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Summer League Review: Minnesota Timberwolves

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Small sample size and all, here is a review of the Minnesota Timberwolves performance in the Las Vegas Summer League. Note: Pictures of the Wolves used in this review were taken by Jeremy Rincon.

Jeremy Rincon

The vinyl decorations spread amidst facilities on campus at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas indicated the Thomas and Mack Center and Cox Pavillion had been transformed into a basketball sanctuary. The NBA Summer League had hit Las Vegas, and it became time for basketball fans to lustfully image prospects beginning an evolution to stardom.

There are plenty of differences between regular season competition and what happens at the Las Vegas Summer League.

Link to a picture of the NBA's Summer League Rules.

The exhibition tournament serves as testing ground for referees and players to hone their skills while also being a part of experiments being conducted by the NBA, it's teams and those who coach them.

In Vegas, officiating crews adhere to new points of emphasis, while players are inserted into situations having received minimal instruction on how to execute the game plan[s]. For LVSL roster players like Brady Heslip and Matt Janning, being able to execute in unfamiliar circumstances is critical-- not every player gets to eventually join an NBA roster.

Heslip's Baylor Career Helped Earn Him a Spot on Wolves' Summer League Team.

Moreover, for anyone invited to play on the Summer League team it would be impossible to memorize Flip Saunders' playbook by the opening tip of the first of game. [Flip] Saunders may have distributed the playbooks among his players and staff before assigning the Wolves assistant coaches as his surrogates who would assume the head coaching duties, but that does not mean they were anywhere near ready to execute. Ryan Saunders, David Adelman, Bobby Jackson, Sidney Lowe and Sam Mitchell were left to instruct a batch of inexperienced, NBA hopefuls all hungry to showcase their own skills.

It was Mitchell who coached the Wolves first Summer League game, a defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks; 85-93.

Things did not begin swimmingly.

Zach LaVine went through the motions playing within the offense, and was unproductive after scoring on an alley oop play that began the game. Sometimes, he conceded point guard duties to Alexey Shved, who other times played off-ball while LaVine operated the halfcourt offense. Neither guard noticeably assumed the role of floor-general, and by the time LaVine was called to the bench first time he had only committed one foul, grabbed one rebound over a nine-and-a-half minute stretch of playing time. It was, undoubtedly, an underwhelming first act for the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.

But what did [and still do] we expect from LaVine at LVSL and during the regular season?

The consensus after the Wolves drafted him is that Flip Saunders drafted based on raw-athleticism. LaVine didn't stand out in analytical draft models, and was merely a backup player during his only season at UCLA. Consequently, the knock on LaVine was, and is both broad and simple; he's an athlete, not a basketball player.

Is Zach Lavine the next Russell Westbrook?

Counting the Baskets scored the Wolves selection a -11 reach from his projected draft selection. Layne Vashro's model projected LaVine as a 34 percent Bust, 38 percent Bench-warmer, 23 percent Starter, and 5 percent Star [18th most likely among the 2014 draft-class]. Hickory-High's similarity scores compared LaVine to Avery Bradley, Eric Bledsoe, and former, Wolves second round draft selection Malcolm Lee.

Zach LaVine and the Age Limit Debate

Nonetheless, it was reported he was the one the Wolves would take if available at the 13th overall selection in the 2014 draft-- that's exactly what Flip Saunders did. As for the aftermath of the draft, Britt Robson, a renowned NBA scribe encapsulated this website's stance after the decision was made to draft LaVine in the first round.

The most concentrated nesting ground for Wolves fans who do their homework by knowing and applying advanced analytics to the collegians and overseas amateurs available on draft night is at the website Canis Hoopus. And, as is normally the case, the consensus there is that the Wolves fared poorly, to the point of near-idiocy, in the draft. The main Canis Hoopus story on LaVine called him the third-best player on his college team and said he "showed little in the way of actual basketball skills" during his year at UCLA.

Robson's story was published on June 27th, 2014.

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The Wolves had a chance to redeem themselves the following day against the Washington Wizards. This time, however, they would be under the command of Ryan Saunders.

The Wolves lost to the Wizards by the score of 59-67.

This contest was much sloppier than the first. Both teams contributed to the woeful scoring output although it wasn't Mitchell (whose Raptors teams often struggled for efficient offense) at the helm for this game, but Ryan Saunders.

Under [Ryan] Saunders, the Timberwolves simply failed to manufacture anything on the offensive end. I asked Matt Janning -- a Watertown, Minnesota native -- what it was like to play under coach [Ryan] Saunders, who, at age 28, is not much older than Janning [26]. "He's trying to get a feel for things," Janning answered "[Ryan] knows what he's talking about and is engaged in the game. He's always communicating, telling guys where to go and what to do, and does an good job of reinforcing what our role is on both ends of the floor."

