The NBA is finally back and #musclewatch season is upon us. Yesterday marked the beginning of a new year and the start of something fresh in Minneapolis for an organization looking to make noise across the Association with new leadership and foundational young talent.
Yes, that’s right, it was Media Day for your Minnesota Timberwolves. You might be thinking: why is Kris Dunn throwing out the first pitch at the Twins game the main photo? Because it’s Media Day homey. That’s literally the most recent image that comes up in our system. Now that I’ve explained that, let’s move forward.
Tony Porter—though I always feel the urge to call him Terry Porter—and I made our way down to beautiful Mayo Square Clinic to take in all of the opening day festivities. As an aside, the parking situation downtown was a serious mess, but thankfully we still made it in time after finding an overpriced ramp for $16. How can ramp A, B, and C all be closed at noon on a Monday? But that’s for another column.
The Wolves’ new president of basketball operations and head coach, Tom Thibodeau, joined general manager Scott Layden on the podium in front of assembled media to start the day’s slate of interviews. Each player then followed the New Wolves Order one by one for about 5-10 minutes, give or take.
Thibodeau started the day with a brief statement about Kevin Garnett, the unquestionable face of the Wolves franchise over the course of their existence, and his immense impact on the league. “The best type of leadership you can have is what a player does each and every day,” Thibs said after speaking about the way KG always practiced, talked to the young players, and his contributions to the game.
“His actions spoke volumes,” Thibs said. Ultimately what really stood out was his passion and intelligence, he concluded. “I think the mark of greatness is to do it over a long period of time and he certainly did that,” Thibs said. Layden added that as an NBA fan he’s always enjoyed being in the arena when KG was playing and appreciated what he represented. “You could always feel the emotion and the intensity,” said Layden.
Takeaways from Thibs and Layden
- Thibs’ go-to buzz phrase throughout his availability was: “close the gap.” Closing the gap, of course, is becoming a playoff team instead of perennial lottery partaker. It was obvious from his comments that the two biggest areas the Wolves have to shore up are 3-point shooting and defense. That should come as no surprise to most, but also doesn’t make it any less true.
- Thibs really likes the Wolves ability to get to the free throw line and sees that as a key advantage. The team ranked second in the NBA in free throw rate last season at .332.
- Positives Thibs saw from watching tape on last season: the way Towns, Rubio, LaVine, and Dieng played post All-Star break. Likes the versatility of the team and how guys can play multiple positions. They can go small, or they can play big, or they can even play two point guards together if the matchups make sense (i.e Rubio and Dunn).
- Negatives: there was no consistency on the defensive end (this is a fact). DEFENSE. DEFENSE. DEFENSE. Thibs and plenty of the players talked about the importance of defense and how vital it is to achieving their goal of ending the playoff drought.
- Teams can never have enough shooting in today’s NBA and they still need to improve in this area. This is likely why Rasual Butler was added to the training camp roster.
- Noah Croom—hired as the Assistant GM to Layden—has tons of experience in the league, as a front office guy and NBA agent, and Layden believes his ability to negotiate trades and contracts will benefit the front office immensely.
- Thibs is happy with what the second unit is going to look like and the offseason, though it lacked any major moves outside of adding Kris Dunn, was a success in their eyes. Every Wolves fan: well that sure is a relief because the bench has been a hot mess for way too long!
Before AP Sports Guy (the great Jon Krawczynski) could even finish his question about KG’s retirement...
“Right to the point, I love it, let’s get straight to the point,” as KAT playfully hits the podium.
Can you reflect on what KG meant to you this last year and a half and your thoughts on his retirement?
“It was a lot of emotion, you know. He’s very passionate, he’s an emotional guy. I think that’s why me and him bonded so well because we were both so emotional in the way we play. The passion and intensity we played with is something that bonded us since day one. We talked, we had great conversations, it’s one of those things where I’ve always told him, even when the season would come to an end, that he could leave on his own terms and no matter what I wanted to be his little brother. I always told him whatever he decides, people will always be for it. No matter what life throws at him, if he decides to come back or not, I’ve always had his back and will always have his back, no matter what happens.”
As important as he was for you guys, is this team ready to take the next step and go out on your own now?
