Timberwolves' Jeff Teague ready to step into Target Center, and out of Ricky Rubio's shadow
MINNEAPOLIS — In with the new, in with the old.
That's the vibe for the Timberwolves home opener against Utah on Friday, Oct. 20. On one hand, it'll be the fans' first chance to get a close-and-personal view of the likes of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague and the rest of this overhauled Wolves roster, donning Minnesota's new Nike uniforms, at newly renovated Target Center.
On the other hand, it's the return of Ricky Rubio, the flashy floor general who provided flickers of hope during some of Minnesota's darkest times. He makes his return to Target Center, just four months after he was dealt to the Jazz for a first-round draft pick.
There likely will be chants of his name, a standing ovation and plenty of No. 9 Timberwolves jerseys in the stands. Despite a lack of team success in Rubio's tenure, the sometimes-polarizing point guard became the face of this franchise and a fan favorite, and should get treated as such on Friday when he walks into the arena that barely resembles the one he played in for six seasons.
On the other end of the floor will be Jeff Teague, coach Tom Thibodeau's hand-picked successor to Rubio as Minnesota's starting point guard. Teague, signed in free agency this summer, is not in an enviable spot at the start of this season. For every Timberwolves fan that lamented Rubio's ability to shoot and score, there were three more set to defend the Spaniard's honor.
"He was a fan favorite," Teague said on Media Day. "I hear that every day."
That acknowledgement caused a number of media members to chuckle.
"No, seriously," Teague said. "I do."
Replacing a fan favorite comes with a heavy dose of scrutiny. Fans will be quick to judge the point guard's performance whenever he falters. He struggled a bit in the team's season-opening loss to San Antonio on Wednesday. Teague finished with 11 points and six assists, but Minnesota was outscored by 17 points during his 25 minutes on the court. Thibodeau elected to leave Teague on the bench in the fourth quarter, instead rolling with Tyus Jones.
But don't expect that performance to define Teague's tenure. While he has been tasked with the difficult mission of running an offense with a lot of new parts, many of which like to score the ball, Teague figures to meet the challenge. This is a guy who was an all-star in 2015, when he led the Hawks to a 60-win season while averaging seven assists a game.
"I've always been a pass-first point guard anyway, but I've played with a lot of talented players and teams with a lot of guys who can score the ball, so it's a very similar situation," Teague said. "I've got to let those guys be them. They can really play, all of them, and I've just got to get the ball to them where they're effective and sometimes help be ready to hit an open shot."
Teague has played at a high level throughout his career, but has never been mentioned as a top-tier NBA point guard. Jamal Crawford suggested that has as much to do with his demeanor as anything else.
"He quietly goes about his business, and you can appreciate guys like that," Crawford said. "With so many people screaming for attention, he's a guy who's under the radar, does his job and goes home."
Teague isn't Rubio. He isn't quite that level of distributor. He won't make passes that make you pause and question physics. But he is a more aggressive offensive player, a better scorer and, more important with this team's expected spacing issues, a better shooter.
There is one more glaring difference between the two. Rubio has never made the playoffs, which is as much, if not more so, a product of this franchise's dysfunction than a reflection of Rubio's play. But it is still a stain on his career. Meanwhile, in eight seasons, Teague has never missed the postseason.
"Jeff gets it done, and he's a winner," Aaron Brooks said. "So, he's going to figure out a way, what he can do to bring his game to make this team win. That ain't no shot to anybody, but he's a winner. You've got guys that have won and been to the playoffs and they expect that, so it's about changing the culture, so that's the only difference (between Teague and Rubio)."
Teague doesn't begrudge Rubio's lasting support in Minnesota. "He should be (loved). He was a good player for you guys for a while," Teague said. He hopes people have similar feelings for him in Atlanta, where he played for seven seasons. And, maybe one day, Timberwolves fans will view Teague in the same light as Utah's new starting point guard.
"Hopefully," Teague said. "If we can make an impact on this city and this organization, it can all go as (far as) we want it to go — playoffs, and even more."
The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.