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Basketball, Neat: Patty Mills And The Spurs Baptize ‘Wolves Rookie Tyus Jones

Welcome to “Basketball, Neat.” This is an intermittent column throughout the 2015-16 NBA season where DIME will discuss some basketball play or trend without extraneous information.

If you’re a fan of single-malt Scotch, you should be familiar with ordering a drink, neat. That’s what this is, but with basketball. So, there will be none of the usual contextual or superficial noise you might hear on Twitter or even in our pieces at DIME. This isn’t some referendum on basketball coverage or anything quite so lofty; it’s just a tiny place to talk exclusively about hoops. We’d like to nerd out about basketball for a little bit before we go back to the overarching culture of basketball and the NBA we normally cover. We hope you like it, but it’s primarily just a selfish way to publish what we’re already talking about with each other.

Jack: If Tyus Jones exhibited the physical profile or cognitive understanding of a strong defender during his one season at Duke University, he might have been a lottery pick. The 19-year-old boasts the innate offensive feel of a seasoned league veteran, and made clutch play after clutch play while leading the Blue Devils to a national championship.

Those attributes loom especially large in today’s NBA, where point guards aren’t just tasked with seamlessly directing traffic against increasingly intricate defenses on every trip down the floor, but providing impactful offensive subtleties to combat them. Jones will be able to do that in time, and showed enough shooting chops at Duke to suggest he’ll become a plus three-point shooter, too.

The problem for the Minnesota Timberwolves youngster thus far in his brief career is that a point guard’s modern burdens are just as heavy on offense as they are the other end of the floor.

Jones, who was acquired by his hometown team from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a draft-night trade, was inactive for all but two games of Minnesota’s early-season slate before being sent to the D-League in early December. He averaged 24.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 5.0 assists in six appearances for the Idaho Stampede and was subsequently promoted back to the Timberwolves on December 22nd – for what would mark the beginning of his life as a NBA rotation player.

How did the basketball gods reward the Apple Valley, MN native for his impressive D-League showing? By pitting him against the San Antonio Spurs in two of his first three games since being recalled by Sam Mitchell’s club. The results, at least on defense, were exactly as you’d expect, and a lesson in a veteran, talented team exploiting one of the opposition’s obvious individual weaknesses.

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That’s Jones in the corner, checking Patty Mills in the corner as Manu Ginobili runs a high pick-and-roll with the first quarter game clock winding down.

To be fair, Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng don’t do their rookie teammate any favors here. Not only is the former easily stymied in an obvious ball-screen situation, but the latter is stuck in an awkward position of not committing to the ball nor recovering back to his assignment. This is poor defense all around. But it’s still Jones who commits the play-deciding error, and it’s one of an almost comical nature.

“See man and the ball” is a rule of thumb at all levels of basketball. You can see Jones steal a quick glance to the corner after taking a few steps toward Ginobili, but by that point San Antonio already has him beat. Containing Ginobili isn’t Jones’ responsibility here; players are taught to stay on the strong-side corner in the NBA while guarding all but the most ineffective shooters.

Mills doesn’t fit that distinction, and is also one of the most active cutters in the league. He’s a tough cover for anyone, let alone a defensively-challenged guard playing the fifth game of his career. But that still doesn’t excuse Jones getting beat backdoor to such an embarrassing extent. Regardless of competition or mitigating mistakes by his teammates, this is an inexcusable gaffe from Jones – and one San Antonio would use as instructive for the game’s duration.

Spencer: Jack’s a little hard on Tyus, but he’s not wrong. Players need their heads on a swivel as an NBA defender, and Jones just isn’t watching a tennis match yet. He’s routinely getting exposed in those fractions of a second when he turns his head the wrong way, and his spatial awareness sucks. We’ll come back to that last part.

Except, for now, all that’s okay. He’s young and he’ll improve. Plus, Patty Mills made life impossible for Jones on Monday night. Also, #Spurs, which has transformed into my catchphrase any time Jack and I see some basketball that raises the hairs on the back of our necks. Before we get into Jones’ next flub, lets all appreciate the screen-the-screener action here that leads to the actual blind “bottom side” screen five feet above the three-point line.

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Jones is on an island out there, as the play is designed, and after Boris Diaw sets a pick for big Boban Marjanovic, the 7’3 monster runs up to plant a fridge on the near side of Jones. The rookie doesn’t see him in time and gets caught as Patty easily maneuvers into space like Chris Paul’s other long-lost twin. (Jones has probably got the peripheral vision to see Boban, but the instincts take reps he just hasn’t experienced yet.)

There’s really no reason Jones should be getting into Patty so far from the basket. Only Steph really needs to be respected that much 30-plus feet from the basket. Tyus should be stealing glances to each side of him knowing the pick is coming, or listening for instructions from Gorgui Dieng. But that’s why San Antonio ran their little screen-the-screener action with Diaw, to confuse that instruction.

Either way, Jones gets caught on the wrong side of a large man, and Patty is skilled enough to snake past the screen and find space for an easy bucket. Jones should be hugging Mills’ hip around Boban and then follow the Australian guard to the free throw line to contest, but because he wasn’t able to navigate the pick at all and Gorgui played drop help coverage, Mills was able to swish the 15-footer.

This next one is again related to the aforementioned swiveling head, but also knowing your opponent (reading the freaking scouting report) and the ability to place yourself on the court in relation to the other nine players. Spatial awareness is an under-appreciated basketball art.

Mills is a dangerous shooter, but after Jones does well to follow him around that Boban screen on the far side, he relaxes. You just can’t do that at this level, especially guarding a cagey Spurs player like Mills, and with the ball in the hands of an elite passer like Diaw on the near side.

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Plus, Jones doesn’t understand that he’s getting sucked too far into the paint, where his old friend Boban is looming like an immovable blockade. Strong-side defense teaches the weak-side defenders to help in the lane as a way to clog the paint and stymie any easy drives to the iron, but there’s no sense in Jones pinching that far in against a player — Boban — who shouldn’t scare teams on that side of the ball. Mills is the primary offensive threat here away from the ball, and he’s in the far corner, where any open look is at a premium.

But Tyus gets lulled too far in and Boban is able to flip the screen, so Jones has to navigate away from the basket to get around him after Diaw, initiating a post-up variation of his team’s deadly “hammer” set, abruptly turns baseline and flings it the width of the court to a suddenly wide-open Mills.

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These are just a few instances where the Spurs picked on the poor rookie, but Jones’ teammates are also culpable, especially knowing how inexperienced their teammate is and the elite shot-maker he’s matched up against. But the Spurs sometimes do this to even experienced defenders, and it’s an opportunity for Jones to watch some film and better orient himself on the defensive side of the ball the next time he sees court time.

Playing against one of the best teams in the NBA has a way of exposing an inexperienced player’s foibles, so Jones is far from alone in this regard. Hopefully Sam Mitchell and his staff were able to go over some of these defensive miscues and show their rookie what he can improve for next time.

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