Archives For Steve McPherson

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.

Things began to take shape as assistant coach Ryan Saunders — son of Flip — brought everyone together around the north basket and discussed a pick and roll drill. “Our call,” he said, “for identifying a pick and roll on the wing is going to be ‘Ice.’”

Which, duh. Casual fans might not know about “ice” — basically, hedging hard on a side pick and roll to trap the ballhandler against the sideline and force him toward the baseline to prevent the screen from being set — but surely basketball professionals must know this already. 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 like yelling “ICE ICE ICE” and jumping out hard, but a test of how well a player learns things in general, how coachable a player is. Continue Reading…

Dunks After Dark Wrap-Up

Steve McPherson —  September 30, 2014 — 3 Comments

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In the grandest barnstorming tradition, the Minnesota Timberwolves descended on the 4,500-seat Taylor Center on the campus of Minnesota State University Mankato for Dunks After Dark last night. One hundred percent completely sober students filled the arena to capacity quickly once the doors opened at 11 pm and they mugged for NBA TV’s cameras while being entertained for a good hour by DJ Mad Mardigan and an assortment of breakdancers and trampoline dunkers. As anticipation built for the Wolves to take the floor, the energy thrummed and the building pulsed with all the casual fun of basketball without playoff implications, without the pressure of filling a big arena, without the freight of the NBA proper.

But let’s not kid ourselves: in terms of actual basketball, last night meant less than nothing in the grand scheme of things, so let’s celebrate that with a bunch of GIFs of dunks and fun stuff, plus a couple observations. All GIFs are courtesy of the incomparable CJ Fogler. Continue Reading…

As 2K Sports is wont to do, they’ve been dribbling out bits of footage here and there leading up to the release of NBA 2K15 on October 7. Their latest trailer is called “Momentous” and features lots of pretty visuals, precise details, “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest and — most importantly — a glimpse at this year’s Timberwolves.  Continue Reading…

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Spend just about any amount of time examining Shabazz Muhammad’s offensive game and you will conclude it’s weird. Listed at 6-6 and 222 lbs (although if his offseason regimen is working — and it looks like it is — that should be a bit lower this year), is undersized for a small forward, yet 22% of his offense last season came out of post-ups, according to MySynergySports. 34 total possessions is hardly a representative sample size, but at 0.94 points per possession on those plays, Muhammad ranked 39th in the NBA on post-ups. Continue Reading…

(Note: There is an awesome Iverson jersey in a pickup basketball game in the above video.)

Here is something I didn’t write about when it happened because, well, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. A press credential is, after all, something given, not taken. When you’re not a beat guy with a large local or national organization to stand behind you, there’s little profit in pushing the limits, so you stick to your lane. When players are grousing in the locker room and it’s not part of a media scrum, it seems like the right thing to do is keep it off the record.

So let’s go anonymous with this: After yet another loss down the stretch for the Wolves last season (I can’t remember which), one of the Wolves’ players was told that he had to do a meet-and-greet with fans after he was done in the locker room. He immediately launched into voluble complaints — not about fulfilling the commitment, but about the fans themselves.

“Did you hear it out there?” he asked. Continue Reading…

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If you’re only familiar with Ricky Rubio’s public side — his play on the court, his commercials, the clip of him telling Alexey Shved to change his face and enjoy — you probably think of him as joyous, effervescent, puppy dog-ish. But his demeanor in the locker room is often a bit different. This might be due to change, though, with the impending departure of Kevin Love.

For clarity’s sake, let me say I don’t think Kevin Love is a dour guy. Just as the “Kevin Love” he presents to the general public is one facet of him, so is the “Kevin Love” he presents to the media in the locker room. In the time since I’ve been part of that media, he has been generally surly and for perfectly good reasons. He has at times struggled to present himself the way he’s wanted, partly through his own fault and partly through circumstance. His reaction to this over the past few years has been to more or less shut himself down during the media scrums. In the few situations where I’ve engaged him one-on-one he’s been warmer and more forthcoming, if only a bit.

When it’s been bad, he’s looked completely demoralized. But the norm these last two seasons has been Love seated in front of his locker, head down, not making eye contact with anyone, providing more or less stock answers, except when he’s calling out teammates. He is not, however, generally the last guy out of the showers.

That would be Rubio. Continue Reading…

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Every offseason brings change. Sometimes it’s massive, sometimes it’s more subtle. Sadly, it looks like the Wolves are more or less standing pat this offseason and looking to … hang on, my producer’s telling me something … Well, I guess we’ll talk more about THAT later but now is the time to introduce a new member of the A Wolf Among Wolves family, Tim Faklis, who joins us fresh off a lot of terrific work over at Canis Hoopus. I got to know Tim a bit personally over this last year as we waited uncomfortably for Kevin Love or Ricky Rubio or (that one time) Corey Brewer to finally emerge from the back of the locker room, plus I’ve been a big fan of his work with CH, a site that continues to do a bang up job supporting the whole Wolves fan community both with quality writing and active and engaged discussion.

