Thursday, March 12, 2020.
That date, which seems like it was approximately 42 years ago, represents the last time the Minnesota Timberwolves were all together as a group before the NBA paused the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After turning over more than 3⁄4 of the roster at the NBA Trade Deadline, the Wolves were feverishly trying to get up to speed with a new offense, new teammates, and new culture while also
subtly tanking trying really hard to win every game possible.
Fast forward to Monday, September 21, and we are finally getting signs of life from the men’s professional basketball team that calls Minnesota home. After nearly six-months of the hiatus, most of the Wolves roster has made their way back to downtown Minneapolis for what the league is dubbing an “in-market” training camp.
As you probably know by now, most of the big, exciting names will be in attendance for these next week weeks, including Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, James Johnson, Josh Okogie, etc. The most notable absence is Jauncho Hernangomez, who is currently overseas filming a new movie with Adam Sandler (yes, you read that right).
With most of the roster, coaching staff, and front office now sequestered downtown for their very own version of a “bubble,” head coach Ryan Saunders kicked off the modified fall training camp Wednesday morning with some media availability, and highlighted the importance of having (most) of the roster back together under one roof:
“This time is important, not just for them to get to know us and this system but for us to get to know them too. It’s those little things on the court. Does a guy like to go left to right in a catch and shoot situation or is he a right to left type of shooter? It’s the little details that we’ll be able to dive into over these next couple of weeks that we’ve been already looking into during these 1 on 0, 1 on 1 workouts. And it’s really important and we focused heavily on the details of things, but also wanting to give these guys time to compete and time to shake the rust off because a lot of them haven’t done anything competition wise in close to half a year, which is pretty unbelievable to even say.”
One of the more interesting questions during the media session revolved around the uniqueness of having their own training camp/bubble while the NBA playoffs are still taking place. When asked about what the coaching staff (and front office) have learned the most from the 2020 playoffs, Saunders had this to say:
“One thing that I will point to is incredible guard play. That’s been a common theme throughout these playoffs. You’re seeing some remarkable performances, and not just in Denver and Miami but those are very good examples. You can look to a team like Denver and see with their two superstars in Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, the way they play the two-man game with those two guys and the way it’s happened naturally for them. They’ve put them in situation where they get their two best players on one side of the floor and they have a lot of tough guys who can knock down shots and make you honor spacing, but then also are able to defend on the other end and really make an impact in that way. You can say that about a team like Miami too. They run more split-action and off-ball pin downs, flare screens, actions like that. They are still a pick-and-roll team as is every team in this league, but they’ve done a great job. I’ve always been a huge fan of Spo, the things that he does away from the basketball to generate good looks for his guys.”
A lot has been made recently about the possible comparisons between Minnesota and Denver (including this excellent piece by our own Jake Paynting), so it’s interesting to see Ryan talk about this as well after the first day of practice.
Saunders was asked a follow-up question about the impact that certain “unicorns” (i.e. players like Jokic or Bam Adebayo) have had in these playoffs based on their ability to not only score and rebound, but also handle the ball:
“You see with both those teams you mentioned, they have bigs in Jokic and Bam who are able to bring the ball up the floor. That’s the best way to become a faster-paced team is if you’re a team that’s able to, I call it, rake and take. Rake the ball off the rim and take it. It eliminates two-three seconds of an outlet, players having to fill spacing and guys having to figure out where they’re supposed to be in transition. But if you have a big who is able to, when he sees an advantage, is able to get the rebound, use the alley, which we call between the pro lane lines, to facilitate and generate offense, it definitely helps make you more efficient, I believe. And that’s something that we really need to get better at.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but “rake and take” isn’t something we’ve seen much from Towns (or any Wolves big) do in the past, so adding that wrinkle to the offensive philosophy would *ideally* allow the team to increase their pace even more. Time will tell as to whether or not having Towns bringing the ball up will actually lead to enhanced offensive production (and therefore more success), but nevertheless it was a fairly interesting quote from Saunders.
Overall, Wednesday’s media availability was definitely more about kicking off the “in-market bubble” than diving into any specifics of what the team hopes to do going forward, but it still was a breath of fresh air after essentially 192 straight days of inactivity and silence. With most of the roster officially in town, the Wolves can finally get to work on figuring out just what they do have (and what they don’t have) as they prepare for the biggest offseason in franchise history.