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Minnesota’s Never-Ending Point Guard Conundrum Is Coming Into Focus

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Timberwolves’ problems, like their losses, are many. After winning eight of 11 games in early January, it seemed like the sun was finally coming out — a rare occurrence for winter in Minnesota. Then, Zach LaVine, who emerged this season as a major contributor, tore his ACL in the midst of the Wolves losing five of their past seven. Early-season issues also persisted, like the team’s strongest veteran presence still being the knockoff Kevin Garnett jerseys sold outside the Target Center. Tom Thibodeau’s defensive acumen still hasn’t infected the roster with like-minded execution, and statistically, it’s only getting worse. And for most of the season, the guards have been playing their own version of musical chairs to see who can emerge as the most useful to the team.

But heading into the All-Star break, the contrast between the ball handlers is the clearest it’s been all year — and for this round of Musical Guards, Ricky Rubio found a seat while the others are still circling. There’s a chemistry lab somewhere dedicated to solving the ever-continuing question of How To Fix The Wolves, and it’s becoming clear that Rubio’s role as a starter is becoming the controlled variable — the part of an experiment that doesn’t change. And while Tyus Jones has looked the part of dependable backup, rookie Kris Dunn’s place in the experiment is no longer certain.

As much as “passer” is attached to Rubio’s description, “shooter” is just as removed. He’s spent a career never averaging more than 11 points per game while Minnesota became so desperate for outside shooting it would take it from the little kids wiping up sweat in between plays … or Lance Stephenson. Yet in his past 11 games, Rubio recorded 14 or more points nine times, shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from the behind the arc. Against the Magic on January 30, he let nine 3-point attempts fly, and sunk six — both career highs.

It’s too small of a sample size to know if those numbers are sustainable. Still, if Rubio can keep this shooting clip up it will generate a threat Minnesota desperately needs. Already defenders are now hovering to honor his shot, when they used to play off him. His hesitation to shoot used to reek of self-deprivation, but over the past two weeks, he’s been another offensive threat. While those percentages might seem standard for a modern point guard, for Rubio, it’s encouraging; for the Wolves sans LaVine, it’s critical; for Dunn, it’s clarifying — it’s become clear that Rubio is ready to help the team right now, while Dunn isn’t.

Before the season, the former Providence guard was positioned to be Rubio’s successor. It seemed it wasn’t a matter of if to trade the Spaniard, but when and for what assets. Rubio was still the starter, but was underwhelming in even the good aspects of his game — passing and court vision — and was somehow even worse than usual in point contribution. For a 10-game stretch in November, with Dunn coming off the bench, Rubio failed to reach 10 assists once, and logged more than 10 points only three times. The team’s transition to Dunn seemed all but a sure thing.

Now, in mid-February, to say the rookie’s numbers are discouraging is polite. He averages just 0.4 more assists (2.5) than fouls (2.1), and manages just 3.6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. He averages just 17 minutes on the court, but even adjusting to per-36 numbers only bumps him to 7.8 points. His shooting percentages — 36.5/26.5/58 — look more like a drunk game of H-O-R-S-E between DeAndre Jordan, Shaq, and Andre Drummond. Meanwhile Jones, a second-year player and Minnesota native, has nearly the same assists and points per game on far fewer minutes, while looking like the much more capable spark off the bench.

How the Wolves proceed with Dunn is tricky because of the hype that he garnered during his senior year in college. The Timberwolves — who entered the 2016–17 season in desperate need of a shooter — overlooked his age (now a month away from 23, he’s older than LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns) and his erratic shooting to take the young playmaker. Offensive production was the gap most ailing Minnesota: LaVine’s improvement would arrive later on, and other than Wiggins or Towns, reliable buckets only came from Gorgui Dieng in the midrange or Shabazz Muhammad off the bench. It seemed like Buddy Hield, who averaged four 3-pointers and 25 points a game his senior season at Oklahoma, could be the fix Minnesota needed heading into the draft. But when Dunn fell to the Timberwolves with the fifth pick, all conversation about Hield’s production ceased. The Wolves had their man: Dunn’s athleticism, playmaking, and passing abilities were too much to pass up on. And sure, he wasn’t a consistent shooter, but Dunn averaged 16.4 points during his last year at Providence. He was so convincing pre-draft that Chicago was reportedly ready to dump Jimmy Butler to acquire him in a package with LaVine.

Now, Dunn’s age is glaring, and it takes away some of the padding on the cushion rookies are typically given for NBA transitions. Still, no matter how underwhelming his first year is turning out to be, the glare would be much stronger if Minnesota had turned the team over to him 25 games in, and dealt Rubio away. With the trade deadline approaching, that’s still an option — it just no longer seems like the right one.