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Summer League Preview: Timberwolves Summer Jam Session Recap

Nearly 9,000 fans attended the Wolves’ final practice before jetting off to Sin City for 2021 NBA Summer League.

Portland Trail Blazers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Minnesota may be the State of Hockey, but don’t let that fool you; the Land of 10,000 Lakes is also the land of tens of thousands of tortured sports fans starving to support a successful NBA team.

20 minutes before the event began, nearly the entire lower bowl was filled.

Seemingly with every made basket of scrimmages or high-energy drills, the crowd roared alive like a bear awakening from a long winter spent in hibernation. For Minnesota Timberwolves fans, that hibernation, spent longing for competitive basketball, has felt like an eternity.

None of the franchise’s three best players were in the building and many of the players on the floor have yet to play more than a handful of minutes in the NBA. Yet, Wolves fans treated them like stars, making what was, from an operational standpoint, a normal practice feel like an NBA game day.

On the floor, the Summer Wolves debuted a more expansive version of the offense we’re going to see under first-full-year head coach Chris Finch. The focus was to get down hill and pressure the rim in order to create more shots at the rim and in the corner following kick-outs or swing passes that force defenses to scramble all over the floor.

In Finch’s perfect world, both Jaden McDaniels and Jaylen Nowell — the two rostered players with guaranteed contracts — will grow in his system, whose expeditious nature forces players into situations in which making quick decisions is paramount.

“In player development we’re trying to replicate those situations against coaches or small side of games, but you got to transfer it into live action and I thought that guys getting to the paint, turning corners, that’s the heart of what we’re trying to do,” Finch said. “We like to shoot a lot of 3s, but it all comes from getting to the paint and then making the right reads when you get there.”

With McDaniels and Nowell given the responsibility and freedom of conducting the offensive symphony as much as possible, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to transfer what they’ve been working on in practice to those live situations that can evolve their respective offensive games.

For McDaniels, according to Finch, his version of wielding the baton is developing more on-ball skills.

“I think Jaden will definitely see time at the 4 as well as the 3. A lot of his work this summer has been trending more toward the three this summer, but that’s mostly in an effort to develop ball skill,” Finch explained. “Not just because we see he’s permanently a 3.”

President Basketball of Operations Gersson Rosas, as well as Finch, are clearly invested in McDaniels, because at 6-foot-10, 190 pounds, he will be a key piece on which the team’s multiplicity hinges. They can utilize his perimeter shooting, explosive first step, and defensive versatility as a 4 in smaller lineups, while also leaning on his evolving guard skills and point-of-attack defense to thrive at the 3 in lineups with another big out there beside him and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Outside of his vying for the team’s current opening at the backup PG position, the key focus for Jaylen Nowell has been his catch-and-shoot 3-point shooting.

In the scrimmage portion of the evening, Nowell’s team consistently ran similar variations of dribble hand-off (DHO) actions to get him multiple reps doing different things on different spots on the floor.

While last night was obviously a small sample, it wouldn’t surprise me if Finch and his staff use Nowell in a similar way to D’Angelo Russell. While both are quite comfortable as handlers in ball screen action and shooting off the dribble, they can hurt defenses with or without the ball in their hands and function more as combo guards rather than true point guards or true shooting guards.

Russell will be the team’s starting point guard this upcoming season, but I expect him to see work alongside another guard capable of not only creating and running the offense, but also one like Nowell whose ceiling is as a high-octane score-first guard that uses his scoring to create playmaking opportunities for his teammates.

This week, expect Nowell to get plenty of work on the ball playing in pick-and-roll and DHO actions with newly-signed, two-way center Nathan Knight, as well as functioning as a 2-guard alongside one of undrafted free agent, two-way point guard, and Minneapolis-area native McKinley Wright IV.

