I suppose it was inevitable. I've had "focus group" sessions with David Kahn, Kurt Rambis, and Chris Wright. I even attended a Q&A with McHale, Love and Ollie. When you really think about it, Tony Ronzone was the only one left.
As fate would have it, I got three nice little bonuses when I bought my ticket package this year: free tickets to the home opener, free tickets to the November 19th game against the Lakers, and a lunch session with assistant GM Tony Ronzone at Huberts (formerly NBA City)
As most of you know by now, Ronzone is a remarkable basketball mind and a peerless scout, particularly internationally. He had plenty of thoughts about my thoughts.
On Wesley Johnson
Count Ronzone as one of Wes' biggest fans. Ronzone said he had plenty of say in this pick, and that he...like Kahn and Rambis...favored Wes in the end. He said he understands why fans are wondering about Cousins, but feels that the team made the right choice 100%
Ronzone said that he personally didn't feel confident in Cousins from the standpoint of, I guess what you would call stability. On top of the obvious behavioral red flags (which are, by the way, suddenly a much bigger deal with the NBA's new tech rules), he pointed out that Cousins didn't get into real game shape until right before the draft, meaning he didn't feel the need to put in the work until he was basically forced to. He basically said that on the balance of 10-12 years or however long these guys will be playing at a high level, he has a lot more confidence in Wes getting to and staying in top condition and playing excellent ball without major on or off court behavior problems.
And he did make the comment, although I don't think he realized how telling this would be to us, that we already had Darko at the center spot.
He also expressed what a lot of fans, I think, are seeing, which is that despite his age, Wes still has a lot of upside. He feels that Wes is already a damn good player with his athleticism and ability to shoot and rebound, but that even by just becoming stronger at those things, he can go from good to great. Ronzone seems to think it's just a matter of time before Wes is an all star, and really feels there's potential there for a franchise player if....as S-n-P has noted....Wes can develop a killer instinct. He largely reiterated Rambis' comments from last night that Wes is a special player, and it's just a matter of time, experience, and hard work before that inevitably shows. I got the impression he really believes that Wes has star....maybe even superstar....potential in this league.
On work ethic
It was immediately apparent that work ethic is huge for Ronzone...maybe even more so than for Rambis. I got the feeling that this was his major sticking point over Cousins. He feels Wes is a guy who will put in more than enough hard work and practice to get to the top, whereas he seemed to feel Cousins was a guy who would just put in the minimum necessary and try to make up the rest with sheer talent.
As an assistant with Team USA, Ronzone was very candid about the differences in how certain players approached the game. He noted...as most people have....that Kobe Bryant is a workout freak, and that Wade and LeBron are both hard workers as well. He noted the difference between those three, who would spend hours of extra time on the practice courts, versus others (I won't name names, since you never know what will happen in the future) who immediately started lounging after practice was over.
It seemed that that experience really helped to define his pre-draft process, and that he feels Wes falls into the Kobe category (although not at Kobe's level....I don't know if anyone is at Kobe's level), while Cousins is in...the other one. He noted that Wes, in fact, spent a good part of the summer working out with Kobe (I'm guessing that was at the ATTACK Athletic Center)
On Ricky Rubio
Obviously Ronzone is best known for his international scouting work, so I made a point to ask about Rubio and Bjelica.
Ronzone thinks that Rubio is, quite honestly, a little bored playing in Spain right now. He's definitely ready to play in the NBA, and contrary to mass media reports, has no problem playing in Minnesota. The team has zero interest in trading him.
He rattled off a list of award and championships that Rubio has won, and stated that the ACB league is second only to the NBA in competitiveness and talent. But probably the most telling statement was when he said that, in the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal game, he and the other coaches kept telling Kidd, Paul and Deron Williams to get into Rubio defensively and try to take the ball from him, and they all came back and said it was impossible. That's extremely high praise for a kid who was 17 at the time, playing against the best point guards in the NBA. (well, 3 of the 5 best, at any rate)
I also asked how he envisions Rubio fitting into the Triangle (I think he was surprised I even knew anything about it, and was even more surprised when he asked how many possessions we used it in last night and I had an actual answer for him) I pointed out that past point guards in the Triangle....Derek Fisher, Derek Harper, Ron Harper....were more off the ball point guards who got rid of the ball, then sat in the corners waiting for a catch-and-shoot three. He said that Rubio isn't a ball dominant guard like Chris Paul, but that he will need it in his hands more than a Derek Fisher....otherwise his playmaking ability gets somewhat wasted.
I personally don't see a problem with Rubio in the Triangle. I think that, first of all, a good number of our possessions will be fastbreaks, where we don't set up any offense at all, and that's where Rubio's biggest strength will be. But also that, in the halfcourt, Rubio does two things that even Derek Fisher does....take open threes, and cut into the lane. The Triangle doesn't accommodate pounding the ball well, but it's great at facilitating "hockey assist" opportunities (which, by the way, is great news for Wes as well) and those are something of a speciality of Rubio's. So I agree with Ronzone; Rubio in the Triangle is going to work out fine. Even if Rubio does need the ball in his hands more than usual, the Triangle isn't so inflexible that it can't be adjusted. The Lakers made enormous adjustments to it to accommodate Shaq.