“Yeah, I feel that not only myself can fill that void but we all as a team can do it. We all decide to pick up the slack, pick up what he’s left here for us—the intensity, the passion, the communication, the skills he has, we need to pick that up as a unit. And I’ve already talked to everybody and we have had good conversations on what we need to do.”
On the current protests in sports:
“The greatest thing about being an American is the freedom of speech, and people are using their freedom of speech. I think that they want to make their voices heard and that’s what they are doing. But me, the way I make my voice heard is I live life the best way I can, try to be the best role model I can, so I can make sure I help anyone out.”
On the 12 year playoff drought:
“It bothers me, it truly bothers me. It’s something that I don’t want to hear anymore. I’m tired of hearing about the drought, playoffs and everything. That’s something that annoys me and bothers me. So, what I can do to control that is come in every day, work tremendously hard willing to do everything I possibly can to help my teammates, help us be the winning team we see ourselves being. We had such a great offseason together as a unit that I feel we have made leaps and bounds from where we were last year. Now it’s up to us to go out there and show the world what we have put in this summer, show the world how much better we’ve gotten, how much more disciplined we are and that’s up to us.”
Next steps after such a successful rookie season that earned him rookie of the year honors?
“Playoffs. I mean, individual success has never meant anything to me. I have never been the guy to look at my stats and feel that I’ve done well. This is a team sport. This is not based on one player. Michael Jordan does not win the championships without the team that he had. Everyone contributes, it doesn’t matter what one person is able to do. I don’t even come close to that without my teammates. They are the driving force behind me. I was just blessed enough to be the rookie that year and to find a lot of basketballs coming my way.”
How to get better as a team defensively?
“Be more disciplined. If you want to be a playoff team, you need to be more disciplined.”
KAT went on to say that’s what they had at Kentucky (38-1, remember?) and reiterated his leaps and bounds comment about the team getting better.
Britt Robson commented that some of his rotations on defense were suspect and asked if KAT meant more discipline included defensive decision making:
“Everything, it comes from everything. Making the right reads, stay disciplined to the defense all 24 seconds of the shot clock. Don’t try to make a miraculous play defensively—just stick to the game plan. I’m glad you brought that up, I’m not scared to say anything that I need to work on. I felt that I have worked on a lot more aspects of my defensive approach.”
Towns goes on...
“It starts with me, you can’t tell anyone to do anything without starting it yourself first. So I started early this summer, trying to become the best defensive player I can possibly be. Watching a lot of film. I’m fortunate enough to have a lot of relationships I didn’t have before, talking to the legends and greats of the game.”
On the new coaching staff and schematic differences:
“There are some differences. First of all, you need to tip your hat to Sam Mitchell and the staff last year just for them building us up and taking us from where we started last year to the end of last year, that’s a testament to their coaching ability.”
“Obviously we have one of the best coaches in the world in Tom Thibodeau and one of the best GMs in the world in Scott Layden. All of the assistant coaches as well are top class, first class coaches. We have been #blessed with great coaches but they have the experience to take us to the next level.”
(Yes, we #added #the #hashtag)
Is it hard to be patient when the team is on the cusp of something great?
“No, I have been patient my whole life. This is the moment that I’ve been waiting for. This is the exact moment, the exact team. I feel very comfortable going into this year, more than any other year in my career ... success is imminent.”
If he expects to expand his game out to the arc more this year:
“I think it’s going to be more evident but it’s not something I am banking my money on. I understand where I can help the team the most, and using every single aspect of my game. Obviously it’s a tool I have, if left open I can shoot, even if it’s contested lightly. But it’s something that I’m not looking to be only a 3-point shooter, my game has been about versatility. That’s what I still plan to be.”
Quick reaction: Towns seemed extremely focused and knows exactly what he needs to do to take this team to the next level. Only a few other players were asked about Towns’ improvement over the offseason but given their promising responses, we’re all in for a treat this season.
Let’s discuss Bazzy Buckets’ most notable quote first, because it’s an excellent point that many of the other young players agreed with throughout their availabilities.
Shabazz Muhammad: "The young thing is getting kind of old for us. It's time to start winning some games."— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) September 26, 2016
Every fan feels the same way. The time to start winning games and become a legitimate franchise is now. Youth can no longer be THE excuse.
