I wasn’t prepared for how interesting watching an NBA team practice was going to be. When the assembled media was granted access to the Timberwolves’ first day of training camp for the last half hour, we filed in and sat down on the north side of the Taylor Center’s court. The players were going up and down, divided into three sets that matched last night’s squads for the Dunks After Dark scrimmages — black, white and gold.
The coaches on the floor — Flip Saunders, Ryan Saunders and Sidney Lowe — set up a drill on dealing with the pick and roll, working on specific calls and approaches. Some of it may have seemed basic, but training camp is about getting everyone on the same page. It’s a way to say, “This is how we do things.” To that end, it’s not a test just of learning specific things, but a test of how well a player learns things in general, how coachable a player is.
They jumped back into running timed and criss-crossing three-man weaves where a ballhandling player passed ahead to a shooter who took a three while a third player moved in for the rebound. There was clearly an element of competition to it as things got heated when the three-minute clock wound down, but I couldn’t suss exactly how they were keeping track.
They ended with a short drill involving a half-court set with a pass into the paint, a kick out, a re-post, and then the perimeter player running off a screen at the elbow to get the pass back and shoot. It was interesting to see the same moves made again and again by different players, to see how Ricky Rubio would feint to the baseline before going to the middle and then how Corey Brewer or Ronny Turiaf would do the same thing. You could look at each player’s shot form in a sort of vacuum, could notice how Chase Budinger’s shot starts very low on his body, kind of like a catapult.
Watching the players move through sets without defenders brought another thing home: the court might look like a flat empty plane, but as soon as players get out there, it actually becomes a series of overlaid labyrinths. Players want to move to certain places on the court, and the defenders are there to try and push them into other places. At the same time, each player has his own labyrinth to navigate that needs to interlock smoothly with the other players’. Training camp is where all these different labyrinths start getting sussed and rejiggered and overlaid by the coaching staff. It’s a difficult job, assessing and constructing at the same time.
As the practice broke up, a magician came out to pull off a few sleight of hand tricks that had a lot of players oohing and ahhing, although Ronny Turiaf kind of aimlessly meandered around the outside of the scrum around the magician until Pekovic joined him. Pek proceeded to hit five 3-pointers in a row as Turiaf fed him from under the basket.
Both Mo Williams and Corey Brewer commented that they liked the feel of the practice. It was hard, with a lot of activity, but also a lot of instruction, which both felt was perfect for a young team who need to run a lot to push themselves, but also need a lot of technical work.
Rubio went straight to work with new shooting coach Mike Penberthy. Their relationship is obviously in the early stages, but Penberthy watched Rubio shoot baseline jumpers for a while, and then would talk about some specific way to cradle the ball before going into the shooting motion, or ask him to take one hard dribble before shooting it. There was no positioning of elbows or overbearing reconstruction going on, which, honestly, would probably be a mistake at this point in Rubio’s career. Plenty of players have less than beautiful jumpers but make it work because of consistency, and that seems to be Penberthy’s angle, based solely on the couple minutes I got to see. It seems like he’s trying to push Rubio to experience shooting in a variety of ways in order to make the variations experienced in the game itself feel less, well, various.
I wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions about the team after seeing just a half an hour of practice on the first day of training camp, but what I saw at least seemed encouraging.