The future looks bright in Minnesota

by Andrew Kennedy

No team has jumped up everyone’s “NBA League Pass Power Rankings” quite like the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. It was expected early in the season just because we’d finally get a chance to see rookie Ricky Rubio for the first time in his career but now the Timberwolves are turning into one of the most interesting teams in the league night in night out.

The Timberwolves dropped the Washington Wizards to 0-8 yesterday with 93-72 win led by rookies Rubio and Derrick Williams who each posted a +29, +/- number. Rubio led the way with his most assists yet, 14, five of which accounted for each of Williams’ field goals, four three-pointers and another sweet alley-oop dunk.

I’m leaving out Kevin Love from the equation who had another monster game with 20 points and 16 rebounds, now averaging 25.4 points and 15.0 rebounds on the year, find me someone else doing that.

The core of Rubio-Love-Williams has to be getting fans in Minnesota excited, I know I’m getting excited (writing about how they are the next great team after they beat Washington). With Rubio looking like the next Steve Nash and Williams starting to remind me of Shawn Marion, the Timberwolves may easily become the team I watch more than any other for the next 10 seasons.

Ricky Rubio, already an elite NBA talent

Everyone loved Rubio in 2008 during the Olympics and loved him in the draft, but then acted like he was becoming a bust before he even played an NBA game. It didn’t take long for Rubio to remind us why he was drafted so high and why he was worth the wait.

Rubio’s averaging 7.6 assists per game this season in just 28.1 minutes per game. Whenever he’s in the game, he turns Minnesota into a “wide-open jump shooting team.”

The Timberwolves are attempting the 7th most three-pointers per game this season at 21.3 per game and making 35.6 percent of them. Rubio’s also raised the Timberwolve’s production on long twos because they have so many open looks from there now. Minnesota is 11th in the NBA making 39 percent of their jump shots between 16-and-23 feet.

The one area that critics warned Rubio would struggle was his shooting percentages, which weren’t very strong in Europe. So far this season, he has been more than fine as a shooter and has really been pretty efficient. He’s shooting 48.4 percent from the field overall and has made 7-of-14 three-pointers as well.

Rubio uses the respect defenders give his passing ability to regularly create open looks for himself. He’s made 12-of-14 shots at the rim this season and has been solid on long twos, making 9-of-23.

Rubio has also been one of the NBA’s best at shooting when he’s the pick-and-roll ball handler. He’s sixth in the NBA with a 0.91 PPP (17-32) in those situations. He’s also made 8-of-15 shots on spot-up jumpers this season.

Kevin Love, a true superstar

No one in the NBA is putting up the rebounding numbers that Love is this season and no one is putting up the scoring right alongside it. Love is averaging 25-15, numbers you’d expect only someone like Dwight Howard to have.

Love does it in a unique way compared to the average NBA player. He’s primarily a pick-and-pop threat off pick-and-rolls and doesn’t have much of a post game to speak of yet (just 9-25 on post-up shots this season).

Love’s ability to stretch the floor as a shooter yet be an effective offensive rebounder is unprecedented in today’s league (and something that is impossible to replicate in NBA 2K12 apparently.) He’s leading the league in production (1.21 PPP) on offensive rebound putbacks and Love is third in the NBA scoring as a pick-and-roll, roll man with a 1.14 PPP.

Love only struggles as a reliable threat around the rim (when he’s not getting an offensive rebound) and that’s one of the gaping holes in Minnesota’s team right now as well. Love shoots 62.3 percent at the rim (solid but not great and a lot of the makes are on putbacks) but he is just 23.1 percent on shots from 3-9 feet, a pretty low mark and especially for a power forward averaging 25 points per game.

He makes up for that though shooting 50 percent on his long twos, 40.5 percent from three and he gets to the line 9.0 times per game (4th in the NBA behind LeBron, Dwight and Carmelo Anthony).

Love is unique, that’s for sure. To say that he’s only getting these numbers because he plays for a bad team in Minnesota, is just not true.

Derrick Williams, from the Marion mold

Steve Nash is one of the best point guards of all-time. When he was in his prime, the perfect fit alongside him was Shawn Marion. If I’m anointing Rubio as the next Nash then Derrick Williams shall be the next Marion.

Williams was drafted second overall this past draft and seemed like a guy that you wouldn’t really hear about for his first few seasons. He’s the type that would probably not throw up big numbers right away and playing in a small market, wouldn’t make any headlines.

But playing with Rubio will change that. Williams and Rubio have paired up for some big time alley-oop highlights already this season and Williams’ production is already beginning to rise.

Williams shot 57 percent from three-point land in college, a crazy number that didn’t really represent the kind of touch he had from downtown and definitely not something that would translate into NBA three-point percentage. Yet Williams is shooting 40 percent from three this season, mainly because Rubio keeps giving him wide open looks.

The three areas that Williams will need to excel at (in terms of offense) to become the next Marion are spot-up jumpers, cuts and offensive rebounds. So far this season he is 6-of-12 on spot-up jumpers, 5-for-6 on cuts and 5-for-5 on offensive rebound putbacks.

I know, I’m getting too excited

The Timberwolves are only 3-5 this season and have been playing great basketball. As the season goes on, it is very likely for them to go through some tough stretches and lose a bunch of games.

But the NBA regular season seems to really be about getting a glimpse into the future, especially for young teams. I remember watching Oklahoma City the season before they made the playoffs and thinking it. I’m seeing it now with Minnesota. They really do have a great young nucleus (I guess that’s what happens when you have a lottery pick for the last seven seasons) and they’re really fun to watch.

I never thought I’d be saying this but there’s no place I’d rather see my favorite college player, Austin Rivers, get drafted than by the Minnesota Timberwolves.