As a team, the Wolves are collectively absorbing the ins-and-outs of [Flip] Saunders' extensive playbook while growing accustomed to the pace at which the NBA game is played. As for Janning, he often found himself matched up against Otto Porter, and committed three fouls trying slow down the third overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Janning also scored five points [2 of 5 shooting [[1 of 3 on 3ptFG]] and grabbed two rebounds playing in 18 minutes.

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The Timberwolves lost their first three games, after being defeated by the the Chicago Bulls, 107-73, as Doug McDermott continued to shine at LVSL.

The Bulls dismantled the Wolves, as McDermott effortlessly contributed 20 points on 7 of 13 shooting from the field [4 of 7 on 3PT FGA]. Gorgui Dieng, Kyrylo Fesenko, Thomas Robinson III and Shabazz Muhammad started the game aside LaVine, who had undoubtedly become more proactive searching for ways to contribute while he was on the floor.

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When the Timberwolves defeated the Phoenix Suns back in February, during the 2013-2014 NBA season --the night he was set free-- Shabazz Muhammad scored 20 points on 8 of 13 shooting, in addition to collecting six boards.

More importantly, he hustled to make every play necessary-- Shabazz was the x-factor in the victory. It had been the Wolves inability to win tight games, similar to the one played that night in Phoenix, that left the Wolves outside of postseason contention. Perhaps the sliver of Muhammad's potential on display was only the beginning of what would come next. Selected 14th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, the figurative road to success has had its ups-and-downs.

Previously, before his breakout game against the Suns Muhammad had been placed on an assignment to play with the Iowa Energy of the D-League. He played three games with Iowa, who scored at a rate of 133 points per game while averaging a 119.4 offensive rating during that span. Pre-Shabazz, the Energy scored at a rate of 113.2 PPG with an offensive rating of just 104. Muhammad averaged 25 PPG on 57 percent FG shooting in addition to collecting nearly 10 rebounds per game during his assignment to the D-League.

"Last year, I thought I played pretty well," said Muhammad, who averaged 15 points per game through two contests. "Some people said I could've got more minutes, some people said I shouldn't. But it's all about playing hard and being a good teammate and stuff like that, and I think Flip's going to take care of everything else." In the Wolves third game at LVSL Shabazz had been more than merely set-free. He was loose, and there was no way to constrain his effort. Muhammad managed to rifle off 15 shots in 25 minutes on the floor against Chicago.

Heading into his third Summer League game LaVine had made only seven of 23 field goal attempts, but was growing accustomed to the pace of Summer League-- his productivity marginally increased with each game.

He slashed into the painted area with little idea of what would happen next, but LaVine turned chaos into order by getting to the free throw line 10 times against the Wizards. Alexey Shved suffered an ankle injury against the Wizards and it was determined he had played his last game of the trip, henceforth, no longer was LaVine playing aside someone else who spent a good portion of their careers playing point guard.

"What's hard for both those guys is that they're similar in the sense of where they want to be on the floor if they don't have the ball," [David] Adelman explained after the Wolves loss to the Bulls, "They're both used to going and getting the ball in order to save the other four. When you have two of those guys you're spacing can be a little bit different. I don't think that's a selfish thing, it's just a discomfort for both of those guys because they're very similar."

During the last offseason, prior to the Wolves preseason meeting with CSKA Moscow, Rick Adelman mentioned Shved's tendency to shortcut things playing without the ball.

LaVine continued spending time playing off-ball and at point guard, though, with DJ Kennedy operating the offense in Shved's absence. Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune asked David Adelman how the Wolves planned to deploy LaVine during the regular season. "We'd like to have him to do both things, " [David] Adelman answered, "I thought he did a really good job coming off wide-pin downs, and we would swing it to him in the step-up pick-and-rolls. He's gotta be able to do that, as he's gotta learn how to run the team. That's what this Summer League's about. We're trying to see where he's at."

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Gorgui Dieng scored only six points against the Bulls. There are deficiencies that Dieng [24] is trying to address to as he continues trying to find his role in the NBA.

Dieng is still growing accustomed to the physicality at the professional level. Aggressive defenders ensure there isn't space to pivot, or reverse-pivot into position where he can become a viable threat on the offensive end. Defenders executed their plan to disrupt the Wolves' second year center out of Louisville and Dieng was unproductive, and a liability, against the Bulls. He scored only six points, committed five turnovers, five-fouls, and shot only three-of-five from the field throughout 25 minutes of playing time.To his credit, Dieng was efficient through the first two games. He's a proven rebounder from what we remember from the end of the '13-'14.

Through two Summer League games he tallied 18 boards, while effectively manufacturing points by getting to the free throw line. He made 9 of 12 free throw attempts heading into the Wolves meeting with the Bulls.

