Tyus Jones was fortunate to begin his Timberwolves career with a veteran teammate in Andre Miller to show him the ins and outs of being a point guard in the NBA.
But Miller’s minutes were limited because of his age at 39. Jones’ playing time wasn’t consistent either as a rookie, so his lessons with Miller never played out much on the floor.
It’s a completely different scenario in his third season for Jones, seemingly the floor leader for Minnesota’s improved second unit, and being able to not only learn from but play alongside experienced shooting guard Jamal Crawford.
“I think it’s awesome,” Jones said Friday. “[We] have a great connection and bond on the court and off the court, so I’m really looking forward to it. He’s already taught me so much in the small things he sees. He brings a different vision and approach to the game than I have or anybody that I’ve played with. He’s more than willing to teach me — and we play well with one another.”
With the season opener in San Antonio coming Wednesday, the Wolves’ second unit looks like a lineup of Jones, Crawford, Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica and Gorgui Dieng. The strengths of this group would seem to be scoring and basketball IQ.
“We can be a very smart and steady unit,” Jones said. “Coming off the bench, you’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to be able to have coach’s trust. You’ve got to keep up the lead hopefully that the starters built. That’s what we’re trying to pride ourselves on is being a smart, together and cohesive unit. We feel like we can play with tenacity on defense and get stops. That leads to easy offense, but we feel like we have a lot of pieces to put up a lot of points as well.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, who saw his team practice in the newly renovated Target Center for the first time Friday, admits that most of the players on the second team have a poor reputation defensively — but claims they’re making strides in that area and are more formidable with the presence of Dieng, a former starting big man.
“Having Gorgui there will be a big help,” Thibodeau said. “[Bjelica] has shown he’s a good team defender, and his size is important. [Muhammad has] gotten better. Jamal has a good concept of team defense. And Tyus I think will continue to grow. He’s made another jump this year, and I think that’s important for us.”
Jones played in a career-high 60 games last season, but his average minutes decreased from 15.5 to 12.9 as he shared time with rookie Kris Dunn behind Ricky Rubio. But now that both Rubio and Dunn have been traded, Jones appears to be settling in as the No. 2 point guard behind Jeff Teague but ahead of veteran point guard Aaron Brooks.
As evidenced in his three-pointer in the face of Steph Curry in the Wolves’ loss to Golden State in China, Jones’ confidence has come a long way. He’s also more capable of anticipating what opponents will do on both ends, which showed itself with a transition steal and quick pass to a cutting Dieng for a layup against the Warriors.
“The longer you’re [in the league] the more the game will slow down and the more you will start to figure out things — the reads, the NBA game — more,” said the former Apple Valley High School star. “So that’s probably one thing I had to learn and accept, just being a student of the game.”
Minnesota increased its depth and firepower surrounding Jones off the bench. But Crawford is the piece that is making Jones’ life on the court a lot easier.
“He’s just really, really good,” Jones said. “His handle is unbelievable. He’s a better passer than people realize. I think he’s such a phenomenal scorer that his passing is undervalued, but he can really pass and see the floor. He’s just a real smart basketball player.”