For the better part of the last decade, Jeff Teague has been a mainstay of the NBA point guard crop.
He is the consummate professional every team desires to have, drawing on a track record of unselfishness and availability on the floor while also providing leadership and guidance away from it.
Between 2011 and 2018, Teague played in 529 of 558 regular-season games, notching two full seasons of basketball – including a lockout-shortened one – in the process. His best years as a professional came with the Atlanta Hawks during the Mike Budenholzer era, a time in which he earned All-Star recognition and reached the Eastern Conference Finals.
Teague was the floor general for that fast and exciting Hawks team — and if it hadn’t been for LeBron James getting in the way — and that was only the first time — we very well could’ve seen Atlanta get to the NBA Finals during the 2014-15 campaign.
Even after the emergence of Dennis Schroder pushed him out of Atlanta, Teague played a pivotal part in helping the Indiana Pacers reach the postseason in his one-season stint with the organization. In his debut year with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was a key member of the team that snapped the franchise’s 13-year playoff drought.
Teague came into Minneapolis riding a streak nearly the exact opposite of that. For nine straight years, and the entirety of his NBA career, he had made the playoffs. So if you’ve watched basketball in late April over the last decade, chances are high you’ve seen Teague on your television screen.
That is, unless, you only started tuning in this past spring. If that’s the case, you witnessed the first Teague-less postseason since 2010.
“That was really awkward,” Teague said at Timberwolves Media Day. “I’ve always been in a situation where I was in a playoff situation, so not being able to play and then not making it to the playoffs was just… it wasn’t fun at all.”
The 2018-19 season might’ve been Teague’s most testing to date. For the first time in his career, injuries piled up. He fought and played through foot issues, knee soreness and an aching left ankle for 42 total games. The pain ultimately led to debridement surgery on that ankle the day after the Wolves wrapped things up.
In just one year, Teague had racked up more missed games (40) than he had missed in the previous eight (29). Being sidelined is not a feeling he is used to, so admittedly, the veteran point guard felt frustration seep in.
But that was then and this is now. Minnesota has a new lease on life. No longer is there a disgruntled superstar trying to force his way out of town, nor is there a coach who simultaneously operates as a general manager. This summer marked a smooth transitional change in the franchise’s front office.
The Timberwolves hired former Houston Rockets executive Gersson Rosas as their president of basketball operations. Sometimes when there’s a new person in charge of things, he’ll bring in his own team to fill things out. Yet instead of wiping the slate clean, he retained both interim general manager Scott Layden and interim head coach Ryan Saunders, giving them a permanent status for each respective position.
Layden went to work quickly this offseason during draft time and in free agency. He brought in Jarrett Culver as Minnesota’s next blue-chip prospect. He bulked up the team’s depth with the acquisitions of Jake Layman, Shabazz Napier, Tyrone Wallace and Treveon Graham, plus the frontcourt signings of Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh.
The Wolves’ new blood wasted no time in showing how much they were buying in. A few weeks ahead of training camp, the fresh faces developed a rapport with the guys who have been a part of the team. It was a display of commitment that resonated with the core and, to Teague, proved how unalike this season will truly be compared to the previous one.
“All through, the energy is different. The vibe is different. Everything about it is different, and it’s exciting. The guys feel like it’s more upbeat,” Teague said.
“I was telling someone earlier, it kinda feels like New York City now. Everything’s like fast-paced, everybody’s moving around, everyone has somewhere to be and it’s like everybody’s focused. I was like, last year was more like Indiana. Everybody was just chill, relaxed, chillin’ – kinda my vibe. So it’s exciting to see, though. I’m excited. I think everybody around here is happy the way everything is going.”
Fast and furious will be the name of the game for Saunders’ continued iteration of this Minnesota bunch. Out goes the old-school, half-court post-up sets and drawn out plays from the past, instead comes a speedier pace, getting downhill and making a living in transition as the modern league trends toward higher scoring totals.
With the athletic talent that was brought in to complement what’s already there, Teague feels it’s the perfect match for the Timberwolves.
“I think you’re gonna see a whole different brand of basketball,” Teague said. “I won’t be the only one pushing it. You’ll see KAT get it off the board and push it. You’ll see Jake [Layman] get it and push it. And Jordan [Bell]. And the list goes on. Everybody’s gonna have a chance to get the ball and push.
“… I’m just excited because it’s like a blank canvas. We can do anything we want to do. Our team could be really good. No one’s expecting much and that’s the beauty of it. I’ve been on teams where they didn’t expect much and we shocked the world, so it’s another situation where you could shock people.”
Yes, the upcoming campaign will mark Teague’s 11th season as a pro. Yes, he’s 31 years old and the only player on his team who’s been around that long. And, yes, the crafty veteran has seen his fair share of experiences in the Association.
What you should not do, though, is expect him to slow down because of an outlier. Teague is a game-changer. He’s productive when his number is called and passes his wisdom on to teammates when it’s their turn too.
We already know Culver has taken an appreciation for the eldest wolf of the pack. The rookie has expressed plenty of interest in playing point guard. Who better to learn from than Teague?
The veteran ranks eighth overall among active players with a 33.1 assist percentage and has been at the top of the league in steal averages on multiple occasions. Add in the fact that he’s poured in about 15 points per night on a 35 percent clip from deep and you have yourself the ideal maestro to orchestrate your offense.
There are two constants in Teague’s career in basketball – good health and playoff appearances. Neither happened last year. Sometimes, that’s life.
It’s a chapter that’s officially been flipped: Teague is coming into 2019-20 injury-free and clear-minded.
He hated the feeling of missing games. He hated the feeling of missing the playoffs. When he was asked about being in a contract year, Teague vowed this season won’t be about what he’s got left in the tank to earn a new deal. The league has known who he is and what he’s capable of for a long time now.
Teague’s sole focus is stepping in between those four lines and earning victories.
“I wouldn’t say prove. That was more to myself, just wanting to play basketball because I enjoy playing,” Teague said. “Sitting out wasn’t something I was used to or something that I wanted to do, but I love playing the game.
“So just being able to get back on the floor and just trying to show what I can do, but I don’t really want to try to prove anything. I just want to try to do what I can do to help this team win, and that’s really it.”