Timberwolves rookies among NBA’s best in preseason


Note: The news of the passing of Flip Saunders was announced after this piece was finished. I did not know Flip but he appears to have been universally regarded as a kind, decent man who touched a lot of lives in a positive way. The news is both unexpected and tragic. My best to his family and the Timberwolves organization.

Watching the Wolves’ final preseason game on Friday was a bit like watching the latest Star Wars trailer.

There’s some great new talent in place to revive a moribund franchise and what they’ve shown so far has jacked up expectations on how good it could be. Now, we as fans are waiting to see if all the promise can be fulfilled.

This team has a ton of young talent. Well, almost; the team’s eight age-25-and-under players are listed at 1,722 pounds, although that depends on whether or not they are in New Orleans.

At any rate, there is a lot of potential here and Wolves fans want nothing this season so much as seeing major strides in development.

The 2015 rookie class—Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus Jones, and Nemanja Bjelica—will determine how far the Timberwolves can go in the future. So, during the season, I’ll be taking a regular look at how Minnesota’s rookies are producing compared to the rest of the NBA. With the preseason now completed, we can say that they are looking very good — so far, at least.

A number of rookies had good performances during the preseason.  Here are five listed by team and draft position:

Five Solid Preseasons

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On a per-game basis, Towns put up one of the better rookie stat lines so far, but those numbers don’t take efficiency into account. Let’s take a look at some additional numbers to give more context.

Oct 10, 2015; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) drives to the basket Chicago Bulls forward

Pau Gasol

(16) during the second quarter at MTS Center. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

For each list below, a rookie needed to have played at least 15 minutes per game (MPG) to qualify. This is an arbitrary but practical decision that allowed Tyus Jones to be included in some lists while disallowing someone like Larry Nance, Jr. from hijacking others with his 11 MPG and 70.9 true shooting percentage. Only three rookies (Mudiay, Johnson, and Miami’s Justise Winslow) played more than 25 MPG during the preseason.

First up is player impact estimate (mmm…PIE), a relatively new stat created by the NBA that attempts to measure a player’s contribution to the good and bad events that happen in games. A PIE of 10 is considered about average, while a PIE above 20 for a full season is MVP-caliber.

Highest Preseason PIE Among Rookies

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Now, one obviously has to take these with a giant block of salt for a number of reasons and nobody thinks Scottie Wilbekin will be receiving many All-Star Game votes. (But given Danny Ainge’s track record in Boston, it’s entirely possible he’s pulled off another nice pick with Rozier.) These players, however, have played well and efficiently so far.

On the other hand, the following players have struggled during the preseason:

Lowest Preseason PIE among 2015 First Round Picks

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Okafor managed to put up a respectable 10.4 PPG but paired it with 3.6 turnovers per game and a true shooting percentage (TS%) of 42.7. Oubre’s 1.7 steals per game (SPG) wasn’t nearly enough to overshadow his 28.2% shooting and low assist and rebound rates. Minnesota native Vaughn posted 10.0 PPG but did not shoot well or contribute much else to Milwaukee’s box scores.

Speaking of TS%, which weights three-point shots at 1.5 times the value of two-point shots and incorporates free throw percentage, here are the preseason top 10:

Highest Preseason True Shooting Percentage Among Rookies

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This is a good list to be on and it’s great to see all three Wolves rookies making an appearance.

Despite shooting 38.5% on field goals, Jones made the list by hitting 41.7% of this threes and 100% of his free throws. Bjelica made an excellent 45.8% of his three-point attempts Towns did things the old-fashioned way, making 52.6% of his field goals and 88.0% from the line.

The Timberwolves’ rookies also do well in rebound percentage, which measure the percentage of total rebounds a player gets while he’s on the court.

Highest Preseason Rebound Percentage Among Rookies

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Bjelica had reputation as a good rebounder in Europe and early indications are that it may have been well-deserved. As a team, the Wolves were out-rebounded in every game this preseason and will need all the boards they can get from Towns and Bjelica.

Finally, assist percentage measures the share of teammate’s field goals that a player assisted.

Highest Rookie Preseason Assist Percentage

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And there is Jones right at the top of the list.  Tyus also led all rookies in assist ratio (the number of assists a player averages per 100 possessions) with 36.9 and assist-to-turnover ratio with 3.5, both by a significant margin.

How much does all of this mean?  Not a great deal yet.  We are only talking about a handful of games under conditions that will only partially apply in the regular season.

That said, there are positive signs here and it will be interesting to see how different the numbers are at the end of November following a month of “real” games.

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