According to DraftExpress, Dieng, at 6'11'' [6'10'' w/o shoes] possessed a seven-foot, three-and-a-half-inch wingspan and a nine-foot, three-and-a-half-inch standing reach before heading into the 2013 NBA draft-- he is an unorthodox build at 240-ish pounds. Dieng, who is still developing entering his second season at 24 years old, is still in the process of refining skills on both ends of the floor resulting in unconventional sequences during games-- this is especially true when playing in exhibition contests.

Here are a few observations.

Upside

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Above: Bernard James plays the role of over-eager defender-- this play takes place during the opening quarter of the game. Here, Dieng, who is being guarded by James, is on the left-wing being defended tightly around 18' away from the basket. After a pump fake, James commits an unnecessary foul while Dieng continues to the basket --through the contact-- and scores two points [Dieng went to the line but missed the ensuing free throw attempt]. This move is an instructed counter-attack at any defender playing his marker tightly.

Below, [Against the Wizards] Dieng connects on a set-jump shot on the opposite side of the floor.
He is a few feet closer compared to the example above, but both possessions take place near the elbow.

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Above: Daniel Miller [an undrafted rookie out of Georgia Tech University] steps away after Lavine executes his entry pass into Dieng. Here Dieng jab-steps into Miller and creates space to attempt a set-shot, which falls through the basket. The result is an exciting projection of his developing ability, although the effectiveness and rate of which Dieng attempted similar shots last season was limited.

Dieng attempted 21 field goals from between 16'-24' away from the basket during the '13-'14 season-- eight attempts were successful. Of his 286 points scored last season Dieng scored just under six percent of them in such midrange opportunities, mostly from the baseline and near the free throw line and ineffectively from the elbows. Dieng is still a project and he will benefit from Nikola Pekovic next season, assuming all parties are healthy, but that's getting pretty far ahead of ourselves. He can do things to alter shots on the defensive end, control the glass and is figuring out how to operate his long-limbs in ways to score the basketball at this level-- there is hope for Dieng to someday become a quality NBA player.

Quick hitting take: Would love to see him run the floor in transition more and/or learn how to throw longer-outlet passes after rebounds.

The baby-hook, a subtle turn and fade away move Dieng uses to separate himself from a defender when trying to score in the lane keeps defenses honest because, in the past, it has been executed at a high percentage. The shot-chart --courtesy of Nylon Calculous-- above reflects Dieng's field goal percentage ranked above the league average in areas where he oft attempts this baby-hook [pictured below].

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Here James does well fighting to make his mark perform an athletic hook shot, but doesn't get his hands up to contest the attempt and Dieng scores two points.

The Littlest of Things

It takes hours of vigorous, repetitive practice and countless repetitions for players of Dieng's stature to instinctively keep the ball above their head when receiving a pass while rolling firmly toward the hoop. Keeping the ball up, using his aforementioned wingspan prevents defenders from managing to achieve a deflection and/or steal and preventing Dieng from scoring in the area around the rim.

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Above: Dieng instinctively tucks the ball away from the defenders before hoping to finish this play with an emphatic dunk. He's done well, here, but the ball needn't ever be parallel to Dieng's waste. Perhaps if he had kept the ball marginally higher --near his chest, or above his head-- Dieng would have slammed the ball through instead of only having a chance of completing two free throws after executing a graceful roll and handling the pass from Janning. His efforts on this possession should have earned the Wolves three points.

Below: Another positive display of nimble feet after setting a screen as Dieng catches the pass from Lavine en route to the basket. A foul is called on this play, but his quicker, more-agile pair of hands maintains possession completely until Dieng was fouled, causing him to miss a running shot in the lane and being denied the opportunity to complete a three point play.

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The presence of Kyrylo Fesenko [pictured above], who is somewhat of a cult favorite to NBA fans after spending time with the Utah Jazz, slid Dieng into the starting power forward slot in the Wolves next game against the Phoenix Suns. Dieng is still learning which places to fill into on the floor after setting the screen in pick and roll situations, unlike Fesenko, who [David] Adelman describes as 'seasoned' playing in such circumstances. "When he [Fesenko] sets pick and rolls, he rolls to the right area-- he doesn't just roll."

Starting Fesenko at center allows the Wolves to play a high-low game. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have been doing with the Memphis Grizzlies over the previous few years. Dieng's passing from the wings makes running such an offense possible.

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After losing to the Bulls [David] Adelman explained that LaVine seemed prone to passing the ball off to Fesenko while attempting to run pick-and-rolls. "It looked like he [LaVine] seemed a little 'pass-happy' running pick-&-rolls," I asked him, "would you like to see him elevate and attempt the midrange jumper a little more?"