Quick Hitters and Observations

  • Towards the end of practice, the Wolves appeared to get into more of a 1s-vs-2s session. The first team included Nowell, McDaniels, Wright IV, Malcolm Miller and Knight, while the second team featured Isaiah Miller, Jared Brownridge, Brian Bowen II, Cullen Russo and London Parrentes.
  • I can see why Minnesota invested in Knight. He’s a fluid athlete that can attack off the dribble, and brings extreme bounce to the fight on the backboards and when he rocks the rim. He stands just 6-foot-8, but has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and high-points the basketball extremely well. Knight corralled a few offensive boards over McDaniels for put-backs. If he figures his 3-point shot out (the stroke looks decent!), he has a chance to be a good NBA player.
  • Nowell and McDaniels will have the green light to shoot just about any shot they want at Summer League.
  • If Wright IV beats out Jordan McLaughlin for a final guaranteed roster spot, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Isaiah Miller earns a two-way spot. He’s quick, wants to get out and run whenever possible, and has major athleticism for a 6-foot guy. Miller made several high-level passes, was aggressive as a scorer, and displayed a confident shooting stroke that doesn’t seem to match his 61-for-254 (24.0%) career 3-point shooting mark in college.
  • Brian Bowen II should be featured prominently on the Iowa Wolves squad if he doesn’t land a two-way spot elsewhere. He’s averaged 14.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants (Pacers G-League team). He was active as a cutter, showed good hands catching rocket passes inside, and did well spotting up in the corner for kick-out and ball reversal 3s. At 6-foot-7, he has great size for a shooting guard, and is just 22 years old.
  • Anthony Edwards is going to average 25 points per game this season in Finch’s system if the Wolves ball movement is as good as it could be. The way it will force defenses to rotate and create open passing/cutting lanes couldn’t be a better match for Edwards’s attacking mindset and rivalry with the rim.
  • Here is the Timberwolves’ preliminary round schedule:
Table courtesy of Timberwolves PR

Homecoming for McKinley Wright IV

The last time McKinley Wright IV was at Target Center in front of fans, he walked off the floor following a 60-54 loss to now-Spurs point guard Tre Jones and Apple Valley in the Minnesota Class AAAA State Championship, the final game of his historic, Mr. Basketball-caliber career at Champlin Park.

But to him, that McKinley and the McKinley he is now are different in several ways.

“I’ve become more patient. My poise is better. I’m bigger; I’m stronger, faster. I’m shooting it better, I’m playing in the pick-and-roll better than I was; I’m defending better,” Wright IV said.

It’s hard for me to believe Wright IV could be more poised than he was in high school. As a fellow 2017 high school graduate, I’ve seen him play for more than half my life. I played against McKinley in elementary school and middle school, and saw him three or four times per year in high school. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s been as cool as the other side of the pillow and intensely successful, and he is one of the most competitive athletes I’ve played against or been on the other bench to see.

That poise showed on the floor tonight, where Wright IV took on much more of a facilitating role. He made great reads, often making live dribble snap passes to the corner on the drive or in the pick-and-roll, while also shooting the ball with an improved stroke from 3 that looked solid all night long.

On the other end of the floor, he used his strength, lateral quickness and hands to wall off matchups, beat ball-handlers to the spot, and create deflections and steals that led to easy buckets on the other end.

The best example of this was a steal he had, followed by a dump-off pass to Miller, a 6-foot rookie guard, who had negative fear attacking McDaniels in transition.

Perhaps my favorite McKinley Wright IV moment of the night came when long-time Wolves Radio play-by-play man Alan Horton asked Wright IV what it meant to be coming home to start his NBA career. Look away, Gophers fans.

He doubled down on the comment in the post-game media session.

“Like I said before, that was my original plan. We had some pieces coming to Minnesota with me. That was all of our plan,” Wright IV said. “A lot of us from D1 Minnesota, we planned to come here, but it just didn’t work out like that. They didn’t really start recruiting me until kind of late in my senior year, and it’s a lot of stuff I won’t get into. Colorado was the perfect decision for me.”

Some not-so-subtle shade thrown at the outgoing University of Minnesota coaching staff, who failed horrendously to keep top in-state talent home, even those like Wright IV who flew under the radar until their senior years of high school.

Despite he and his grassroots teammates not ending up at the U, he still roots for them incredibly hard.

“It’s crazy. I’m so happy and proud of all those guys. I talk to all those guys quite often. We’re just trying to continue to put Minnesota on the map,” he said. “A lot of people sleep on this state, didn’t think Minnesota was a basketball state, didn’t think we had talented players ... And here we all are, starting to make some noise all across the state, playing for different NBA teams. I’m happy for them, and I know they’re happy for me, too.”

He knows he won’t be the last under-the-radar, undersized, under-recruited player to make it out of this basketball-rich state. I asked him what his message to those prospects are, which he proclaimed with a smile:

“I just try to tell them if I can do it, they can, too. Block out the noise, continue to be you and don’t change for nothing. For me, you’ve got to continue to do every day what’s gotten me this far and I try to tell them the same,” Wright IV said. “Stay away from the bad and try to stay in the gym as much as possible and when you get in front of people, compete at the highest level, be the hardest worker and your dreams can come true just like mine did.”

Here’s to hoping this is the first of many that come true for a hometown kid living out his dreams with his favorite team.

Good on you, McKinley Wright. We’re all rooting for you.