On playing with KG and how much that helped:
“It was a great learning experience. Sometimes after practice we would just stay there for an hour and a half just hearing what KG had to say, trying to absorb everything he had to say and I know if he were here today he would tell us he would expect a lot from us. He was like another coach to us and something we always took from him was playing hard every possession, and that’s something we need to do this year to meet our expectations.”
Do you feel that the younger guys can take the next step now even in his absence?
“Definitely, definitely, we are starting to see it. It was kind of crazy when KG retired but I said it’s time for us to step up. It’s time for us to start winning some games and that’s the same thing KG would say. The young thing is getting kind of old for us.”
Can you be the X-Factor as a scorer coming off the bench this year?
“Definitely, that was what coach was telling me. I think I could do a little bit of everything—and we talked about the defensive thing earlier—rebounding, being able to play multiple positions and scoring the ball. That’s something I’ve been really keeping in mind and [we’ll] see how far we’re going to get.”
Award alert: The most agreeable player award DEFINITELY goes to Shabazz. My “definitely” counter broke right after hitting triple digits, but it feels nice to be right and Muhammad is always one to confirm the reporter’s question, leaving all of us feel warm inside.
Gorgui “G” Dieng
Heading into year four— it’s the last year of your rookie contract—is there something you want to showcase this season that we haven’t seen yet in your game, or something to expand on and do better?
“I think, uh, I’m not here to brag but everybody has seen I’m getting better every year. I’m going to keep working at it and keep working harder and like I said, if I do everything right, the rest will take care of itself. I don’t have to be sitting here and tell you I’m gonna do this, I’m going to do that. If I do everything right, you’re going to see and everybody is going to see that I’m going the right way. I will be on time and do my work. I’m going to come to practice, going to learn, and everything will take care of itself.”
Quick #musclewatch alert: Dieng said he’s up to 260 pounds, though he played last year at 235. He feels fine running the floor right now and expects his weight to drop back down during the season. G was noticeably bigger so we will have to keep an eye on how this affects his game, if it all, during the pre-season.
On how he got to Minneapolis:
“I got a couple calls from Coach Thibs and he gave me the plan of what they wanted to do with this team, this year and next year. I always heard great stories about Thibs and how good of a coach he is and how players love him.”
If he can bring 3-point shooting to the team:
“I think I can bring that right away. Practicing and working out I’ve been shooting a mess out the ball. I’ve been putting on a good display for them.”
Did you consider how it would feel going from GSW to a team missing the playoffs for 12 years?
“It took a couple of days to make a decision on where I wanted to go because I had the opportunity to go back to Golden State. I see this team as a greater opportunity to get a little bit more minutes, now that they got Kevin Durant down there.”
(Yes, there was a giant smirk out of Rush after the KD comment)
In terms of playing the 2, 3, or 4 spots?
“My preference is playing at the three, now, at this stage in my career. And now, everybody is playing small, so the four position could fit pretty well with some of these lineups of some teams.”
If he knew any of the guys coming into this situation:
“I’m just getting to know a few of them. Especially Kris, Kris is going to be my guy. I like Kris a lot, he’s tough, he’s talented, he’s a hard worker. I really look up to Kris in what he’s doing right now as a rookie.”
(We think this says a lot about Dunn, that a 31 year old veteran wing looks up to him)
What intangibles can he bring from GSW:
“The small things we did off the court. We go out to eat all the time on the road. We’d do stuff, non-basketball related, all the time at Golden State and that’s how we built that chemistry we had.”
AP Sports Guy asked if he feels like he has a leadership role coming to this team as a veteran:
“Actually, that’s not my personality trying to be that type of guy. But I will be trying to lead by example, doing the right things, getting in on time, making sure everybody’s in the weight room, everybody’s not late to the plane, making sure guys are sleeping, getting their rest, and getting ready to play these games.”
Robson asked if Rush was cool after his bad injury 1.5 years ago:
“Everything is fine now. I had a pretty bad injury a couple years ago. It took me a while to get back and get comfortable playing basketball again. Last year, it helped out getting a lot of playing time when Harrison went out and I stepped up and played pretty well and now I’m here, so it worked out pretty well.”
