The competition for the 15th and final roster spot, as well as the team’s two-way contract slots, will be quite a storyline to follow when the Minnesota Timberwolves open training camp in Downtown Minneapolis next month.
The team announced yesterday the signings of forwards CJ Elleby, formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers, and Luka Garza, formerly of the Detroit Pistons. Both joined the Wolves on Exhibit 10 contracts according to our friend, KSTP’s Darren Wolfson. By signing both to Exhibit 10s, Minnesota can convert either deal to a two-way contract (if they waive a current two-way player) or waive one or both of the players and retain them with the Iowa Wolves. Both moves would have to take place prior to the start of the regular season.
After the Wolves signed Nathan Knight to the last full-time roster spot on July 24, most fans would’ve been ready to roll and start training camp with the following group of 17 players:
But that’s not how President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly wants it to be. He and his front office staff evidently want there to be plenty of healthy front-court competition between Knight, Elleby, Garza and two-way player Eric Paschall, who has the most NBA experience of the group. Two-way guard A.J. Lawson will also be playing for a spot, but doesn’t play the same position as any of the other four.
What will be fun about the competition is that all four players are pretty different in terms of their combinations of size and play-style. Knight is a bruising, athletic 4 that can score inside and get to the line, while Paschall is a 3-and-D tweener who isn’t as athletic as Knight or Elleby.
Elleby is a defensive-minded, athletic, energizer bunny that can aptly defend on the perimeter 2-4, make an impact on the game in transition and put the ball on the deck attacking the basket. He averaged 5.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 20.2 minutes per game across 58 games, including 28 starts, for Portland last season.
Despite being a 3, he’s probably the closest thing the Wolves could get to filling the Jarred Vanderbilt “go out there and raise hell for your opponents” role given the team’s options, but still has a long way to go before he can reach Vando’s level of defensive consistency and overall impact on that end of the floor.
Garza is much more of a scoring stretch big, and is the biggest of the four at 6-11, 243 pounds. If you watch any type of college basketball at all, you’ll remember that Garza set the world on fire during his career at Iowa, where he broke the program’s all-time scoring record (2,306 points, seventh-highest in Big Ten history), was unanimously voted the 2021 Naismith National Player of the Year, and was a two-time All-American First Team selection.
He hasn’t played much since graduating from Iowa in 2021, but he has slimmed down since then (when he played at 265 pounds) and figures to play more of a face-up style than he did in Iowa City, where he predominantly went to the block and mid-post to do most of his scoring. While his thinner frame may make it tougher for him to score on the block against bruising NBA bigs, the hope is his high-level perimeter shot-making can shine on the perimeter.
It hasn’t yet at the NBA level, but it did in the G-League last year: Garza averaged 25 points per game on a terrific 64.6% true shooting. For reference, Karl-Anthony Towns’ true shooting percentage was 64.0 last season. Garza shined in four games in the G-League and was quickly recalled to the Pistons, for whom he scored 5.8 points and grabbed 3.1 rebounds in 12.2 minutes per game in 32 contests (five starts) last season.
There are some fun Timberwolves connections with Elleby and Garza, too.
Elleby is a native of Federal Way, Washington, the same Seattle suburb that Jaden McDaniels calls home. The two have spent plenty of time on the floor together, both as teammates and competitors. Elleby played at Washington State, while McDaniels starred at Washington. Jaylen Nowell, of course, is a former Pac-12 Player of the Year at Washington and grew up in Seattle, too.
Enjoyed getting to know new #Timberwolves F @EllebyCj. He's been in town for 3 weeks working out and getting to know some teammates + the staff. He goes way back w/ Jaden McDaniels. Played on a 3-on-3 team in middle school w/ McDaniels and MarJon Beauchamp. Yes, they won a lot! pic.twitter.com/w4VJCwecg1— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) August 23, 2022
As for Garza, it is easy to see him as a member of the Wolves down in Iowa, where he is a folk hero. If there’s anywhere Garza would have to play in the G-League, returning to such a familiar place around fans eager to support him makes a great deal of sense. He could sell a significant amount of tickets by himself and also mimics some of what Towns brings on the offensive end. That’s a plus considering G-League teams nowadays are running the same offenses and defenses their NBA partner club are.
Simply put, he needs game reps to grow as a defender on the perimeter; doing so in a familiar environment that is structured around development could be the best thing for him.
How Connelly, Head Coach Chris Finch and Co. will end up making final roster decisions is yet to be seen. But, pulling one player from each bin, with Knight and Garza as the “bigs,” while Elleby and Pashcall make up the “wings.”
If that’s the case, it’ll be interesting to see how scrimmage combinations will work in training camp and what the second half rotations will be in the preseason. Would Knight and Garza play together, or be staggered? Would Elleby and Paschall switch off guarding lead scorers on the wing? Would Naz Reid lose his spot if one of Knight or Garza really shined in preseason?
While those questions may not alter the ceiling of the Wolves in the playoffs, they could certainly impact the team during the regular season if there’s another COVID outbreak or an injury. The Wolves will be gunning for the No. 1 seed, and when that’s the goal, every game has to carry some significance, so depth will play a major role.