"Absolutly," [David] Adelman replied' "And you look that as a positive and a negative. It shows you what type of kid he is, he's really trying to show that he can play both spots and facilitate a lil bit. But he's so naturally talented, he almost just needs to go out and take what's his. He's been so unselfish, and we [as coaching staff] understand that. He's just trying to do the right thing for his team. That's what makes him special."

At the time of the first media timeout during the Wolves meeting with the Phoenix Suns, Minnesota trailed 8-12. LaVine had scored four-points after connecting on two, long-midrange jump shots attempted from only a few feet in front of the three point line and the elevation on his jumper was always outside the reach of a contesting hand. Moreover, Fesenko was still given plenty of opportunities to score-- just as he had against the Bulls [scoring 13 points on five of five FG shooting in only 15 minutes of playing time].

"Fes and Gorgui are definitely are big targets," LaVine answered when I asked him how much fun it is playing with Dieng and Fesenko in pick-and-roll situations," They set good screens, roll really well, roll to the right spot-- they know what they're doin'."

The Wolves would get their first win of the tournament against the Suns, 87-77.

The victory was representative of each individual's Summer League performance. LaVine scored 20 points, mostly from field, and shot four of four from the foul line. Shabazz tallied 14, mostly thanks to taking trips to the foul line [connecting on eight of nine FT attempts], but struggled from the field [four of 12 on FGA]. Fesenko steadily, and efficiently, scored 17 points [converting seven of nine FGA], while manufactured 13 points in addition to collecting 19 rebounds [13 defensive, six offensive].

LaVine also continued leaving signs of his athleticism for all to see, much like he did moments after the Wolves tipped things off playing in Las Vegas.

The bench, which has also been one of the Wolves' struggles on the NBA's main stage contributed very little-- this was a theme throughout the exhibition. Against the Suns, Janning, Dennis Horner, and Glenn Robinson III combined to score only 15 points.

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Not being productive, unfortunately, was also a trend for Robinson III [or, GR3] who the Wolves selected in the second round of the draft earlier this summer. Robinson -- whose father was an NBA player-- played 22 MPG at LVSL and averaged only seven points during those outings. Robinson III gravitated to the areas where he's most comfortable. Playing within himself and being careful not to make mistakes seemed to be the objective, as Shabazz ate up most of the minutes playing small forward [GR3's likely NBA role]. The most impressive portion of his game, as expected, was the sureness in which Robinson III got to his spots and certainty upon deciding to elevate toward the rim to finish plays with dunks. See, below.

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As of today, GR3 remains unsigned although there's a strong feeling that the Timberwolves got him at a bargain selection of the draft. Yesterday, the Wolves inked Robbie Hummel to a new contract [Hummel was cut on the day free agency began] which means there is only one vacant slot remaining on the 15-man roster. Img_6744_medium --

The savvy Sacramento Kings defeated the Wolves en route to becoming champions of the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League, 100-84.

It was the end of tournament-title hopes for Minnesota, and it was O.K., because Flip Saunders believes that the exhibition that hosts rookies and other players who are hungry to break into the NBA is about development. This was a trip for the organization to improve as an entity on the basketball court, from the players to the coaches-- everyone went to Las Vegas trying to get better.

[Ryan] Saunders explained to me that he has grown up with coaching, when I asked him if his comfort level improved throughout the trip. "I felt comfortable Getting a chance to call plays throughout the game [as the week went on], but, like anything, I feel with more experience I could eventually become more comfortable [as a coach]"

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"In the first game, I had a little 'jitters'," LaVine said after losing to Sacramento, "but other than that I felt really, really comfortable. I wasn't nervous, I felt really good." He continued later; "It wasn't so much the speed [of the game] I felt I had to adapt to, I felt pretty accustomed to the speed, but the defense; the different rotations, and just being in the right spots [was the biggest adjustment]." "Flip talked to me after the game, giving me a few pointers, telling me some things I did well and mentioning a few things about the offense and defense. You know, coach things." After this sentiment, a reporter asked LaVine how comfortable he was playing point guard [this seemed to be the question on everyone's mind]. "I'm very comfortable [playing PG]," LaVine responded;

"I've been playing point guard my whole life, I only didn't play it last year. I feel comfortable with the ball, in and out of my hand. Whatever coach needs me to do, I'll do it; I'm a player."

As it was decided by CanisHoopus in the days following draft night; Zach LaVine, is, indeed, a basketball player. Although, according to someone on this website, he "showed little in the way of actual basketball skills" during his time at UCLA,  it seems, even to the most objective critics, LaVine's presented enough reasons to believe he is capable of becoming something greater-- perhaps it's what Flip and the Timberwolves has seen in LaVine, all along.

-zb

[All pictures not taken by Jeremy Rincon are from the SB Nation photo database]