Archives For Benjamin Polk

Last week, in reviewing Othyus Jeffers’ brief tenure with the Wolves, I made mention of the thin line separating NBA rotation players from D-Leaguers. The same could be said of the margin between making an NBA roster out of training camp and finding yourself on the outside looking in. In this most recent Timberwolves’ preseason, four players were competing for the team’s final two roster spots. AJ Price and second-round pick Lorenzo Brown were vying to be the team’s third point guard. And Robbie Hummel and Jeffers were competing for the team’s final wing spot.

Hummel, a not-terribly-athletic 24-year-old rookie with two surgically reconstructed knees may have seemed like the longshot of the two. But he had two things going for him that Jeffers did not: First, Hummel had a reputation as a three-point shooter. And the Wolves, still in morning-after mode after the worst outside shooting season basically ever, were desperate for three-point shooters. Second, Hummel’s size (he’s not the 6’8″ he’s listed at, but he’s still a big guard) allows him to guard multiple positions. Jeffers can’t say the same. Hummel made the team.

Let’s take the last part first. Hummel is indeed a versatile defender who can guard twos, threes and the occasional four. He doesn’t lock anyone down or create holy chaos like Corey Brewer, and you certainly wouldn’t want to stick him on your opponent’s most dynamic scorer, but his court awareness, body positioning and great effort generally mitigate his lack of footspeed. He grabs some rebounds he probably shouldn’t be able to grab; he contests some shots you wouldn’t think he could contest. The Wolves were able to plug him into various spots in the lineup throughout the year without being punished too severely for it.

All of these are useful things. If Hummel had turned out to be a great or even above-average three-point shooter, they would feel like nice corollary benefits. (As in: “Wow, what a shooter–and how nice that he plays hard and can passably guard three positions!”) But Hummel was not an above-average three-point shooter; he was an exactly average three-point shooter, (I mean exactly: both the league as a whole and Hummel himself hit 36% of their threes). And hitting wide-open, spot-up threes is by far the best thing Hummel does. Once he moves inside the arc, things get dicey. 27.3% of Hummel’s field goal attempts came in the dreaded “long-two” zone–and he hit just 29.2% of those shots. He isn’t quick or skilled enough to create space for himself off the dribble and he isn’t athletic enough to hit contested shots.

And so, despite his average three-point shooting, despite his skill at spotting up in open space on the floor, Hummel’s True Shooting rate was a deeply below-average 49.2%. In other words, he wasn’t really helping the team much offensively. Indeed, Hummel’s mediocrity was a contributing factor to the Wolves’ difficulties off the bench this season and their general lack of outside shooting by players not named Kevin. I would be surprised if Hummel finds himself in a Wolves uniform again next season.

 

We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2013-14 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.

Othyus Jeffers is incredibly good at basketball. He is so good, in fact, that he has been named the Co-MVP of (arguably) the second-best professional league in the world, which means he is among the best 500 basketball players alive today. He is 6’5″, which is very tall by almost any standard you could imagine. He is probably stronger and quicker and more skilled and more athletically explosive than anyone you will ever know personally. Also, his name sounds like the name of a fictional space gladiator. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could say any of these things about yourself?

But Othyus Jeffers has a weird life because in professional basketball being the 300th best player in the world is wildly different from being the 500th best. The 300th-best player might be a rotation player on an NBA playoff team. He has a decent chance of keeping his job for an entire season and then coming back the next year. He has a good chance of a salary in the millions. But the 500th-best player’s life is not like that. This player scrapes by on a wage slightly lower than that of a first-year public-school teacher in New Mexico (which is to say: very low). He might play basketball in many different leagues in many different countries in the same year. He might get a fleeting chance to play in the league of his dreams, catch 34 minutes of burn over seven days and then get waived. He might currently be playing for a team called…The Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters of the Philippine Basketball Association.

(That is a real basketball team! Say ‘text’ again!) As anyone who watched the Wolves’ Summer League squad, or who make a point of following the NBDL’s Iowa Energy, Othyus Jeffers does a lot of things really well. He attacks the basket with passion. He runs the floor. He rebounds and defends like he has murder in his heart. But the margins between that 300th-best player and that 500th-best player are very fine. If you are an off-guard who can’t shoot the three and aren’t quite long enough to guard the league’s bigger perimeter players, it doesn’t quite matter how hard you fight for boards or how lustily you throw yourself at the basket. Your road to the NBA will be a hard one.