We asked Tim to join us because stalwart AWAW writer and professional hair model Zach Harper has taken his talents to South Beach, where he’ll be getting to cover LeBron James up close for the whole … hang on, producer again … Anyways, we hear it’s real nice there most of the time. He’ll continue to cover the Wolves, mostly for away games, but we thought it would be a good idea to stick to a solid three-man rotation at home games, most likely meaning that Bill Bohl gets to move up a slot and not stack all the unwanted box scores next to his computer. Good luck with that, Tim. Continue Reading…

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With the likelihood of a swap with Love-for-Wiggins at its core looking more likely, a lot of fans have apparently shifted their focus for the time being onto what else will come along with this trade exchanging proven superstar for potential superstar. The big problem with moving Love for a swingman is the enormous hole left at the power forward position, especially given Dante Cunningham’s expiring deal (and whether or not the team exercises its option for him, he isn’t a viable starter). Sure, there’s the potential for Gorgui Dieng to get some minutes at the four as a supersized PF next to Pekovic, which could surely create some excellent and interesting high-low action given the passing skills that Dieng showed off in college, but Dieng is also not an every-game starter at power forward.

So the question becomes who the Wolves can get back in the trade to man the four spot, and it seems like people are waffling over the still-raw-but-possibly-better-than-we-thought-last-year Anthony Bennett or the largely unsung and in some cases unknown Thaddeus Young, who could be routed from Philadelphia should they be brought into the deal.

Now if you know me, you know I like Thad Young. I wrote about him for the New York Times and HoopChalk prior to last season, essentially lauding his evolution into a true smallball power forward and noting that if he could add the 3-pointer back into his game — he shot ~35% in his second and third seasons — he could become even better. (Also worth noting that he was most successful from 3-point range on the left wing — Love’s favorite spot.)

This past season he did re-introduce the 3-pointer, but it didn’t go super well. He only shot 31% from 3-point range, but I think it’s worth remembering that he more or less hadn’t taken a 3-point shot in a game for three years (34 3PA in those three years combined) and that he was on an atrocious Sixers team where the offense wasn’t designed to get him 3-point looks. With seven years of experience but still just 26 years old, I still think Thaddeus Young can be a tremendous player in the league, if not a marquee star.

That veteran experience is what I’m more interested in talking about than his specific game, though. It’s true that Bennett looked much better in Summer League than he did at any point last year, and it’s true that he was dealing with a host of physical issues from rehabilitating an injury to his shoulder to sleep apnea (for which he’s since had surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids). There’s every reasonable expectation that, given the right environment, he can evolve into a very good basketball player.

But that’s the sticking point: environment. There’s a natural tendency to look at a player’s skillset and potential and believe it will blossom one way or another, but it’s more complicated than that. Simply put, if the Wolves are already going to be giving heavy minutes to Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, it’s going to be very difficult to also give heavy minutes to Bennett. Three years down the line, a starting lineup with LaVine, Wiggins and Bennett could be great, but I just don’t think they get there if they’re all having to start this season, or even just play heavy minutes.

First and second year players simply need to be surrounded by veterans to reach their full potential. If this trade goes down and if it involves Kevin Martin and if the Wolves feel they need to start Wiggins over Brewer, that means the longest tenured starter would be Pekovic, with four years of NBA experience. Rubio has three, and just barely given that he’s played 180 games in those three years. Young more than doubles Rubio’s experience and nearly doubles Pekovic’s.

Now obviously the kind of veteran leader he can be matters, but so far he’s shown himself to be quiet and steady, plus he hasn’t needed the team to be designed around getting him looks for him still to be the best player on the floor for the Sixers the last two years.

You need balance on a team, not just to be successful, but to grow. Young versus Bennett probably won’t change the win total of next year’s Wolves very much — and I don’t expect them to be good in the sense of making the playoffs either way — but a team on which Wiggins, LaVine and Bennett are all getting heavy minutes would not only be not very good next year, but it would stunt all of their development. It’s better for LaVine and Wiggins to be finding their feet next to a veteran like Young, even if he leaves after next season by not picking up his player option. If he does leave, that’s nearly $10 million in cap space.

The bottom line here is that playing a bunch of potentially great rookies might work in NBA 2K15, but doing so in the real world not only hurts the team’s present prospects but also their future ones. The Baby Bulls of the early 2000s are instructive here. They were not only a 21-win team in 2002 when they had Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry as rookies plus Jamal Crawford and Marcus Fizer as sophomores, but they stayed bad for years.

No matter a player’s potential, growth curves are not inevitable. Developing one rookie is ideal. Two simultaneously is a challenge but possibly worth the payoff if it works. Giving three young players big minutes is likely to compromise all of their development and hamstring the team for years.

