirty work for this defense every night.
As a comparison, Phoenix Suns stopper Mikal Bridges is a player with a similar role, and he’s someone the Wolves are hoping Jaden will emulate. He averages 2.1 fouls per 36— - that is the kind of ceiling I’d be hoping for with McDaniels as he limits frustration fouls and gets the benefit of the doubt more often from referees as his reputation grows.
Kyle Anderson Second Quarter Check-In: 85% (B)
Slow-Mo’s growing connection with Rudy is another key development during this stretch without Karl-Anthony Towns. Kyle’s unique skill set and off-the-beaten-path pace of play has helped him take advantage of Rudy’s ability in the paint.
Anderson was the direct Towns replacement in the starting lineup for this stretch, and his role as duct tape has been successful. He’s rebounding slightly more, passing effectively to Rudy, defending with his normal wit and guile, and even though his 3-point shooting hasn’t been anything to write home about, he’s hit enough to keep teams respecting his ability from outside.
He is doing exactly what is needed for this team to be successful without KAT.
Rudy Gobert 2nd Quarter Check-In: 75% (C)
Once again, this is going to be a small-sample size check-in for Rudy (seven games). Since this is my first time honing in on opponent FG% (rather than blocks) I do want to note that his percentage for the year is 61.4% (roughly 85th percentile in the league), so I would expect the number above to tick down a bit as the sample size gets bigger.
*As a sneak-in Jaden stat, he’s been holding players to 60% at the rim this year, putting him in the top 20 in the league when you filter out players with minimal playing time.*
With the numbers we have in front of us, Gobert has been much-improved offensively these 10 games, ranking 35th in the league true shooting percentage. Even though there are still the errant passes from teammates figuring out his game, Rudy is getting the ball more often in the optimal places for him to score. If these trends continue, I’m guessing we’re going to see a higher grade for him in the coming 10 games.
Is that hope I feel?
This Wolves season has been a roller coaster, and this article is coming after a three-game upswing. There are going to be huge questions going forward once all players are back and healthy, but the current starters have found at least three key things that work:
- Ant as the offense initiator
- D-Lo playing less as a traditional point guard and allowing himself to just “play basketball”
- Kyle Anderson’s herky-jerky, pace-changing game is a great compliment to finding Rudy under the basket
Add those three things to players simply shooting closer to their career averages from deep (rather than career lows like the first 21 games), and all of the sudden, you have a very different team. While the loss of KAT has helped these things develop, his return in a couple weeks doesn’t have to mean their stagnation. His game could be a great compliment to what is beginning to click for this group, but we won’t know until we see it. Dane Moore’s postgame with Austin Rivers does shed a little bit of light on how the team has been thinking about this stretch:
At the very least, this team is having fun again and the fans are coming along for the ride with them.
Check back on Wednesday for a breakdown of the bench players and an overall team grade.