Rush adds, “It was really difficult, I was out ten months right out of the gate. Then it took me a year and a half just to find confidence to play—playing the type of basketball I’ve been playing my whole life.”
Kevin Lynch asked about the star players in Golden State and their willingness to step back certain nights, and if he’ll bring that here with our young stars:
“I think it’s very important for the guys to know they need their supporting cast to be those type of star players, to help win games when things aren’t going right for them. With Golden State we had that, we had that chemistry, whenever it was a guys night, they let him go, and that played out pretty well for us. I am trying to bring that [part of the] game over here.”
How hard was it to leave?
“Oh, it was hard. I get people beating my head about it still. Why’d you leave? Why’d you leave? But they don’t understand the basketball stuff that I don’t really want to get into. I think it was a better situation here.”
Quick takeaway: Rush was extremely candid and it was refreshing to hear him answer questions as sincerely as he did.
Why he chose the Wolves:
“Just looking at the roster man. We have depth, very good talent, very young guys that are progressing every day. If we can band together, listen, learn from each other, maybe we can make some noise.”
On the cold weather and how that factored in to his decision:
“I was drafted by New York, cold weather. I played in Indiana last year, cold weather. The weather doesn’t bother me. I’m here to play ball, not go outside and make snow angels.”
Judges ruling: This was arguably the best quote of the day. Congratulations for having a sense of humor, Mr. Hill.
Jordan Hill snow angels per 36 minutes outside: 0— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) September 26, 2016
Is Cole Aldrich (Minnesotan/#OneOfUs) sad that he missed out on playing with KG?
“A little sad, but I think that sadness really goes into excitement.” He went on to reminisce about KG’s body of work and watching him from a young age growing up in Minnesota and said he’s excited to see what he does next in life.
First impressions of KAT?
“Yeah, I had to guard him a few times last year, [smirks] this summer he has gotten better. He’s a heck of player, he’s got that talent to be KG-esque. He’s talented, he can score multiple ways, whether it’s in the post, jump shooting, getting you to the line. He kind of does it all.”
Cole Aldrich says he & some of the vets, including Jordan Hill & Brandon Rush, are trying to put together a plan for Dunn's rookie treatment— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) September 26, 2016
First impression of Aldrich: He’s going to be really good with the media. Cole was friendly and open and honest during his availability. That fresh new contract with his hometown team probably doesn’t hurt.
Sid Hartman started out by asking Rubio if he still wanted to be traded:
“No [laughs uncomfortably]. You haven’t changed, huh?”
Rubio asked him how he’s doing. Sid Hartman repeats himself “You still want to get traded?”
[Things are getting more uncomfortable] “I didn’t say I want to get traded.”
Sid then says there was an article saying, “you wanted to play with a winner.”
“I want to play with a winner, but I think we have the right mentality. It’s changing [here].” This was an awkward, uneasy exchange as everyone wondered why you would say that before Rubio can even sit down, but Sid...
Sid continued his grilling later by asking, “How come you couldn’t convince Gasol to come here?”
[laughing] “I tried, and I tried hard, [bought him] dinner. He was looking for a different thing, and it was a shame he couldn’t come here because he really is one of the best in the game. He would have helped us a lot to get where we want to be.”
Kris said you have helped him a lot these past few weeks, what’s your relationship like with him?
“I want to try to share my experience like I did last year with Tyus—see what I see on the floor and try to explain it. I know that coming into the league as a rookie it’s not easy, especially at point guard. Every night you have a tough matchup. It’s tough—physically and mentally—so you just have to be ready, knowing there will be ups and downs, but you need to stay focused and know what you want.”
Did you take the team drafting a PG in the first round as some sort of message?
“No, whatever it takes the team to get better. I think we had a great opportunity to take Dunn number five. I think he was the best option. I think sometimes we can play together—of course I love being competitive—and it’s going to raise the level of practice.” Rubio compared the situation to playing on his national team and mentioned the practices were tougher than games because of the level of competition.
As the longest tenured Wolves player, do you feel the pressure to be the leader of this team more so than ever before?
