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Wolves Wednesday: Lessons from Las Vegas

The Minnesota Timberwolves just spent what felt like an eternity in Sin City. What were some of the main takeaways? Let’s discuss.

Towns, Wiggins, and Culver practice with head coach Ryan Saunders in Las Vegas, NV.
Twitter (@Timberwolves)

Despite losing a nail-biter to the Memphis Grizzlies this past Monday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves just wrapped up a very successful (albeit tortuously long) stay in the city of sin. Although the July pups were without their two 2019 draft picks (more on that later), the summer squad still strung together an impressive 6-1 record in Las Vegas, showcasing a variety of promising developments that could very well translate into the upcoming season. Let’s take a look at a few of those specific developments below.

Pablo-Ball

OK so let’s start with the biggest takeaway — offensive identity. As you know by now, Pablo Prigioni was brought in this summer by Gersson Rosas to fill the “offensive coordinator” position as the New Wolves Order pivots to more of a football hierarchy. Prigioni was a well-regarded assistant during his short stint with the Brooklyn Nets, most notably for his development of players like D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert.

To kick off his new gig with the Wolves, Prigioni took the reigns of this year’s summer league team, and it didn’t take long to notice a major shift in offensive philosophy:

This masterpiece above was from the Wolves quarterfinal contest against the Dallas Mavericks, a game in which the young pups shot 52.2% from the field (and 46.4% from three) en route to a 108-82 blowout.

Now, before you moonwalk to the comment section, this would be an appropriate time to include the popular disclaimer “bUt ItS oNlY sUmMeR lEaGuE.” Yes, I’m well aware that getting undrafted rookies and veteran journeymen to buy in to a new offensive philosophy is much easier than getting multi-millionaires to do the same thing, but to simply ignore the effects of “Pablo Ball” solely because it took place in July would be foolish (at least in my opinion).

After all, Prigioni was brought in not only because of his track record with developing young players, but also because of his belief and commitment to modern NBA offense. If the Wolves really are following the football model, then having an offensive coordinator like Pablo could do wonders for a team that ranked 26th in the league last season in 3PA.

But again, convincing guys like Kelan Martin and Jordan McLaughlin to shoot more threes and limit anything from 16-22 feet is one thing, getting a guy like Andrew Wiggins to do the same is an entirely new monster. NBA players are creatures of habit — they have specific spots on the floor that they feel most comfortable getting their shots from, and that hard-wiring is something that can take months (if not years) to alter and adjust.

Can Prigioni translate his summer strategy into a full-blown identity reset for his players in the big league? Only time will tell. But for now it’s promising that the Wolves are going all-in on changing how they approach the game of basketball.

Two-Way Street

Since two-way contracts were introduced to the NBA back in 2017, the Wolves (more specifically Tom Thibodeau) placed about as much emphasis on utilizing this cool new feature as they did playing great defense or simply getting along with one another. With Gersson Rosas now calling the shots, that lack of attention to detail appears to no longer be an issue.

Moments after the 2019 NBA Draft had concluded, the Wolves secured a two-way deal with LSU big man Naz Reid. The 19-year old slid down numerous draft boards for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a consistent motor and an underwhelming performance at the NBA Combine (despite being 6’10” and 250 pounds, Reid only produced three reps on the bench press).

And yet, whether it was the desert heat or frequent trips to M&M World, the man simply known as “Big Jelly” put on quite the Vegas performance, displaying moves that would make even the Jabbawockeez take notice:

Reid finished his first summer league averaging 11.9 points and 5.4 rebounds, all while playing just 18 minutes per game. The forward out of Asbury Park, New Jersey also flashed some of the same vision that another Wolves big man from New Jersey has mastered over recent years:

As my guy Jake Paynting discussed in his superb piece on Reid yesterday, one could argue Naz has already done more for the Wolves franchise in just two weeks than either Jared Terrell or CJ Williams (two previous players signed to two-way deals) did during their entire stint with the team. It’s very unlikely Reid will make much (if any) of an impact on the 2019-2020 Wolves roster, meaning most of his playing time and development will come with the team’s G-League affiliate down in Iowa.

Can the undrafted player criticized by many for having a questionable motor continue to pile up strong performances when his games are no longer being televised on ESPN and ESPN2? That remains to be seen, but investing in this sort of “project” is exactly the type of move a small market franchise must do if they want to compete in the modern NBA.

Buyer’s Remorse?

As mentioned above, the Wolves entered the 2019 Summer League without both of their 2019 draft picks — Jarrett Culver (ridiculous NBA rules) and Jaylen Nowell (injury). While both players are expected to factor into Minnesota’s rotation equation next season, the Wolves new performance team didn’t think it was all that necessary for either guy to get live reps in Las Vegas. While disappointing, it’s understandable.

Nevertheless, it was a tough pill to swallow for Wolves fans like myself who witnessed multiple players drafted outside the lottery put up big-time performances in their NBA debuts. Brandon Clarke, the undersized stretch big who many draft experts projected as an ideal fit next to Towns, quickly dispelled the notion that his short statute and T-Rex arms would limit him on both sides of the ball, leading the Grizzlies to the Summer League title while also earning Summer League MVP honors.

Tyler Herro, another player selected after the Wolves original draft position, displayed the smooth stroke and offensive prowess that had some analysts comparing him to another Kentucky sharp-shooter, Devon Booker. Or how about a pre-draft Canis fan favorite, Nickeil Alexander-Walker? The Pelicans guard, selected 17th overall, averaged 25 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds in his four games in Las Vegas, flashing the type of all-around skillset that would have fit perfectly on a team lacking for long-term solutions at the PG position.

My overall point here is this — while a majority of things that happened in Vegas can simply stay in Vegas, these types of performances by players who were available at pick #11 do ratchet up the pressure on the Jarrett Culver move paying off. While I still fully support the idea of trading a fine rotation player (Dario Saric) for the ability to land a possible franchise-altering player, the fact remains that the Wolves took a fairly significant risk in doing so. If Culver fails to develop into the two-way player that many expect him to become, it’ll be hard not to look back and wonder if the Wolves made a major misstep giving up two good players for the chance to select one (maybe) great player.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

My final takeaway from these last two weeks of Summer League is probably the hardest to quantify but also (to me) the most important — the team seems to actually be buying what Gersson Rosas (and Ryan Saunders) are selling.

Again, it’s hard to find anyone who wouldn’t be happy spending a few days in Las Vegas working out while earning millions of dollars, but after what this franchise went through just 12 short months ago, seeing players like Towns and Wiggins actually show up to workouts in the desert to train with younger guys like Culver and Okogie is a fairly newsworthy deal.

Will this enhanced focus on team building and “We Before Me” mentality actually translate into tangible results this upcoming season (a.k.a. wins), or is all of this just concepts from a manager’s textbook that will quickly melt away if/when the team starts accumulating losses? No one can be quite sure, and after striking out in free agency like they did, it’s fair to argue if the current regime is more bark than bite.

But if you follow the league close enough and long enough, you start to see that simple activities like this actually do matter in the grander schemes of success. While the past regime experienced (marginal) success despite placing no emphasis whatsoever on basic team-building principles, they also fostered a hostile work environment that left everyone associated with the franchise far more miserable than during any losing season.

In the end, it will be wins that ultimately define the success (or failure) of the New Wolves Order, not smiles or close-calls. But until the real games actually start taking place, it’s a pretty wise strategy to get everyone in the choir singing the same tune.