The Minnesota Timberwolves have undergone massive changes in the 2022 offseason, and it’s worth wondering how exactly it will all come together for Minnesota in 2022-23 as they look to build on a promising year. Each week from now until the start of preseason in October, I will be writing about one specific thing for each potential rotation player that I am most intrigued to see in terms of how the team ultimately fits. For last week’s story on Austin Rivers and Bryn Forbes, click here.
We’ve reached the most crucial part of this offseason project. The interplay between Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns will determine if the Minnesota Timberwolves will fulfill their high expectations or fall flat like many around the country expect, so that’s our focus the next two weeks.
The Wolves have never put an elite vertical spacer next to Towns on offense. The stats and highlights indicate Gobert can be exactly that, but there are questions he must answer in that regard. Can he continue to score efficiently when paired with another big man, and how will Minnesota deploy him on offense to ensure proper spacing?
What Gobert definitely can do
Gobert is one of the more efficient high-volume scorers at the basket in the NBA. He took 6.7 restricted area field goal attempts per game last regular season, ninth in the league, and shot 76.9%. That’s the third-best accuracy among players in the top 10 of attempts, trailing only Jarrett Allen and Anthony Davis, per NBA.com.
Gobert also led the league in dunks by a wide margin for the fourth season in a row with 233, 54 more than Giannis Antetokounmpo in second place. Essentially, the task for the Wolves is getting him the ball securely at the basket. At that point, Gobert is hard to stop.
Donovan Mitchell brings out the no-look pass for the Rudy Gobert slam pic.twitter.com/obGQ4JJM08— Jazz Nation (@JazzNationCP) February 15, 2022
Gobert is also a handful as a roll man; his 1.32 points per possession tied for fifth among players with at least 150 possessions in that role. For comparison, the three players directly below him are Deandre Ayton (1.25 PPP), Joel Embiid (1.24) and Towns (1.2).
The highest-profile example of this came in Game 4 of the Jazz’s first-round playoff series against the Mavericks, when Donovan Mitchell found Gobert for the game-winning alley-oop. Gobert sets solid screens and has a good feel for when to slip to the basket to stretch the defense out.
DONOVAN MITCHELL LOBS IT UP TO RUDY GOBERT FOR THE @utahjazz WIN!!! pic.twitter.com/2kBrp8Vzkn— NBA (@NBA) April 23, 2022
Utah ran the most PNR possessions of any team in the league in 2021-22, while Minnesota ran the seventh-fewest. Anticipate Chris Finch to give the play a bigger role in the offense, especially with D’Angelo Russell’s strengths as a PNR ball handler.
As you might expect, Gobert is an impactful vertical spacer. He made 76 of 81 alley-oop dunks last season, which means he’s good to bail out a teammate at the basket once every night.
Even more important than the dunks themselves, though, is the way Gobert’s presence warps the defense. His efficiency and fluidity on lobs puts added pressure on his defender when committing to other players around the basket. When players such as Towns and Anthony Edwards drive the paint, opposing big men will have to choose whether to stick with Gobert or rotate fully and leave the option of the lob wide open.
Conley ➡ Gobert— NBA (@NBA) April 22, 2022
A look at Rudy Gobert's reverse slam from inside the arena in Utah!#NBAPlayoffs presented by Google Pixel on NBA TV pic.twitter.com/IelCXg0f52
What Gobert must prove he can do
The biggest question Gobert has to answer with the Wolves — in the regular season anyway — is if he will muddle driving lanes.
This is especially pertinent as it relates to Towns, whose increases in driving frequency and scoring efficiency keyed a bounce back season. Gobert has played with four out the majority of the time over the last few seasons in Utah, so it will be an adjustment to pair with Towns, who scores from all areas of the court.
One factor that limits Gobert’s offensive flexibility is his lack of range. Of course he’s not putting up jump shots, but he took 73.8% of his shots between 0-3 feet from the basket in 2021-22 according to Basketball-Reference. He shot just 20-of-58 on non-restricted area paint shots in the regular season per NBA.com; he has to be right at the basket to score, and that makes it harder to consistently put him in advantageous positions.
Additionally, the Wolves cannot afford for Gobert to struggle punishing mismatches. His playoff failures are slightly overstated, but Gobert’s inability to consistently make opponents pay for switching guards onto him was a factor in the Jazz’s flame-outs against the Clippers and Mavericks the last two postseasons. Minnesota paid a hefty price for Gobert because they wanted to add intimidating size, so Gobert needs to uphold that standard on both ends.
Luka locks down Gobert in the paint pic.twitter.com/Weo7KpUaxK— hoops bot (@hoops_bot) April 29, 2022
Finally, Gobert must prove his hands are not an issue. He has improved his catch-and-finish fluidity from his early seasons in the league, but there will likely be less room to operate in Minnesota than he enjoyed in Utah. I can already see Towns’ wild fastballs ricocheting off Gobert’s mitts and out of bounds.
At this point in his career, we know what Gobert is. If he secures the ball at the basket it’s probably a bucket, but no one should expect him to add range or skills in his age 30 season. However, until we see him on the court with Towns and Co., there will be questions about whether his game clogs up the paint or opens it up.