LAS VEGAS – The Timberwolves wrapped up their five games in Las Vegas on Sunday with a 97-91 win over the Grizzlies, holding on in the final minutes to end the week with a 4-1 record.
With only two current players and one 2012 draft pick on the Timberwolves’ summer league squad, it’s easy to view the team through a narrow lens. This isn’t about team success – the 4-1 record means little – but rather about individual performances, and in that respect too, the team didn’t disappoint.
Here are five key observations about the Timberwolves at summer league, five points to consider in the months before the NBA season begins in October:
Wes Johnson can indeed be aggressive, and his summer league success represents a step in the right direction.
Johnson finished summer league averaging 20.5 points per game, the best mark on the Timberwolves and sixth-best of all players in the NBA. Those numbers are encouraging, but his efficiency and aggressiveness were even better. Johnson shot 48.3 percent from the field, an good mark for summer league, and 45.0 percent from beyond the three-point arc. That three-point shooting represents perhaps the most valuable commodity Johnson can offer the Timberwolves: improved wing play.
After the team’s final game, in which Johnson scored 14 points, he appeared more relaxed that he had all season. Johnson joked that the summer league ball – which is slightly different from a regular season one – wasn’t an adjustment at all. Instead, he said, it might have felt better in his hands. Maybe it was the ball, he laughed, joking that it might have been the key to his success.
Johnson’s play was one thing, but his attitude was equally encouraging, and with opportunities at the wing still available on the Timberwolves next season, he can only hope to take advantage.
Derrick Williams knows how to draw fouls and get to the line. The next step: He needs to learn to make his free throws.
In five summer league games, Williams shot 56 free throws, more than any other player. On Thursday against Cleveland, it seemed that he only had to flinch to earn a trip to the line, and it seemed an encouraging development. Williams needs to be more aggressive, to use his body to create scoring opportunities, and he knows that. However, that’s only one facet of the process.
Once Williams got to the line, he made just 35 of his free throws, for an overall free throw percentage of 62.5 percent. That number needs to improve, especially when Williams is already doing what’s most difficult and getting to the line.
Derrick Williams still has a lot of room to grow and gain finesse.
Williams played well at summer league, averaging 15.4 points and 5.2 rebounds. He was the team’s second-best scorer and third-best rebounder. Those numbers are solid; there’s no denying that. But even if he’d led the league in scoring and rebounds, he’d still have room to grow. He’s barely 21, and he was selected second overall in 2011 based largely on his athleticism and potential. Those are the most dangerous reasons for which to pick a player, and Williams has illustrated that at times.
Now that he’s so publicly committed to improvement and to finding a role on the Timberwolves next season, now that he’s posted impressive summer league stats, Williams has another mission to undertake. He has to learn more poise, more of a locked-in, team-first attitude. It’s not just the free throws; it’s also his approach in general. He needs to make the extra pass, to find opportunities where he might not immediately see them. He needs to learn to play in spite of his athleticism, to do the less glamorous things that add up.
“I’m just trying to be more efficient this season,” Williams said. “I’m still missing shots I know I can make.”
At summer league, efficiency remained an issue at times, both in terms of field goal and free throw shooting. However, his progress did not go ignored by coaches, who saw Williams as part of the way through the improvements he must make.
“If these young guys we have like Derrick can learn anything, it’s about that this is a five-man game,” coach David Adelman said. “If you’re good at being in a five-man game, you’re just taking the next step. His ability’s already there. His one-on-on ability, there’s no question he has it. Now can he translate it into a five-man game?”
This is not a roster full of new players with a shot of making the team, and Robbie Hummel has the most realistic chance of any unsigned player to make the team next season.
The Timberwolves’ summer league roster was admittedly large and older, full of veterans from Europe and the D-League who have yet to get their NBA breaks. Their presence on the team was two-fold, in many cases: to impress and to serve as another set of coaches.
Many other summer league teams feature a lineup of undrafted rookies, players who didn’t do enough to warrant being one of the 60 players selected on draft night but who still might get a chance to make a roster. The Timberwolves, apart from Ohio State’s William Buford, didn’t have that sort of players on their roster, and Buford failed to score a summer league point.
Hummel, the Timberwolves only draft pick this year, was selected 58th overall, his name called amidst those of international players who might never make NBA rosters. Even Hummel’s chances of being drafted were slim; he was once a projected lottery pick before two ACL tears, but the Timberwolves decided to take a chance on him after his recovery seemed to be progressing well.
At summer league, Hummel averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds off the bench. He didn’t post any kind of jaw-dropping numbers and played limited minutes, but he did well enough to remain in consideration for a spot as a role player on the Timberwolves next season. Hummel has recovered to the point where his ACL injury is no longer at the forefront, and he impressed at summer league with his basketball IQ.
“I feel like I have a great chance,” Hummel said. “The Timberwolves are going to give me a chance to make the team. That’s really what’s important. I’m looking forward to that challenge, and I think I’ve done well so far.”
Some summer league success does not make a star.
In most cases that’s obvious, but the Timberwolves’ roster provides a tricky catch. Johnson and Williams were both highly touted draft picks. Neither has had a breakout year yet, but both performed well at summer league. These aren’t fresh-faced rookies, where successful performances are expected. These are guys who needed to use summer league to begin to redeem themselves, and they played well.
Therein lies the danger. Of course these games should reflect favorably on the two players, but at the same time, they should be considered with a note of caution. Plenty of players perform well at summer league and go on to be busts. This is not the NBA, not even close.
For Williams and Johnson, summer league showed that hard work in the offseason has paid off so far. They can’t let up, though, and these performances should be more expected than applauded.