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I was going to start this post by saying, “Summer League is not really about wins and losses,” but then realized I was hedging: Summer League is NOT about wins and losses. What it is is a living breathing existential paradox. On the one hand, it’s an inherently fragile and unstable arrangement, a weird bardo region where agglomerations of rookies, sophomores and journeymen masquerade as NBA teams while competing for the glory of … something via a tournament that each team seems more interested in losing. On the other, it’s where professional basketball reaches maximum entropy, an undifferentiated state where possessions are born and die in a vacuum without accumulating any meaning beyond their short lifespans.

So how did the Wolves do? Well, they finished 2-4 but see above. The returns on rookies Zach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III — both based on what I got to see of them and talking to other media members and the buzz on Twitter — are good overall. In last night’s consolation game (the team’s fourth in four days), LaVine had 22 points, including going 9-10 from the line, a very positive sign for a player about whom there are some questions with regard to his physicality in getting to the rim through contact. Robinson had 17 and, although he struggled with his shot to the tune of 2-6 from distance, his overall game looked solid, if not particularly polished. Overall, he’s shot 38.5% in Summer League, but neither his jumper nor LaVine’s (who shot .397) look broken. Like most rookies, they need to adjust to the speed of the game, the length of the 3-point line and hundred other little things.

They both seem to feel pretty secure in their self-assessments after their first taste of quasi-NBA action.

“I’m a very confident person and I always hold myself to high standards,” said LaVine after the Wolves final game, a 97-78 pantsing of the Pelicans. “You know, there’s a lot of doubters on me and I always like changing people’s minds. You know, ‘Am I NBA ready?’ and things like that.”

LaVine’s tack of “prove the haters wrong” is a time-tested one, a solid choice for a rookie and one that works pretty well as he continues to navigate the fallout from his less-than-ideal word choice after being picked by the Wolves. He went on to tick off all the right things to work on and/or show in Summer League.

“Show people that I can play point guard, run the team, knock down shots, play good defense and help the team win. I know we didn’t win many games, but we competed and that’s the main thing coming out here: getting a feel for the game and competing.”

Summer League might be wearing me down to a nubbin, but LaVine was very positive about the experience. “This is one of the coolest things,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to be in it next year as well and it’s really enjoyable. It’s good for the fans and there’s a lot of excitement getting out there with your team.”

He also continued to flash some considerable charm when I asked him about how he’s enjoyed Las Vegas outside of the basketball so far. “Hey I’m 19: there ain’t much for a 19 year old to do in Vegas. But I kick it in my hotel. Me and my whole family went bowling. I beat my little sister and my dad in bowling — no, wait: my dad beat me. I’m not very good.”

Glenn of House Robinson, Third of His Name, King of the And-ones and the Second Round was as steady in talking about his game as he was on the court, where he neither over- nor underwhelmed but instead did chunks of good stuff here and there. Basically, perfectly whelmed.

On the broadcast of the Wolves’ first Summer League game, Mateen Cleaves commented that he thought Robinson’s game might actually work better in the NBA than in college and I think Robinson’s Summer League performance showed flashes of this. He’s athletic and a capable finisher, but not an overwhelming physical force at the college level the way, say, Derrick Williams was. Williams’ physicality hasn’t translated so far at the NBA level, but Robinson’s — which is more reliant on opportunism at the rim — could, especially if he gets his 3-point shot sorted out enough to make people bite on it.

“On the court with a point guard like Zach or with Ricky Rubio, I love penetrating and reading other players,” he said. “I think it’ll be fun. I think my game definitely fits the NBA style.”

Most heartwarmingly, he said he was a big fan of NBA 2K and when I asked him about which teams he uses, he said, “Man, now I just play with the Timberwolves.” There’s something so endearingly sweet about a guy getting drafted and then playing with the team who drafted him before he’s even hit the court with them.

Of course, this Wolves Summer League team had to endure the swirl of rumors and jokes (many of them by me) about whether Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett were going to suit up for them in Vegas. There’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the roster, but that’s nothing new at this point in the year. Last year, the Wolves player who looked the best coming out of Summer League was center Chris Johnson, who was waived before the season started.

The one thing you can count on is A LOT of Glengarry Glen Ross jokes in recaps this season.

In no particular order.

  • Zach LaVine was largely as advertised. Fast and athletic, there’s a kind of wide-eyed innocence about the way he moves with so much more purpose with the ball than without, about how he sort of habitually performs a little inside-out sizeup dribble when he’s squared up to his defender. Nerves were evident early on when he lost his grip on the ball on a drive, but he settled in, particularly once the game was called a tie and the dunking exhibition started. More on that in a moment.
  • Shabazz Muhammad showed a lot of the same gusto that was his calling card late in the season last year, going up hard for dunks and muscling his way into the lane for rebounds. He still loves the left block and that little jump hook, but that’s fine. Obviously, this pre-pre-pre-season is a time when players have to balance a desire to try new things or show their progression with the need to prove they can do what they’re good at consistently. It can be a tricky balancing act.

Continue Reading…