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Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine can vie for Most Improved Player

Karl-Anthony Towns could be one of the 10 best players in the NBA this season, Tom Thibodeau is the new coach, and this is only the start of what there is to like about the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Ricky Rubio’s future in Minnesota is somewhat uncertain, and thanks to Kris Dunn he could well find himself replaced and dealt away before not too long. But Dunn is just another element of the youth movement, an already solid defender and high upside, two-way point guard, joining a developing group of existing young talent.

Everyone is right to express their love for Towns and hop onboard the already crowded T-Wolves train. Whether it’s for League Pass entertainment or to simply say that Minnesota could make the playoffs again, there’s no reason to be anything but positive about this team’s future.

Of course, that’s because there’s more to them than just that one remarkable center named KAT. Specifically, two of his hyper-athletic running mates, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins.

Both players have been working hard on improving their offensive game this summer, focusing on their ball handling and how to create space for their own shot. LaVine shot 38.9 percent from three last season and improved with career-highs across the board, but picking his shots wisely, finding space rather than forcing up a shot, and learning to pull the trigger on catch-and-shoot opportunities rather than unnecessarily dribbling are all things he can look to improve this year.

Charlotte Hornets' Jeremy Lamb, left, and Minnesota Timberwolves' Zach LaVine chase the ball during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, in Minneapolis. The Timberwolves won 109-74. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

 (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

For Wiggins, it all comes down to the sheer efficiency of his jumper. His three-point shot dipped last season, falling to 96 makes in his 5,814 minutes at a 30 percent rate. When a defender contested his shot from between two and four feet away on attempts at least 10 feet from the basket, he shot just 30.9 percent. Even when he was considered to be “wide open” from 10 feet (when a defender is no closer than six feet away, per NBA.com), he still only shot 38.6 percent.

Wiggins and LaVine got off to a solid start in their season opener. LaVine had 19 points, and Wiggins, in particular, showed up (right up until the wily Vince Carter impressively held him to 0-2 shooting and a turnover in the fourth quarter) with 25 points, showcasing aggression and efficiency in the post. If Wiggins can keep using his great length and explosiveness to rise over defenders on jump hooks or short fadeaways in the post, he could quickly find a new scoring tool to exploit for easier looks this season.

The most obvious issue for this duo to address under Thibodeau’s scrutiny this season, though, is, of course, defense.

As I mentioned in a recent column on the trajectory for Jabari Parker and Wiggins in 2016-17, Wiggins’ defense has simply been underwhelming so far when you consider his tremendous physical gifts. Players shot higher than their season average from all areas of the court against Wiggins last season, and he ranked 69th out of 75 small forwards in Defensive Real-Plus Minus (not the sole determinator of a player’s defense, but still notable). Those statistics how disappointing his defense has been so far.

Wiggins has the physical tools he needs to excel by the bucket load. His reach, quickness and sheer explosion give him so many advantages over most players to cut off drives to the lane or contest their jumpers, forcing inaccurate shots over his bounding, elevated reach. Wiggins’ issue is knowing how to use these tools, learning how to switch more effectively, position himself correctly to cut off certain angles to the basket, or simply stick with his man on the perimeter.

Thibs and experience will offer him a heightened level of intelligence and go an awful long way to making Wiggins a better defender; the unteachable things such as amazing genetic gifts, are all there.

Even though LaVine doesn’t have the textbook 6’8″ frame, he’s still 6’5″ and free-throw-line-windmill-dunk athletic. The speed and athleticism is obvious, waiting to be taken to a level where the same issues of understanding the game and reading opponent’s movements don’t limit him.

The Timberwolves allowing 5.5 more points per 100 possessions with LaVine on the floor last season. His ranking of 70th out of 71 point guards (by ESPN) in Defensive Real-Plus Minus last season doesn’t imbue much confidence into his ability at that end of the floor, either.

But we could see things start to change under Thibodeau’s guidance. Whether Thibs is hurling yells of “ice, ice, ice!” from the sidelines or adopting a calmer approach in training to help LaVine and Wiggins develop their defensive IQ and positioning, they’re going to get better. The whole team will get better.

The developments of Towns’ interior defense and the support of new stellar backup center Cole Aldrich will help wing defenders like LaVine and Wiggins even more. Aldrich shined for the Los Angeles Clippers last season with averages of 13 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 3.1 blocks per 36 minutes with a second place ranking among centers in DRPM. He can help off the bench and provide more rim protection to reassure guys like LaVine and Wiggins outside, giving them a shot blocker to funnel opponents to at times.

Seeing as the defensive shortcomings of LaVine and Wiggins (the latter in particular, given his potential) have been so obvious, a clear step forward, accompanied by the popularity and expected success of the T-Wolves, can only bode well for this pair receiving some attention for Most Improved Player.

The only problem for them (if you can even call not winning this award a problem) is that there’s a serious amount of competition. Devin Booker, Myles Turner and D’Angelo Russell are primed to enjoy major sophomore breakouts, while others like Dennis Schroder, Clint Capela and even Giannis Antetokounmpo are all in with a shot as their roles change for the new season.

Essentially, whether LaVine or Wiggins can land the award or not, the point is that they should be among the top group of young stars in the league primed to take a step forward.

 

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com and ESPN.com

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