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Back to School: A Timberwolves Season Preview

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Hi folks, by now all of the kiddos should finally be back to school which makes this the perfect opportunity for me to write a generic preview of the upcoming Minnesota Timberwolves season and pretend that it's back to school related. It's kind of like when hardware stores and furniture stores have "Back to School" sales despite the fact that their businesses have nothing to do with kids going back to school.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Let's start this off with a nice back to school song.

Ok, now that we have gotten all of the back to school nonsense out of the way, while also including just enough to justify the title of this article, let's move into some of the things that I am excited about for this upcoming Timberwolves season.

Ricky Rubio

Any excitement about the 2015/16 Minnesota Timberwolves season starts with Ricky Rubio. This oddly polarizing player is the team's best player until proven otherwise and, from a purely entertainment value perspective, he has few peers in the entire league. Last season's epic ankle injury was an unfortunate set back for Ricky the player, as well as devastating nightmare fuel for those of us with ankle injury phobia, but perhaps the most distressing thing about it was the it added to the growing belief among some fans that Ricky deserves the dreaded "injury prone" tag. Nonsense. Ricky has had separate unfortunately injuries from which he has recovered due to hard work and general awesomeness. Lost in the "injury prone" narrative is the fact that he played in all 82 games over the course of the 2013/14 season, a season which, you will recall, came after the knee injury he suffered at the hands of Darth Kobe. I for one am expecting a full season of healthy and fun Ricky Rubio this time around and there is no reason for anyone to expect otherwise. Now, if we could just kill these pesky trade rumors that keep popping up on the twitters.

Old Man Line Up

Like many others I have some trepidation around the mentoring issue. My angle isn't about the value of mentoring as much as being uncomfortable with the assumption that a given old player will be the right mentor for a given young player. The mentor/mentee relationship is just that- a relationship, and anyone who has ever met more than three other people knows that meaningful relationships cannot be forced. Anyway, now that I have said my piece on this digressive and divisive topic I would like to not talk about it. What I would like to talk about is how cool it will be to have Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince all playing together at the same time. Now, I realize that this would have been better 10 years ago and I also don't expect that it is a line up we will see often. Perhaps we won't even see it at all but if Flip Saunders is any fun at all he will employ the "old man" line up on occasion just for the hell of it.

Young Man Line Up

The Timberwolves have the unique opportunity this season to run out four players who, at least at the time of this writing (and according to the ESPN team roster page) will be 20 years old or younger. Rookies Tyus Jones and Karl-Anthony Towns along with sophomores Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine are young for any profession and the smart bet is that we will not see the four of them share the court very often. Still, as with the "old man" line up discussed above, the "young man" line up will be a fun experiment that I truly hope Flip will give some run. Of these four guys Towns and Wiggins are not only the best basketball players but also the best match so I'm assuming we will see plenty of these two on the court together. As for Lavine and Jones all bets are off. They could be competing for the same third PG minutes and, frankly, we might not see much of Jones at all. Regardless, lets cross our collective fingers that the coach lets us fans enjoy some of the good old fashioned cringeworthy fun that these four playing together will undoubtedly provide.

Towns and Pek at the Center position

Although, as with Christmas, the concept of positionality in basketball is under attack these days, it seems that for now the center position remains important. There are several reasons that the "five" is so mystical and primary among them is how difficult it can be for teams to field 48 minutes of competent play in this spot. This season the Minnesota Timberwolves have a chance at having two players not only combine for whole games worth of competent play from the center position but to do this with very different styles which will hopefully allow for maximum versatility and fun. I'm talking, of course about Nikola Pekovic and Karl-Anthony Towns, although it occurs to me as I type this that I should probably include Kevin Garnett in this conversation as he will also play some competent minutes at center this season.

Some of this obviously depends on Pek's health and I'll admit it's risky to count on much from him after the disappointing season he posted last year. Still, healthy Pek is a hell of basketball player and his bruising offensive punch could provide a beautiful contrast to the "three and D" * look we could get from Towns. As an added bonus, both players have shown some ability to pass out of the post which may allow the Wolves to run similar plays around them despite their differing styles. I may be counting on too much here considering Pek has really struggled to stay healthy and Towns will be in his rookie season, but I can't help myself. Center could potentially be a serious position of strength for the Timberwolves this year and I for one am really looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

*I realize I am taking serious liberty with this term as it is generally reserved for wing players but Towns has shown some shooting range and I know I'm not the only one hoping he will be the best rim protecting big man to play for the Wolves since prime Garnett.

Is Shabazz Muhammad for real?

