The Dunking With Wolves staff has covered the defensive player of the year and newcomer of the year in our preseason predictions, but now it’s time for the Timberwolves 2017-2018 Season’s Most Improved Player(s) award.
When it comes to the Timberwolves Most Improved Player award, the Dunking With Wolves staff was split between two young Wolves that we’re expcting to make the biggest leaps in their games this season: Andrew Wiggins and Tyus Jones.
The pair were both initially taken by the Cleveland Cavaliers on their respective draft nights and also were one-and-done stars at big name schools (but who isn’t these days?).
What makes us believe these two will notably elevate their games this season? Let’s start with the new 148-million-dollar man.
While entering just the fourth year of his young career, Wiggins has endured his fair share of criticism, despite not playing for a big market team — or even for a winning one, for that matter.
He doesn’t rebound. He looks lackadaisical off the ball on defense. Can he pass? What’s with all the 20-foot, fade-away jumpers?
These concerns are (at least somewhat) justified. Wiggins was 412th in the league in individual defensive rating last season and averaged just four rebounds per game from the small forward position. His assists were too low once again. And a field goal percentage of 45.2 percent is enough to tell you that his shot selection probably wasn’t superb.
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Aside from natural growth as a player, the biggest reason why Andrew Wiggins could be the most-improved player for the team this season is also the reason why the Minnesota Timberwolves could be the most-improved team in the NBA this season: Jimmy Butler. His presence on this team should elevate many areas of weakness for Wiggins.
On The Bill Simmons Podcast, Butler said this of Wiggins’ defense back in mid-July.
"He has all the tools to be a terrific defender, by the way. This is what playing both sides of the floor can get you. He is extremely talented on the offensive end, and I think he’s going to be just that talented on the defensive side, as well, as long as you lock into it."
Andrew has mentioned a similar excuse multiple times in interviews when asked about his quality of defense over his first three seasons. The point he makes is that he has been guarding the best player each year since he was a rookie, thus dragging down his defensive statistics relative to other players at similar points in their careers.
Whether or not you give him a pass for this, he should naturally improve with a lightened workload, as Jimmy Butler will now take the task of guarding the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and others.
Along with this, it is the hope for many that an elite defender in Butler will be able to coax out of Wiggins a will to become the defensive player many thought he would be on draft night. Butler ranked 12th in the league in defensive win shares per game last season and was a big part in what was overall a mediocre Chicago Bulls team’s ranking of sixth in defensive rating last season. The Wolves? 26th.
While the fade-away jumpers Wiggins constantly made last season are indeed impressive, they’re also very low percentage takes and aren’t the type of looks that make current NBA teams successful.
As far as shooting the basketball goes, the Timberwolves will experience more floor spacing than in recent memory due to the departure of Ricky Rubio and the signing of the offensively-threatening speedster Jeff Teague.
With Teague and Butler bringing two new scoring threats to the lineup, this should mean more open looks for Wiggins, perhaps giving him more time as a floor spacer. Last season, Wiggins shot only 12.7 percent of his shots in catch-and-shoot situations, but had a 59 percent effective field goal percentage on those looks. Nearly 43 percent of his shots were pull-up jumpers, from which he had just a 38.3 percent effective field goal percentage.
Let’s say that adding Teague and Butler to the lineup get Wiggins to drop his pull-up jumpers to 30 percent and raise his catch-and-shoot situations to 25 percent. We could definitely be looking at a player who shoots above 50 percent for the season.
While many of these factors are related to the entrance of other players to the Timberwolves organization, most twenty-two year old players make improvements due to natural growth. We can safely anticipate and hope to see the same out of our budding star this season.
A much improved Wiggins mean big things for the Timberwolves this season. I expect Wiggins to average 22 points on better shots, grab north of five rebounds per game, shoot closer to 50 percent from the floor, and show a much greater impact defensively for the Wolves this season.
Tyus Jones is now 21 years old and entering his third season for the Timberwolves in the Association.
His role has been anything but defined in his first two seasons. Tyus split time with Andre Miller as the Wolves backup point guard in his rookie season, then tried to fend off top-five draft pick Kris Dunn last season for time on the court.
While Aaron Brooks was brought in to give the Wolves another veteran in the backcourt, the backup job is Tyus’s to lose this season. Jones brings a calm demeanor to the court, and it really translates to how he plays the game. He’s shown an ability to shoot the ball from deep, drive to the hoop, and make the necessary passes to keep the offense’s gears turning. Per-36 minutes last season, Tyus Jones had a stat line of 9.7 points, 7.3 assists, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game.
The mid-April game against the Houston Rockets last year was one of a handful in which Jones shone bright when given the opportunity. Tyus shot 36 percent from deep last season, which was sixth-best on the team and up six percent from his rookie year, including this big time three last season against Toronto.
With Kris Dunn out of the picture, Jones will be handed the keys to the second unit for a Timberwolves team with playoff aspirations this season. Relative to Dunn’s -1.7 plus-minus in 2016-17, Tyus’s plus-minus last season for the Wolves’ woeful bench unit (22.8 points per game, last in the NBA) was 0.6. While playing for the worst bench in the league, this can help to show that Jones still made a positive impact with his minutes on the court.
However, now that Gorgui Dieng is out of the starting lineup and former Sixth Man of the Year Jamaal Crawford is in town, the bench should be much improved this season, giving Tyus more scoring options to feed the ball to, better floor spacing, and quality basketball minutes in general.
While one could argue that Tom Thibodeau will play the bench as little as he always has, thus somewhat hindering the ability to Tyus to grow further, I think the Wolves coach has a greater trust in Tyus than other bench pieces from last season. Jones is a winner. He plays well in crunch time, and this likely led to him averaging 7.2 minutes in the fourth quarter last season — the highest out of any quarter for Jones.
Looking ahead to this season, I expect Jones to play 15-20 minutes per game, shoot closer to 40 percent from deep, and be a crucial floor spacer and second guard on the floor alongside Teague when they need it, and perhaps even more so towards the end of games.
All in all, while other players like Karl-Anthony Towns, Shabazz Muhammad, and Nemanja Bjelica hopefully ameliorate their games this season as well, Wiggins and Jones show the greatest potential for big increases in the quality of their play this season. It should be a fun ride!
Be sure to check back tomorrow and the next few days for our other projected awards…