“I’ve been here long enough, and we need to really step up. You can’t just have one leader in the locker room, we have to do it as a team. But yeah I can bring my experience to share what happened these past years here in this franchise. I hope people are excited for us but we have to give them a reason, and that’s playing hard out there every night and winning games.”
Rubio also said this: "Talent wise, this is the best I've ever been around."
How long will it take to get on the same page as your teammates?
“On the court it will take a couple of weeks. If we play with each other every day it will go fast, but as a person, everyone is different. Some people like to open up to people quicker than others and everything is a process.”
Kris was asked on four separate occasions, each question more pointed than the last, on which guard position he prefers. Here’s one of four non-committal answers:
“I think I could do both. I don’t really have a solidified position, like a one or a two, so I see myself as a combo guard.” His other answers included: doing what the coaches want him to do and that each guard has the ability to play both spots. It was fairly clear that Dunn isn’t in the business of starting point guard controversies before training camp.
Dunn refused to pick a preference when asked four separate times if he is a PG or an SG. Always said he was a combo guard.— Tony Porter (@porterzingis) September 26, 2016
What have you done this summer to prepare?
“Just coming in every day, willing to learn on the floor, learn the game as much as I can. Trying to watch a lot of film. Ricky has been in the league for a good amount [of years] so we look at him as a veteran, and I think he’s a good point guard. Trying to learn as much as I can from him and Zach, you know he’s only been in the league a couple of years but he’s been through it. Trying to absorb as much knowledge as I can.”
What is working with Ricky like?
“Been good. He’s a great person off the floor, I think that’s the biggest thing. He’s easy to work with, he’s willing to help me out when I make mistakes. He’s trying to teach me the game and just competing.”
When asked to elaborate on the competition at the point guard spot:
“That’s basketball. You’ve been doing it since you were little. If you’re going against your teammates, there’s no hard feelings about competing. You gotta understand you’re trying to make yourself better but at the same time we’re doing it to make the team better.”
On his fellow rookies voting for him in several categories of the rookie survey:
“I know a lot of those guys and I appreciate their thoughts. I think the best one is being the funniest. I think that’s the best one. I always try to tell people I was the funniest one at that camp.” He went on to say anyone could win rookie of the year and it was a great moment from a humble guy (other than when it comes to his sense of humor).
Does he think he’s already an NBA-level defender?
“Right now I definitely can’t answer that question until the games start, until I can go against all the great players out there. I feel like I have what it takes to hold my own. I could hold my own but in order to be an elite defender or a good defender, you’ve got to learn the game and learn peoples tendencies, so I’m just trying to get better every day.”
Is there any other established guard in the league that you can compare yourself to?
“Similar? Probably the easiest one to compare to is John Wall because he’s 6’4”, long arms, fast. When he was coming into the league, he couldn’t really shoot the ball and throughout his years he improved, solidified himself as a good defender. I’m not saying I’m John Wall now. I’m just saying that’s the easiest comparison. That’s what I’ve been hearing through my four years [of college].”
First impressions of Minnesota?
“Been out here for a couple weeks, definitely love it right now. Haven’t been through the winter everybody is talking about, but right now it’s amazing. The people around Minnesota are very friendly. Where I’m from, if people know who you are they want to take your pictures, but Minnesota they just want to greet you and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Question by Kent Youngblood posed to LaVine: Coach is saying he doesn’t know yet if he sees you as a scorer coming of the bench or as a member of the starting five. How do you view what your role should be and are you open to either case?
“At the end of the day, it’s coaches decision. I work my butt off to become a superstar. I worked by butt off in the offseason to become a starter in this league, so that’s what I work for.”
On KG’s influence and what he learned from him:
“He was like a big brother to all of us, so cool, the best teammate I’ve ever had. He had so much experience. ... The main thing I took away from him is just go hard every day. You get what you put it in. Even at his age, he was in the gym before a lot of us and we all showed up quick enough—and I’ve always thought we have a good work ethic but seeing his work ethic at his age as well and his stage where he didn’t have to do that—he’s already a future Hall of Famer, so it was eye-opening.”
How much of your second half improvement was a result of not having to worry about the point guard responsibilities and thinking about plays and just getting in a flow which seems to be more of your game?
