Wolves Back to Back Observations

The Wolves returned home from a road trip to the East coast and their reward was a mid-week back to back set against the Lakers and Pacers. Winning at least one of those games would have been nice, but the games included some very interesting developments for the future of the team. Here are 5 observations from the back to back against LA and Indiana.

 

  1. Head Coach Ryan Saunders seems to have found his 10 man rotation. For the first time since the first 2 games of the season, it seems the Wolves have a clear 10 man group. Saunders played the same 10 guys in both games, and it seems like that is the group he will stick with moving forward. Veterans Jake Layman, Juancho Hernangomez, and Ed Davis have all found themselves buried on the bench as young players like Jaylen Nowell, Jaden McDaniels, and Jarred Vanderbilt have seized roles and will not be letting them go anytime soon. Usually the benching of veterans in favor of playing young players would be an obvious sign of tanking, but the fact is that those young players have just performed better in their opportunities. As we have discussed in the past, the Wolves are in a unique situation where playing their young guys also provides the best chance to win. Because of that it would be a surprise to see Layman, Hernangomez, or Davis reappear in the rotation regularly unless injuries occur.
  2. Jaden McDaniels is being groomed as the defensive stopper of the future. He is probably not quite ready to take on that role full-time, but it is obvious that the coaching staff sees the tools and attitude in Jaden that will be necessary for that type of player. Prior to these recent games, McDaniels was excellent in help defense around the rim when he would rotate to contest and block shots at the rim. Once the coaching staff caught a glimpse of his mobility and defensive instincts, they have slowly started to work him in as their on-ball defensive stopper. He spent time guarding some fellow named LeBron James in the game on Tuesday night. LeBron overpowered Jaden (who literally weighs the same as Steph Curry) on his way to the rim, but those reps are valuable for a 20 year old rookie. In the Pacers game, Jaden was inserted into the closing lineup and finished the game as the primary on-ball defender for Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon is not the quickest guard in the league, but he is still a high-end scorer in the NBA and Jaden was able to move his feet to stay in front of him and use his length to contest. The coaching staff would not give him those assignments on defense if they did not think he was up to the task, so they clearly believe he has the tools and mental makeup to do the job. These reps are so important for his development, and if he continues on this trajectory he could be the elite perimeter defender who is also a solid offensive player that the Timberwolves desperately need.
  3. Ant’s game to game production is likely going to be volatile. Such is life for a 19 year old ball handler in the NBA. The important thing is that he continues to get opportunities to isolate and run pick and rolls with Karl-Anthony Towns. He is certainly going to have some explosive games, as he did against the Lakers. Someone of his talent and mental makeup is bound to blow up like that, but Edwards will also have rough shooting nights as he did against Indiana. There is certainly a caveat that exists to excuse a poor performance against the Pacers, and that is the difficulty of being a rookie and playing on the 2nd night of a back to back, but Ant will need to work through that to be the team’s best ball handling option. For the rest of the season we need to calibrate our expectations of our favorite young rookie to expect some incredible performances that highlight every one of his considerable strengths and some inefficient scoring nights that display some of his perceived faults. This season is about growth and repetitions for Ant, so it is bound to include a rollercoaster of highs and lows for Wolves fans.
  4. An opponent running a pick and roll is essentially a death sentence for the Wolves defense. Unfortunately this is one problem that has not gotten much better over the course of the 20–21 season. If an opponent has a quality scorer running a pick and roll, the Wolves seem helpless to stop them. Over the past two games they have faced off against scorers like Dennis Schröder, LeBron James, and Malcolm Brogdon who scored 24, 30, and 32 points respectively against the Wolves. Brogdon and his teammate Domantas Sabonis are especially difficult to stop in the pick and roll because of their chemistry and collective skills. Wolves defenders like Malik Beasley, Anthony Edwards, and Ricky Rubio often get caught on screens and end up too far behind the ball handler to contest shots, and with the Wolves big men dropping far into the paint they end up leaving these great scorers open for midrange jump shots. The midrange is technically an inefficient shot zone, but not for elite NBA shooters who are wide open. These pick and rolls become the go-to offense for opposing teams against the Wolves defense in close games, and they are almost always able to generate a quality shot. Plenty of other teams are able to muck up these actions on defense, but the Wolves have consistently gotten beat this way. It is likely on both the coaching staff and the personnel to improve.
  5. The Ricky Rubio that Wolves fans know and love has returned. It has only been a few games, but so far we recognize this point guard as the exciting player that we cheered for in the years before he was traded away. The Spanish Unicorn has returned to his flashy game-management style, and was often a catalyst for the offense in the back to back games. Ricky consistently got the ball to his team’s scorers in positions to succeed, and in the 2nd game made a concerted effort to involve Karl-Anthony Towns leading to a tidy 30 points for the big man. He even contributed behind the 3pt. line converting on 4/9 three point shots in the back to back games. After every play Rubio can be seen coaching up his younger teammates and offering the leadership qualities that he was initially brought in for. With his role solidified for the next 6 weeks at least, Ricky seems to be settling in and playing much more comfortably. This player is miles ahead of the player that we saw just a few weeks ago, and the Wolves will only benefit if he continues this great stretch.
 

-Jerry W.