I have very warm feelings for Othyus Jeffers. My sense of moral justice wants to believe there’s a place in the league for someone with such great desire and resolve.  But the NBA is a cold place. You can approach a 1:30 pm Summer League game–mostly a venue for 22-year-olds in weird practice jerseys to hoist 10 threes in eight minutes of court time–like it’s game 7 of the apocalypse; you, an undersized off-guard, can average 9.9 boards a game in the D-League (really!); you can throw a tomahawk on every Filipino who gets between you and the rim…you can do all that and still barely get the faintest look in the show.

As we speak, the Wolves are sitting at 16-16, three games out of the eighth spot in in the Western Conference. For many of us, this comes as a great disappointment, especially after the team’s strong start. This was supposed to be the year that the Wolves finally fulfilled those years of deferred promises (deferred by injury, by the vicissitudes of foreign contract buyouts, by drafting Wes Johnson). It doesn’t seem to make sense. The Wolves have added Kevin Martin, the perimeter scorer they’d always craved. Nikola Pekovic is learning how to dominate games in the paint. Kevin Love is having a near-MVP season. Most importantly, thanks to the relative paucity of injuries (knocking so hard on basically anything that even remotely resembles wood) all of the Wolves’ principals are able to share the floor (at the same time!).

So what’s happening here? There have been many explanations offered, most of them containing a large grain of truth. Up until just this past week, the Wolves’ schedule had been a gauntlet of road games, back-to-backs and elite teams. Their half-court defense has been inconsistent, their transition D abysmal. Their late-game execution has been awful, accounting for their 0-8 record in games decided by fewer than five points. Their bench has been among the league’s worst.

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Lets talk about what constitutes breaking Timberwolves news in early August. Lou Amundson is still unsigned? Ok, not bad but I think we can probably do better than that. Money is the crux of Nikola Pekovic’s contract negotiation? Ok, let’s run with it. From Darren Wolfson of ESPN 1500:

But one central issue remains, according to sources: money. The Wolves are offering Pekovic a four-year, $48 million extension. [Pekovic’s agent Jeff] Schwartz wants more. In fact, at least initially, a lot more. One league source said his opening asking price was in the vicinity of $15 million/year.

This is actually less troubling than it seems. According to Wolfson, Schwarz is likely simply attempting to create bargaining leverage with which to negotiate an incentive package into the deal–most likely continent on Pekovic’s remaining healthy. As Wolfson points out, Pek’s only other option is to accept a $6 million one-year qualifying offer and then become a free agent after next season. But it makes no sense for an injury-prone big man entering his prime earning years to leave that much money on the table (unless, say, a Russian mafioso has delivered his mom a suitcase full of cash).  It’s remains a near-certainty that Pek will sign a deal by next month.

Wolves in Summer

Benjamin Polk —  July 24, 2013 — 5 Comments

Past NBA Summer Leagues have been characterized by a distinctly midnight basketball feel. Stripped down strategic approaches; players unfamiliar with each other and their systems; the deep desire to show and prove–all of these things have typically led to a kind of league-wide Nellie-ball fever. Breakneck pace and hypertrophic scoring were the rule. But the vibe was different this year. Perhaps  the presence and success of the D-League Select team, a group of grown men playing for their lives, added a note of seriousness to the proceedings. Perhaps it was the fact that teams like Phoenix had loaded their roster with experienced NBA players. Or maybe it was simply as David Thorpe suggested: The vogue for strongside pressure defense took the air out of the ball. But for whatever reason, defense (and competitiveness) enjoyed a bit of a renaissance while offenses were less manic.

As for the Wolves, their Summer League contingent shot the ball well, especially from distance (47.7% overall, 42.5% from three) which was an incredible relief to see from any team wearing a T-Wolves jersey–and I don’t care if those jerseys are ridiculous short-sleeved practice jerseys that make the players look like eight-year-olds or if none of those players ever step onto the Target Center floor.  They defended energetically and frequently well; they turned the ball over at an incredible volume. That’s pretty much the recipe for a 3-3 team, which, ultimately, who cares. In any event, here are some observations from the week.