Last year Shabazz Muhammad saw an across the board increase in his effectiveness on the basketball court relative to his subdued rookie season. His TS% reached a nice .556, his 3P% increased a full point to a very respectable .392, and his WS/48 doubled to .110 while at the same time he seemingly discovered the ability to destroy defenders in transition. This is all very exciting right? Right? Well, maybe. The problem is that last year was a weird year for the team overall and just when it seemed that we would find out definitively what Muhammad was capable of his season was cut short by a string of seemingly random and unrelated injuries. If what we saw from Muhammad before the All-Star break was even sort of representative of the kind of player he can be he should be able to electrify the team with needed energy from the bench for many years to come. I know some will envision him developing into a starter but for me his unique mixture of strength and frenzied play makes him more suited to a bench role, although I'll be the first to admit that if he continues to stretch the floor with respectable three point shooting it will be difficult to keep him on the bench for long. This season is Shabazz Muhammad's third in the NBA so by the time All-Star Weekend rolls around again this February it should be pretty clear what kind of player he is going to be and this is a question I'm excited to have answered.

Andrew Wiggins development

Last season Andrew Wiggins was the NBA's rookie of the year, an honor he definitely deserved, although he may have been helped by a season ending injury to Milwaukee's Jabari Parker. Nonetheless, Wiggins had a rookie year in which he displayed both the struggles typical of any young player and the legit promise of a number one overall pick. In the end I feel confident in saying he will have a career that grades out historically somewhere between James Posey and LeBron James.

There is no doubt that Andrew Wiggins has the physical ability to be a super star in the NBA. He is not unique in this regard but it is at least worth mentioning. He showed flashes of the defensive ability that could propel him forward as a player but he will need to get more consistent in that regard. Other skills that Wiggins could develop in order to reach the full "super duper all star" status that Wolves fans are so desperate to see include a consistent three point shot, triple threat play making ability, and improved ball handling skills. By all accounts Wiggins is a good guy with a strong work ethic and a desire to get better. There is every reason to believe that he will improve upon his rookie year so at this point we fans are just left wondering exactly how far he can go and how quickly he will get there. Imagining a version of Wiggins with a consistent jump shot, competent handles, interested defense, and keen court awareness is the kind of thing that allows the dreamer in me to become vulnerable to disappointment, but for now I'm just excited to see what his sophomore season will bring.

Shooting Guard Zach Lavine

Zach Lavine exceeded my expectations last season both in terms of effectiveness and fun. That said, he still was in the negative numbers for WS/48 and had an ET% (eye test percentage)* of .350 in the category of blatant lack of situational awareness on the baskrtball court. I'm a pretty forgiving fan in general but I do hope to never see another pull up three early in the shot clock. There is, however, one major reason for unfettered optimism around Zach Lavine this season about which I am especially happy: he will spend the majority of his minutes at the shooting guard position. At least he should.

The addition of Andre Miller and Tyus Jones, along with the hope of a healthy Ricky Rubio, should ensure that there are very few, if any, point guard minutes for Zach Lavine this season. Lavine did manage a TS% above .500 in his rookie campaign, and the ET% tells us that he is reasonably effective at shooting the ball when he is assisted coming  off screens (although this one may benefit from the hazy memory/wishful thinking percentage or HMWT%). Zach's ability to jump will always assure that he is a favorite amongst a certain segment of fans but this season I am hopeful that more time spent on the court without the ball in his hands will allow his appeal to spread to curmudgeonly fans like myself that value other skills as high or ever higher than the all mighty slam dunk. We're rooting for you to take that step Zach but be sure to dunk it sometimes just to be safe.

*May not be an actual statistic. In fact, it may have been made up on the spot by the writer.


Nemanja Bjelica

As I'm writing this EuroBasket is in full swing and Bjelica's performance has Timberwolves fans everywhere frothing at the mouth with frenzied excitement. If you have somehow missed all of this you can read about him in this SB Nation article. As a veteran player coming off an MVP caliber season in his European league Bjelica should excite any fan and, as such, I am excited. I am reminded, however, of the similar excitement I felt just a few years ago when the Timberwolves signed a promising Russian player by the name of Alexey Shved. Now, in no way am I comparing these two as players so please don't point out their very different sizes or skill profiles. I get that they are very different players in very different circumstances. What is the same is the intrigue of an unknown European player with promising attributes and recent highlights playing high profile basketball. It seemed possible then that the Wolves had found a diamond in the rough with Shved just as it seems possible they have done so now with Bjelica. I'm excited to see what he can do in the NBA, and you should be too, I'm just reminding myself to temper that excitement against past experiences.

New Uniforms

Bringing this thing around again to the pretend subject of "back to school" I'm going to end on a brief discussion of uniforms. Everyone knows that part of the back to school preparation process often includes acquiring new clothing. For myself this meant an annual trip to the torture chamber known as Donald's Uniform where I could be sized up and assessed for some new blue corduroys and red polo shirts. The result was a disgusting level of repetition of style from year to year and, unfortunately, the Timberwolves uniform sitiation hasn't been much better. If this team is going to rebrand itself by taking the step from middle school to high school it's time for some sharp new back to school clothing that speaks to the individuality and futuristic leaning attributes of the modern team. Something with both an eye on the future and an appreciation for the past would be good. New color patterns, perhaps with an emphasis on the often hidden green, and a smart use of the original logo, would be perfect. Come on Glen, open the checkbook and buy the team a new outfit or two.

Anyway, these are some of the reasons I'm excited for the season to start. List your own or disagree with mine in the comments below. Here's a pop song I hope you will enjoy.