Basically Ronzone said Rubio is a combination of Kidd's court vision and Nash's creativity (pretty sick, when you think about it), and that while his shooting isn't great, it's not a liability and will get better with time. He said Rubio is a Kobe-like "rockstar" in Spain...that when he visits, he can barely talk to him for more than two minutes in public without someone wanting Ricky's autograph and picture...and that he expects the energy level of the Wolves and their fans to pick up tremendously next year when he arrives.
On Nemanja Bjelica
First, I think he was surprised I knew who Bjelica was and who he's playing for right now (Caja Laboral), but basically he reiterated what Kahn and Rambis have already said; Bjelica needs to get a lot stronger. And I think, with our new-found understanding of the Triangle, we can see why.
The only other bit of info on this is that the plan is to bring Bjelica here in two years, not one. So mark your calendars for October 2012 people.
He did also mention, as more of an aside, how he was pleased that all our foreign team members (Rubio, Bjelica, Paulos Prestes) are playing in the Spanish league. He feels that will prepare them much better for the NBA than any other league short of the NBA itself.
On Kevin Love
A lot's been said about this already, but Ronzone didn't say anything groundbreaking himself. Basically he echoed the sentiments of Rambis; it wasn't anything against Love, Tolliver was just having a better game.
On Michael Beasley
I specifically asked if Beasley as a small forward is a permanent plan or if this was Rambis trying to figure out what he has. Ronzone took sort of a middle ground, saying the team is aware that small forward hasn't been Beasley's best position, but also that he needs to play it right now out of necessity, and that the team feels he'll pick up on it with time and be fine in the long run. Obviously Kevin Love is strictly a power forward, and needs to be on the floor.
I don't know if this is a long term thing or not, but the impression I got was, at the very least, Ronzone and Rambis both want to be starting Wes at the 3 sooner rather than later. That means either Beasley or Love go to the bench, or one gets traded. Given the team's treatment of Love, and the statements Rambis in particular makes about him, one would have to think Kevlar is the man out in those scenarios.
On trade talk
Obviously no one on the staff can get into specific names, but Ronzone was very enthusiastic about the fact that the Wolves are getting a lot of calls on our players this year. That's always a good sign. Someone did ask about Brewer, and he said Corey's market value is pretty good right now, which reinforces my belief that system defensive teams like the Celtics, Spurs and Magic are very much interested in Brewer.
He also spoke briefly about Jefferson, but didn't say anything we didn't already know: incompatible with the system. Most of the attendees seemed to understand that already though, so he didn't ever need to defend the team on that trade.
I then asked....since the highlights of the Heat/Sixers game was on TV....if the team was closely monitoring possible trades for players being "firesaled" from their teams. I noted in particular how Evan Turner was coming off the bench for the Sixers because his skillset isn't compatible with Andre Iguodala's. Ronzone said the team is keeping a very close watch for those kinds of opportunities. He feels that we stole Beasley from the Heat (which we really kind of did...), and that the team is looking to do the same again.
I'm not a believer in Andre Iguodala as a franchise guy, but a duo of him and Wes on the wings would be pretty damn spectacular.
Ronzone also said that Ager is staying on the roster for the forseeable future as insurance with Webster and Flynn both out. He also said we're in the hunt for an athletic center, which was somewhat of a relief to me and my concerns about Pekovic's fouling and Koufos' averageness.
I also made a comment, since I had mentioned the Heat, that I'd rather have a core of Kobe/Odom/Gasol than Wade/LeBron/Bosh. Ronzone agreed, stating that Gasol is probably a top 5 player in the NBA right now, and it quickly became clear that he didn't think....as I don't think.....that Wade and LeBron will ever truly mesh as teammates. They're both too ball-dominant, which ultimately means they'll have to take turns most of the time.
On his experience with the team so far
Ronzone does have a great sense of humor. He joked about being new to the area and not knowing where anything is, even asking if Eden Prairie is a real location. He said that when you work for a pro sports team...even if you're brand new....people kind of just expect you to know everything about the state you're in right away.
On a more serious note, he also commented that this has been a real change for him mentally. He came from a Pistons team that went to the playoffs regularly, winning a championship along the way, then worked with Team USA, winning a Gold Medal in Beijing. He immediately noted the 180 in enthusiasm when he arrived here, where fans were more skeptical and cynical about the Wolves than optimistic. He really wants to change that, and was encouraged by the turnout and enthusiasm in the home opener. I think we all agree that the team is, at the least, more entertaining than last year, and I agree with Ronzone that it's a lot better as well.
FYI I had grilled cheese and soup for lunch. It was delicious.
Also, since I have now had a chance to see all the top rookies in action, I have made a simple chart detailing the early Rookie of the Year race:
I mean, this guy is just a freak of basketball nature. He's Amare Stoudemire, with Carlos Boozer's post game, DeJuan Blair's rebounding, and Louis Scola's motor. Numbers don't at all do Griffin justice....you have to see him in action to really understand. If he plays like this all year, it won't matter how well anyone else plays....he's the runaway Rookie of the Year.
I will say this though....Wes Johnson, just in the preseason and home opener, has displayed some standout basketball IQ.
I honestly think he might be the most cerebral player out of this draft class, and that includes Evan Turner. Wes' understanding of where everyone is on the court, what they're doing, what he's doing, when to shoot, when to pass, when to jump for a rebound or block....just everything, it's remarkable. I've yet to see him make the wrong pass, the wrong cut, take the wrong shot, gamble at the wrong time on defense, and for a guy who's playing on the youngest team in the league and in arguably the most mystifying system in NBA history, that's really something in my book.