The Washington Wizards are 17-6 and trying to keep pace with the Toronto Raptors. The team is ever-so-close to snagging first place in the conference. While it is early, it is still always a good thing to be ahead of the game.
With that, the Wizards have a matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves tonight. Though their record may not show it, the Wolves are a dangerous team. The Wizards will have to defend their home floor against the athletes the Wolves have, and there are a few scorers on the team that present a real danger.
To learn a little more about the team, we talked to Zachary Bennett of Canis Hoopus. Here's what he had to tell us.
1. Without Ricky Rubio in the lineup the Wolves' offense has taken a pretty large hit. He isn't much of a scorer at the lead guard position, but he is one of the better playmakers in the league. Before he went down, Rubio assisted on 55.6% of the Wolves' field goals. But without him, who do the Wizards have to worry about as far as creating goes?
Ricky Rubio is unquestionably the best player on the Timberwolves roster, when healthy. He’s the ultimate facilitator and it’s been frustrating to watch the offense struggle in his absence. Prior to going down with an ankle sprain, Rubio averaged 10 assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.33 -- which is pretty good.
On Sunday, Mo Williams participated in shootaround but was unable to play against the Los Angeles Lakers. This could very well happen again tonight against the Wizards. The Timberwolves PR account tweeted this morning that Williams participated in shootaround, but his status remains questionable. If this is the case, you’ll see rookie Zach LaVine start at point guard.
You’re never going to believe what I’m about to tell you….
Furthermore, Corey Brewer will start at small forward, but will be the first player Flip Saunders substitutes out of the game. After short breather, Brewer will reenter the game with the bench unit near the end of the 1st or start of the 2nd quarter (...) to play point guard. No, this is not a joke. That’s what the Wolves are workin’ with.
To his credit, Brewer averaged 5.8 assists over the Wolves’ previous five games. He averages 3.3 assists per game on the season. Brewer has never averaged more than 2 assists per game throughout an entire season over eight seasons in the NBA.
After being defeated by the Lakers, Britt Robson (a worthy NBA/Wolves scribe) asked Saunders if Brewer’s distribution was a product of the offensive system or if he is simply improvising. Saunders responded, accrediting some of the success to his system, but continued by saying he thinks Brewer has been smart enough to pass to Shabazz Muhammad on a regular basis.
2. The Wolves average 96.2 possessions per game, which is 5th highest in the league according to basketball-reference. What role does pace play for the Wolves' athletes on the offensive end of the floor? What about defensively?
Recently, Saunders has encouraged (demanded) his players try to run more. With guys like LaVine, Brewer, Wiggins, Thaddeus Young and Shabazz, it’d be nice to see the athleticism on this roster fly up-and-down the floor for an entire four quarters. But that’s not always easy to do, considering the Wolves have a hard time stopping anybody on defense.
Opponents average 108.5 points per game against the Timberwolves, which is a league worst. They are second only to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers (-12.5) (The Sixers have beaten the Wolves, btw) in point differential. The Wolves allow 10 points per game more than they score, which is a problem.
The Wolves are a young team who are learning something new in every game. As Saunders says there’s no substitute for the repetitions his group -- especially LaVine, Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Shabazz and Gorgui Dieng -- has been afforded this season. That said, we never really know what to expect when this team gets on the floor.
3. After a generally awful year in Cleveland to begin his career, Anthony Bennett has all of a sudden become a productive NBA player in Minnesota. What has been the biggest change for Bennett leading this season and why has he improved so much in such a short time?
Because of injuries to Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic, the Wolves’ coaching staff has really consolidated things at the offensive end. This is also true for Anthony Bennett’s role, specifically.
I’m not entirely sure what the Cavs did to implement Bennett within their offense. With the Wolves, he’s often used in pick-and-pop sets at the top of the key. Saunders doesn’t want him shooting 3 pointers, at least not yet, so they’ve tried to position Bennett in situations where he can either attempt a mid-range jump shot or attack by using 2-3 dribbles to get closer to the rim.
I’ll use some graphics to explain what I mean.
Here are Bennett’s shooting splits from last season.
And from this season….
Albeit a smaller sample, Bennett is shooting 10 percentage points better from the mid-range area this season than he did with the Cavaliers. The same can be said about Bennett’s field goal percentage in the restricted area.
Last year, Bennett’s was an abysmal 27.5% on mid-range field goal attempts and 57.7% from the restricted area. This season, he’s shooting 38.2% on mid-range FGA and 68.9% from the restricted area.
It helps that 51 of Bennett’s 66 field goal attempts this year have been assisted. Of Bennett’s 80 made-field goals with the Cavs all of last season, 54 of them were assisted.
Getting a new start in a competent offensive system is what I would say has made the biggest difference Bennett’s development.
4. Shabazz Muhammad has become a really productive offensive player for the Wolves this season as well. The roster is filled with young gems, but Muhammad has really shined scoring 12 points in just a shade over 18 minutes per game. What is making him such a plus on the offensive end this year?
Saunders has explained on multiple occasions that Shabazz Muhammad is going to work harder than everyone else on the court. He’s been a monster. But, the second he comes onto the court, everyone in the stadium knows he’s looking to shoot. It’s been amazing that few teams have been able to slow him down, recently.
Muhammad plays within himself. His goal is to get as close to the rim as possible before performing a left-hook, Muhammad’s signature move. The Wolves have relied on Muhammad to create instant offense as the 6th man of this club, because there’s really nobody else -- who is healthy -- that can create their own shot.
Over the last five games, Muhammad averaged 18.2 points per game while shooting over 50% (!!) from the field.
5. Andrew Wiggins was the number one pick in last year's draft, but if you didn't watch the games and looked solely at numbers, you'd think he was one of the worst players on the floor. He's obviously talented and has shown real promise in many spots this season. He even won the Western Conference rookie of the month award this past week. What makes Wiggins so dangerous for the Wolves?
Dangerous isn’t the word I would use to describe Wiggins just yet, but hopefully soon. The Wolves have pushed Wiggins to his limits. Every game, Wiggins is usually matched up against an opponent’s best scorer -- Joe Johnson, James Harden, Kobe Bryant, just to name a few -- and is unquestionably the best on ball defender on the roster. On the other side of the ball, Flip Saunders is not afraid to call Wiggins’ number on consecutive possessions during the game.
Ultimately, the Wolves hope Wiggins can become more assertive. Saunders has said he wants his 19-year old rookie to go out and get buckets on his own. Right now, it’s almost as if the offense is spoonfeeding Wiggins so that he can get comfortable in certain areas of the floor. Look for him to catch the ball and square into triple-threat position near the elbows and on the baseline. From there, Wiggins can shoot a jump shot, dribble-drive or take make a quick dribble before pulling up for a long 2-point shot.
Earlier this month, over at Canis Hoopus, Eric reviewed Wiggins’ performance thus far in the season. You can read it here. It mostly says good things, but there’s something we all really want to see: MOAR 3s.
6. I'm sorry, but I have to ask this question. Has Flip Saunders started his Subway diet of punishment yet?
I’ll have to ask him that when the team is back in town, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think so. It may be because Flip is back, living in his suburban home, that I haven’t heard a mention of any Subway diets.
On a personal note, Saunders’ kids and I attended the same high school. I’m certain his family (other than Ryan) didn’t move to Washington with him when he was with the Wizards. So, maybe being back with his wife and family is keeping him away from Subway. Nothin’ like home cookin’, AMIRIGHT?
Who even likes Subway? Ick.