Tonight was the first bit of action we got to see from the new-look Wolves against another NBA team. Unfortunately for the Wolves, that team features 2 of the top 10 players in the NBA, guarded by a 19 and a 20 year old, respectively.
As you’d expect, the Wolves struggled to guard Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (Russ specifically, who nearly had a triple double through three quarters against Tyus Jones and the rest of the point guard core, minus Rubio).
Like summer league, scrimmages, and practice, it’s easy to get lured in by what you see in a small sample size. The preseason is a better barometer, but still one to take with a grain of salt. Still, there was plenty to take away from tonight’s game. I noticed 4 things in particular.
1. Nemanja Bjelica is only a rookie by title
It’s far too early to tell how good Nemanja Bjelica will be in his NBA career, but it has become abundantly clear, between the scrimmage Monday and the game tonight, that he’s good enough to hack it at this level.
He’s a 27-year-old rookie with an innate feel for the game, especially with the ball in his hands. He had several plays, both in the half court and on the fast break, where a drive and kick resulted in a score. He didn’t touch the ball too much to start the game, but it seemed as though good things happened when he did. He also showed that he knows when to shoot the ball….most of the time. Sam Mitchell mentioned that he wants Bjelica to look for his shot more often. There were plays where that made sense, but for the most part, he made the right decision.
2. Safe bet: Karl-Anthony Towns won’t be a bust
Maybe this is obvious, but personally, I’m never totally sure about a prospect, no matter how highly-touted he might be. Karl-Anthony Towns was a big deal coming out of college, and showed why tonight. He did the majority of his damage in the first quarter (mostly on Enes Kanter, but some on Serge Ibaka), but he showed (quickly) why he was picked first. Get excited, Wolves fans.
I don’t want to jump the gun, but Towns was doing everything tonight. He hit multiple shots from the perimeter (with lots of confidence), he showed prowess in the post, passed the ball well, blocked shots, and got some tough rebounds. He also made some rookie mistakes, but the general outlook on Towns after game one is very good.
3. The Wolves are still (expectedly) very far away from competency defensively
Last season, the Wolves were a staggering 93.8 in defensive rating in the (low sample size of) minutes Kevin Garnett saw the floor. When he exited, it jumped to 111.3. It felt like more of the same tonight.
Same Mitchell is a coach that preaches defense over everything else. In the NBA TV training camp special, Sam Mitchell dedicated an entire practice to defense. They’re trying to work on it, but as a team, they didn’t look good. Even Towns, who blocked some shots and looked mostly good, bit on lots of pump fakes and made plenty of mistakes. The point guard trio of Jones, Andre Miller and Lorenzo Brown let Westbrook and DJ Augustin enter the lane far too often, and the help defense wasn’t fantastic. It was a lot of the same from last year. It’s being addressed in camp, and it needs to.
4. Watching Kevin Garnett mentor the youngsters is fantastic
I should be paying for this press-row seat near Wolves' bench tonight just for the privilege of watching Kevin Garnett COACHING these kids
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) October 8, 2015
I’m a lifelong KG fan, so I’ll always be biased on this topic, but it’s a treat to watch him from the media tables. He yells offensive schemes while the Wolves are on defense, he brings the young big guys aside when they exit the game and gets in their ear, and he leads every single huddle before Mitchell takes over. Most importantly, he does it with an intensity that you don’t see from 40-year-old professional athletes.
He’s nowhere near the player he used to be, but his impact on the team was on full display in tonight’s game. It’s fun to have him back in a Wolves uniform, but this isn’t a novelty for the fans. He’s an important piece to this team.