Small Market Series pt. 2 – The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Princeton Offense

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Small Market Series pt. 2 – The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Princeton Offense

Background Info

The Minnesota Timberwolves hired Coach Rick Adelman during the off season to replace Kurt Rambis; the change closed the books on the Triangle Offense for the Timberwolves but opened up another notorious offensive system – the Princeton Offense. Adding to the exciting changes for Timberwolves fans was the addition of international sensation Ricky Rubio and lauded draft pick Derrick Williams.

Combining the new additions with the existing roster of Kevin Love and Michael Beasley may have created the most appropriate match in the league.

To further discover what I mean by that let’s take a look at Adelman’s Princeton Offense.

The Princeton Offense

The Princeton Offense is generally run out of the 4-out-1-in set that we’ve become familiar with when discussing several teams, including the Lakers, Mavericks, and Knicks. Unlike the Knicks’ 4-out-1-in system, the Princeton Offense stresses lots of motion – quick cuts to the basket from the perimeter players and much more screening action to open up opportunities. Players should always look for opportunities to make a cut to the basket or cause a mismatch through movement as long as it doesn’t disrupt spacing. The offense is most effective when all of its players are versatile – good at passing, shooting, and mobile.

The Timberwolves usually start their offense with a high set which looks like this:

At times they’ll also use the low set, usually when Darko is on the floor, which looks like this:

Let’s take a look at an example:

In our clip we see the Timberwolves begin with a 4-out-1-in high but Love pops out to receive the perimeter pass and Darko fills the low post to create the low set.

The Timberwolves are able to keep the defense guessing by transitioning between these two versions of the 4-out-1-in.

In this next clip we see the opposite transition as Love appears to be setting up low post position but curls to the opposing wing instead.

The Princeton Offense can also use an open set which is the 5-out set.

This set is used to give the ballhandler driving space and gives him passing options for either spot up shooting or cuts from the perimeter. In this play we’ll see the open set with Love and Ellington as spot up shooting options while Randolph and Beasley cut to the basket.

In this play Rubio uses the open set to drive to the basket and Randolph attempts to receive a lob by sneaking from the corner.

The open set gives Rubio or Barea an opportunity to force the defense into difficult decisions. Adelman has also added a high double screen play; here we see how collapsing the top of the open set provides a double screen for Rubio.

The Princeton offense also uses a 1-2-2 motion transition to a 3-2 set to allow two post players. The motion is usually a screen for the wing players at the elbow as shown below:

The defense must make a quick decision on both sides of the court – should the post defender leave his man and help the wing defender or should he stick to his man and hope the wing defender can recover to his man? The offense can read how the defense plays these screens and try to take advantage early in the offense.

Here we see Darko and Love at the elbows to screen for the wing players. Neither post defender helps on the screen but the wing defenders were able to recover well enough to prevent the shot. However, Beasley did gain sufficient separation for a drive to the basket and when Darko’s defender rotates over to prevent the layup Darko receives a pass but is stripped.

Again we see an early screen for the wing players around the elbow area.

The advantage of this set is it gives an early two man game option on either side of the floor and provides better rebound positioning.

The 3-2 set can transition into the 4-out-1-in through the following motion:

One problem that players need to be mindful of is to time their cuts correctly. In this next clip Rubio drives into the lane at the same time that Love and Randolph cut to the basket. This draws too many players in the lane and doesn’t leave Rubio room to safely pass the ball.

Ricky Rubio

Rubio is an invaluable asset to this system because recognizing open cutters and spot up shooters is what makes the system so effective.

Here we see the double screen play for Rubio and he finds the open spot up shooter on the weak side.

Once again, Rubio notices the defense has overloaded on the strong side so he finds an open man on the weak side.

Here Rubio finds Haslem outside of his defensive comfort zone on an athletic Derrick Williams.

This time Rubio moves well off the double screen off the ball and makes the right pass.

His high basketball IQ, patience, and court vision works perfectly in this system.

Kevin Love

Rubio alone is an excellent piece for the Princeton Offense but Adelman is fortunate enough to also have Kevin Love. Since Love is a valid mid-range and 3pt threat he can pop out as the inside man to transition to the open set or he can help the low-to-high or high-to-low transition as we saw earlier in this post.

He’s also a good cutting option in the offense because of his mobility. Here he makes a cut off a wide roll to the basket.

And this time we see him get great low post positioning from a cross cut.

Even outside of the Princeton Offense, he’s an excellent complement to Rubio in pick and roll situations.

Of course he also brings his rebounding acumen to the offense.


In case you didn’t believe Adelman was fortunate enough, he also has Derrick Williams, Michael Beasley, along with many others that are capable cutters from the wings and corners to increase the potency of the offense. It’s still early but I believe Adelman’s roster matches his system better than most teams in the league. As his players become more familiarized with the system, they have a great opportunity to become a force in the West.

Up next, the most successful small market team in the league – the San Antonio Spurs.

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3 Responses to Small Market Series pt. 2 – The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Princeton Offense

  1. commenter says:

    This is great, very informative and well written, and the videos are perfect (and necessary) compliment. Thank you very much.

  2. Casey Batt says:

    Hi, Mens Rea. Always enjoying your detailed breakdown. I just would like to directly communicate on e-mail about more x and o from the NBA games. Please reach me in my e-mail address when you read my post. Thank you very much.

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