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Garbage time, blown calls, awesome plays, victory celebrations: All of these just got a lot more fun, because Flip Saunders has signed the exceptionally enthusiastic, spectacularly bearded Ronny Turiaf for two-years and $3.2 million. (That’s the veterans’ minimum in case you were worried.) Turiaf isn’t really a good player or anything; I’d quote you some stats but there’s not really much to see. He’s a nice guy to turn to if your team needs a burst of frantic energy, or if your coach wants to change the flow of the game by making it suddenly frazzled and chaotic or to change up the defensive looks on an opposing power forward. Mostly, though, Turiaf is a bright, pulsing orb of positive vibes. That is a nice thing to have.

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For weeks we have been speculating that either Luke Ridnour or J.J. Barea would be on the move in order to fill the team’s many non-point guard related needs. We’ve also been hearing for a few days now that the Wolves were attempting to regain the services of one Corey Brewer, either by signing him outright or via a sign-and-trade.

Well, according to multiple reports, the both events have come to pass. In a nimble bit of salary cap ballet, the team orchestrated a sign-and-trade for Kevin Martin and sent Ridnour and his expiring $4.6 million deal to Milwaukee. This created the cap room needed to sign Brewer to a three-year deal reportedly in the $15 million range.

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Now here’s a surprise–as if this draft wasn’t already full enough of surprises. In a move not a single mock draft that I’m aware of predicted, the Wolves took Michigan’s Trey Burke at #9. Now Burke was a great college player, but this is a strange pick for the Wolves for many reasons. So strange, in fact, that I would be shocked if they didn’t trade Burke before the night is over (if they haven’t already. So: more analysis later. Meantimes, here’s the DraftExpress profile vid of Burke.

While most prognosticators (including our very own) still have the Wolves selecting ninth and drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, there is still talk that the Wolves are trying to move up. (That name, by the way is so epic. Its like a Downton Abbey heiress married a Roman gladiator.) Here’s Marc Stein on Truehoop:

The teams working hardest to move up higher in the lottery are the Jazz, the Wolves and the Thunder[…]The Wolves are also trying to get up very high in an attempt to land Victor Oladipo or Ben McLemore. Their trade bait, as we’ve previously reported, is in the form of picks 9, 26 and Derrick Williams. 

We’ve discussed before that Oladipo is the Wolves’ dream pick in this draft and so its not surprising that they’re going fishing in the top five. A couple of things to think about here. The first is the problem of assessing the quality of the draft in general. We seem to know that the top of the draft is relatively weak: there are no LeBrons or Durants up here. But what does that mean about the middle of the draft, a place where many effective role players and even All-Stars have emerged in recent years. Are we really confident that there are no Kawhi Leonards or Ty Lawsons lingering in the middle of the first round? Is KCP more of a Paul George or a Wes Johnson? Oladipo seems to fit the Wolves’ needs perfectly, but should we be concerned about his age, his relative lack of size and the fact that he only shot well in one of his three college seasons? Cody Zeller, a player who could very well still be on the board when the Wolves draft at number nine, rates very well statistically. But he was a big man in college and will likely play a more outside-in game in the pros. Will these stats translate into a new role? Hard to know, right? But obviously important if you’re going to trade both of your first round picks and a young player to move up five places.

All of these issues are in play both in the Wolves’ decision to make a deal and in the likelihood that any team in the top five will take it. Another thing for those teams to consider: just how good is Derrick Williams? I’ve seen almost every game he’s played over the last two seasons and I basically have no idea–and neither, as far as I can tell, does anyone else. Should be an interesting night.

We’re kicking off our offseason coverage here at A Wolf Among Wolves with a comprehensive roster review of the team from this past season, looking at how each player’s 2012-13 went and what we see for them going forward. One player a day for the next couple weeks, starting with the bench and rolling up to the starters.

We do ridiculous things when we are 22 years old. We climb trees and then fall out of them. We smash things we find on the street. We punch the pavement. We (“we”) make awful choices and then write long, agonized, hand-written letters explaining/apologizing for/recanting those choices. We are newly birthed into the adult world but still soaked in a purply, emo brain-haze, a volatile emotional soup that spikes the adrenaline and clouds the judgement.

Remember, now, that despite his many years of playing professional basketball as a teen, despite his experience leading his countrymen against the best basketball players in the world, Ricky Rubio is this very age. And its not just Rubio’s bio that misdirects us. He possesses a set of seemingly native-born skills that generally belong to much more seasoned players. His total court-vision, his almost physiological feel for movement and spacing–these are things that are usually acquired only after a decade or so of apprenticeship. Even when he was just a very skinny boy with floppy hair he was able to perform feats that, while not adult exactly (more like sylph-like or even transcendent) certainly belied his age.

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