Ah, training camp. A time when the heady mix of a long-forgotten feeling merges with the barely-glimpsed ghost of actual on-court play to create its own admixture of hope and anxiety about the future. Take that, Deadspin.
But seriously: Practice ran long yesterday, resulting in a clutch of media perched by the front window of the Taylor Center on the lovely (no, seriously, the autumn colors were lovely) campus of Mankato State University and doing things like this:
By the time we got into Bresnan Arena, the Wolves still on the court were shooting spot-up 3-pointers in pairs from five positions on the court (right and left corners, right and left wings and top of the key), 20 shots at each spot, for a total of 100 shots. Kevin Martin talked about it while J.J. Barea and Ricky Rubio fed each other in sets of ten, a Wolves’ assistant writing down their makes-to-attempts on a clipboard.
“I’ve never been on too many teams that do that,” Martin said. “So that’s the importance of how the 3-point shot has evolved.” Clearly the Wolves are taking 3-point shooting very seriously this year, and my guess is that they just want there to be no chance that they start the year off cold. Although the Wolves were dead last in 3-point shooting last season, they weren’t a team like Memphis that just doesn’t have shooters. They were missing two of their best in Kevin Love and Chase Budinger, and then guys that should have been better from distance just weren’t.
It even baffled Martin, who said he couldn’t see how they could have been last in the league. “From what I’ve seen, everybody’s making threes now. We’ll see when the lights come on.”
Something that seems to come up a lot is how Rubio, Love and Nikola Pekovic are all going to play together given that they only notched 13 minutes on the court last season, according to nbawowy.com (the fewest minutes for a 3-man lineup recorded on NBA.com for the Wolves is 18). But given that they played 457 minutes together in 2011-12 (eighth most of any 3-man lineup that season) and looked like a lock for the eighth seed in the West while doing so, their chemistry shouldn’t overly concern anyone.
If anything, incorporating Martin and Corey Brewer into the starting lineup is a more pressing task, and that was a lot of what this training camp was about. “Just trying to read each other’s sweet spots on the court, where not to be when Ricky is doing his dribbling thing out there,” said Martin. “It’s all learning process right now, but I think everything’s coming together good.”
Head coach Rick Adelman echoed this: “I think we wanted to find out about players. We’ve got to get our guys playing together, the main guys, find out about our rookies and free agents and see where they fit in. Every day you evaluate that. We still got a long ways to go.”
That long way is particularly evident to Adelman on the defensive end. Although he emphasized that everyone was working hard, he said, “The concentration on the defensive end — especially the veterans — has not been good, it’s not the quality we need. But we’ll see how that goes as the weeks move on and we start playing games and see where we are.
“We know from the very beginning that we have a lot of offensive players and they’re concentration is on that end,” he continued. “Their concentration has to be at both ends. You can drill on everything in the world and when they’re drilling they’re okay, but as soon as they get out on the court, their concentration starts slipping. So I’d say most of it is mental. As soon as we start playing other teams, we’re going to find out quick.”
It may sound blindingly obvious, but it seems like the major goal for the Wolves out of the gate this year is to get better in two areas: offense and defense. The emphasis on 3-point shooting was clear in their offseason moves and in the shooting drill they were using to end practice. Shooting a hundred 3-pointers after you’ve already been practicing for several hours is not easy. But Adelman was equally concerned about not just playing good defense, but establishing a defensive identity, and he explained that was something that had to start with Love and Pekovic.
“Those two guys really should be the anchors for us,” he said. “I believe that most of the good teams, especially defensively, their big guys set the tone. They’re the ones talking. They see everything coming at you. They’ve gotta be more vocal and in the right spot early. I think for us to get better our big people have to do that. Dante [Cunningham], he does a good job of that. We have to have those two guys do the same thing.”
The problem is that while Pekovic has become a solid positional defender in terms of understanding rotating and defending the pick and roll, neither is going to affect shots. “We don’t have that advantage,” Adelman continued. “We don’t have somebody who bothers shots. G [Gorgui Dieng] can do it, he can bother shots around the basket, he’s long. But he’s also a rookie.” Adelman went on to praise new addition Ronny Turiaf as a great position player, always in the right spot and committed to helping. “That’s the type of thing that we need our big guys to do.”
But as training camp closes for the Wolves in Mankato and they prepare to take on CSKA Moscow on Monday night at the Target Center, the only thing that’s clear is that training camp is a labyrinth of lessons and expectations that obscures more than it reveals. We barely got to see any action on the court and even if we had, it’s not clear what it would have told us, balanced as it is between trying new, untested things and establishing solid go-to approaches.
Martin broke down what the rest of the preseason will look like. “We’re gonna go out Monday night, work on the basics, what we learned in training camp,” he said. “Then we’ll play four games with the basics. Then we’ve got seven days off, so we’ll watch a lot of film and then we’ll start to put in new stuff as we go. It’s just all fill-out process.”
In short, the takeaway is more patience. More patience for the coaches as they learn what players are capable of both individually and as a team and as units within that team. More patience for the players as they learn each others’ rhythms and spots. And finally, more patience for fans as we wait for preseason games that are in themselves only shadows of what’s to come. But it’s coming.