MINNEAPOLIS – Things look different around the Minnesota Timberwolves these days. It didn’t take seeing a preseason game at Target Center to learn that, but it certainly did confirm it.
Here are two things we might have learned so far about the Wolves and two things that are still trying to be figured out.
A much different offense
This is going to be a team that’s going to stick to a brand-new offensive philosophy. The days of head scratching midrange jump shots appear to be from an era in a far away place a long time ago. Now the Wolves have figured out that many of the shots they were previously taking were at times hilariously inefficient.
A simple glance at the Wolves’ shot chart from any of their first three preseason games confirms that they’re intent on launching from deep and attacking the basket. It’s a strategy that might not suit this current roster as constructed, but it does suit today’s NBA. In three games this preseason the Wolves have already attempted 124 3-pointers, for an average of 41.3 attempts per game. The problem is that they’ve only connected on just 29% of them.
As you can see, the areas the Wolves are shooting from is drastically different than it was last season. There wasn’t a single game last season that had shot selection resembling what has taken place so far this preseason. The number of threes that Minnesota has taken in each game so far (39 vs. PHX, 49 vs. GSW, and 36 vs. MAC) would have ranked tied for seventh, first, and tied for 10th for the team during last year’s regular season. The season-high was 45 3-pointers attempted in 2018-19 for the Wolves. It looks like a safe bet that they’ll top that number at least 10 times this season.
It’s a strategy that’s going to require some patience for this roster to get acclimated to. They’re playing at a much faster pace than ever before and in the early stages of trying to figure it out. This likely won’t always be smooth sailing.
The Wolves rank first in the NBA in pace through the preseason. There have been very few – if any – possessions this preseason that have started with the ball being walked up the floor. The Wolves are moving so quickly that it’s become a rarity for the ball to not be in the front court by time that there’s 20 seconds left on the shot clock.
“That’s exactly what kind of game I like playing,” Shabazz Napier said. “The more possessions in a game the better you are. Now it’s all about possessions, now it’s all about making the right reads and getting the most shot attempts. I think we’re doing it well. Being No. 1 in pace in preseason is great for us and once we start knocking down shots it’s going to be real dangerous.”
Culver looks like he belongs
It’s too early to say this for sure, after all it has only been three preseason games, but rookie Jarrett Culver looks like he belongs at this level. His shot will need to continue to be worked on, but Culver has shown the ability to be a lead guard at times, defend at a decent level, and attack the basket. His shooting might come and go, as it typically does with young players in the NBA, but the other things shouldn’t be as up and down.
There are going to be learning moments for Culver. Some nights will be better than others, but the early returns show someone that looks like the outline of a successful NBA player.
“I’m still learning and in the learning process and coach putting me out there, getting me in the mix, I’m just learning a lot about my defense and the terms we use, being out there, being effective on defense,” Culver said. “Offense, it’s a lot of space, so using that space and being efficient on the offensive end.”
“He’s been comfortable,” head coach Ryan Saunders said. “I think you saw early on in the Phoenix game when you put an NBA jersey on for the first time it’s a little… it’s different. But he settled in pretty quick there. And we see that he can handle the ball. He’s a good decision-maker. He has work to do, like all of us do. But I think there’s a lot of promise there.”
Whether Culver will be used more on-ball or off-ball is still up in the air, but he’s capable of doing both at different times. During the game against Phoenix the Wolves sent out a lineup of Karl-Anthony Towns, Robert Covington, Andrew Wiggins, Josh Okogie, and Culver for a brief stint. That would suggest that the team is comfortable with the rookie running the show on the offensive end for brief periods of time. If that’s the case, that could make things pretty fun at times.
“I think it’s going how it would go for any rookie. It’s a lot to start,” Saunders said. “And it’s a lot for all these guys all the way around. Because, like I said, it is a different system offensively and defensively. And it’s just natural that the offensive system is going to be ahead of the defensive system, especially when they’re new. So, with that, he’ll get comfortable with it, but just might take a little time.”
The rotation is a mystery
There are quite a few questions that remain in terms of who will actually be on the floor. A big piece of this question involves whether or not four bigs will be in the rotation – which seems unlikely. Thus far in the preseason Jordan Bell has been hampered with a left calf strain that’s kept him out of each of the Wolves’ exhibitions thus far. He’ll either slot in as the second or third big man, depending on who the staff values more between he and Noah Vonleh.
This means that Gorgui Dieng could be the odd man out of the rotation. He didn’t play in the team’s second preseason game against the Golden State Warriors, but did get off the bench in the first half against Maccabi Haifa, however.
“We’re really trying to see who plays best with each other, and then who would be best with other guys off the bench,” Saunders said. “We’ll continue to see. You might see some more normal rotation minutes in the next game. We’ll obviously talk to our performance staff as well.”
The fifth starter is up in the air, too.
Through three preseason games the Wolves have started the same quartet of Karl-Anthony Towns, Robert Covington, Andrew Wiggins, and Jeff Teague. But the fifth start has already changed once. Jake Layman got the nod with the starters in the first game, while Treveon Graham started the following two games. It’s still a mystery if one of those two, or someone else, will be in the starting five come opening night in Brooklyn on Oct. 23.
“Both guys give more pros than cons. It’s just who fits better,” Saunders said. “One thing we like about Jake that we knew from his time in Portland playing against him is that he can attack the rim. We like that he’s able to get his shot off quick too. We ran a number of catch-and-shoot, and he’s comfortable in those situations. With Treveon, they both play hard and they both compete and they’re both about the right things. I’d say they’re not the only guys that we’re looking at within that lineup, within that group. But then when you talk about Jake playing with Josh, I think they both work well with each other. And then I think we played Josh with Treveon some too. Josh plays so hard, at such a full-speed, having a couple of quote-unquote veteran guys that play really hard but play really under control with how hard they play, I think that just helps Josh out there, and that raises his level of play.”
There’s a chance that the final spot in the starting spot will be fluid throughout the season between a number of different candidates, but there’s still no clarity to the situation as things stand now.