“The main thing is just consistency. At the beginning of the season, I didn't really know what my role was—point guard, shooting guard, coming off the bench, starting. Once you’re not looking over your shoulder and you understand your position, it’s a lot easier to do the things you know you're capable of doing. I’ve always had confidence and always go out there and go my hardest. Once you’re comfortable and have that stability as well, it helps.”
3 in a row? (re: competing in/winning another dunk contest)
“I don’t even know yet. I don’t know what else to do. I might have to get in some different events.”
(3-point shootout/3-time dunk champion of the world sounds pretty good)
Andrew Wiggins notices a change in culture around the organization. pic.twitter.com/otKwdz1xK2— Zach Bennett (@ZacharyBD) September 26, 2016
On his goals heading into year three:
“I got a lot of goals this year but my main goal is to get in the playoffs, obviously.”
“We have the perfect pieces to get there,” Wiggins said when asked about ending the playoff drought.
Do you know what to expect in terms of Thibs and what he’s going to demand of you?
“I got an idea. I’m one of the leaders on the team and I know he expects me to be first in drills, and expects me to be vocal, and lead by example, and all of that. I’m ready for it.”
Wiggins on KG: "He was like a big brother to everybody. He was the first one in here and the last one to leave ...He made the Timberwolves."— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) September 26, 2016
Is Wiggins the next Bachelor? Stay tuned...
Bjelica says he's changed his diet, and that he should have done so years ago. pic.twitter.com/ZFBP2KKySD— Zach Bennett (@ZacharyBD) September 26, 2016
Thibs was impressed with Bjelica's passing. Bjelica calls it his "most powerful weapon." Also knows he has to shoot when he's open— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) September 26, 2016
Nemanja Bjelica says he felt really bad about missing the Olympics but he's happy he stayed in MPLS and believes it was the right decision.— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) September 26, 2016
"I feel comfortable when I just play basketball, when I have some sort of freedom... I like to do everything on the court." - Bjelica.— Kyle Ratke (@Kyle_Ratke) September 26, 2016
Bjelica got his drivers license this offseason. I believe he carpooled with Pek last season.— Kyle Ratke (@Kyle_Ratke) September 26, 2016
We heard Bjelica say things like “I know what to expect this year” and “I know I belong here” and “I want to finish my career in the NBA.” You could tell he was far more confident after getting a year in the NBA, adjusting to an entirely new culture, under his belt.
Thibs talked about using him in more pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop sets as part of the second unit and also taking advantage of his ball-handling and passing skills. When asked about his shot selection during his rookie season, where he often passed up open 3-pointers, opting for the extra pass instead, Bjelica agreed that he has to let it fly more often and that was one of his biggest learning experiences.
“Now I know what I’m supposed to do, and I will be ready for that,” Bjelica said.
Quick reaction: Bjelica is going to turn heads in his second season.
Initial impressions when the Wolves drafted Kris Dunn, another point guard:
“He’s a great addition to our team, obviously he’s a top 5 pick for a reason. Anything that can help this team win and keep improving I’m for and I think everyone else on this team is for, as well. Kris is a great guy. We’ve been competing and just trying to make each other better and make everyone else on the team better.”
Did you start to get a better handle of the speed of the game and the physicality during the end of the year?
“For sure. By the end, I felt way more comfortable out there on the court, way more confident. Getting playing time and experience your rookie year—you know, it’s tough to do—but it definitely allowed me to adjust a lot quicker.”
How has Ricky helped you develop your game?
“He’s helped me a lot. Every day in practice just being able to talk with him, play against him, being able to watch him. He’s had a great career so far in the NBA, this is what...his sixth season now. He’s a proven point guard in this league so any chance I get to get any tips from him, he’s willing to help me out. He’s even gone out of his way to try to help me out and speed up my learning curve, so I’ve learned a lot from him.”
How much progress have you made now in your fourth year?
“I’ve made a lot of progress. It hasn’t been able to have been showcased. Hopefully this year everything will work out and I will have that opportunity.”
Why hasn’t it been able to be showcased?
“Different coaches, I’ve played for four coaches in three years. There’s a lot of things that goes on with that. Coaches have their own way of doing things and things like that so it just takes time.”