Jeff Teague arrived in Minnesota with a three-year, $57 million contract and a reputation for being a solid point guard who could score and distribute while potentially being a defensive liability. He’s been pretty much as advertised through the Wolves’ first 35 games, and while they owe their 22-13 record more to a handful of other players Teague has been a meaningful contributor.
He’s also been put in two unenviable positions of comparison.
One is to departed point guard Ricky Rubio, a fan favorite even as he polarized the Timberwolves’ rooting base by being quite good at everything except one very important thing: shooting the basketball. It was that deficiency that led coach/basketball boss Tom Thibodeau to move on from Rubio in an offseason unloading trade to the Jazz and to bring in Teague — a much better shooter but a much less flashy passer, among other things.
The second comparison is to backup point guard Tyus Jones — an improving third-year player and astute floor general who also happens to hold a trump card of being a Twin Cities native.
There are Wolves fans who can’t stop wondering what this team would have looked like if Rubio was still here with the improved supporting cast Thibodeau built in the offseason. And there are Wolves fans who have watched Jones and Teague this year and wondered if Jones should be playing more minutes than he has — or even more minutes than Teague.
They will get what they asked for on that second front, albeit under the worst circumstances of a Teague knee injury sustained late in Wednesday’s dramatic overtime win over Denver. Teague has a sprained knee and will miss an unspecified amount of time.
The question now becomes: Is Jones ready for an expanded role?
A quick look at the numbers would seem to suggest he is.
By several measures, Jones has outplayed Teague this season — albeit in playing about half the minutes. In terms of offensive and defensive rating — a measure of points produced or allowed per 100 possessions — Jones has been superior. He’s posted a 125 offensive rating and a 109 defensive rating (per Basketball Reference), while Teague’s offensive rating is 108 compared to a defensive rating of 112.
Jones has a higher true shooting percentage (.598 compared to .549 for Teague), in large part because Jones has actually been better than Teague from three-point range (41.9 percent to 37.5). Teague has a higher assist rate, but Jones turns the ball over less and produces more rebounds and steals.
Most importantly, when Teague was sidelined for a few games earlier this year, Jones showed he could handle an increased workload. In his three starts, Jones played at least 38 minutes each game and the Wolves went 2-1. Jones was a combined plus-45 in those three games (meaning the Wolves outscored opponents by 45 points when he was on the floor).
That said, there’s a big difference between playing well as a fill-in starter for a few games plus performing well off the bench in other games … and being the main guy almost every night like Teague has been. Jones has had the benefit of playing against other teams’ backups in some cases, and playing fewer minutes can hide a player’s weaknesses. Does Jones have the size, strength and quickness to match up with top point guards in the league? It’s a legitimate question.
Jones, though, does have the sort of skill set that would seem to mesh well with the other Wolves starters. The way he gets the Wolves organized is reminiscent, in fact, of Rubio’s skill set.
Jones has played 93 minutes this year in a lineup with the other four Wolves regular starters — Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Andrew Wiggins — and the Wolves have outscored opponents by an average of 10.9 points per 100 possessions during those minutes.
It seems a safe bet to assume Jones will add to that total quite a bit Thursday night when the Wolves face Milwaukee in the second night of back-to-back games.
Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see how he responds and how long Teague is out.