MINNEAPOLIS – FIBA clearance has come through, the D-League has been plundered, and there were two new healthy bodies present at the Timberwolves’ shootaround Saturday morning.
Minnesota signed two players to 10-day contracts in advance of Saturday’s game against Houston: French forward Mickael Gelabale and center Chris Johnson. Gelabale was slotted into the team’s 15th roster spot, which was vacated when Lazar Hayward’s 10-day contract expired at the end of Thursday, and Johnson claimed the 16th spot, granted to the Timberwolves through an injury exception they received from the NBA on Friday.
Gelabale, 29, was last in the NBA with the Seattle SuperSonics from 2006-08, playing alongside current Timberwolves guard Luke Ridnour. He averaged 4.9 points and 2.1 rebounds in 109 games before tearing the ACL in his right knee on March 21, 2008. That injury kept him out for the remainder of the season and thus ended his first NBA stint.
The 6-foot-7 veteran averaged 10.8 points in five EuroCup games with Valencia BC in Spain this season. He last played for the team Saturday before beginning the process of joining the Timberwolves; Gelabale arrived in Minnesota on Thursday. Before playing for Valencia, he began his season with Cedevita Zagreb in Croatia, where he played 10 EuroLeague games and averaged 12.8 points. Gelabale also played on the French Olympic team last summer, averaging 7.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists in six contests, all starts.
“From the recommendations I heard about him, nobody should expect him to come in and score 30 points,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn said of Gelabale. “That’s not the type of player he is. But I think he can do a lot of everything, a little of everything, I probably should say.”
Kahn lauded Gelabale’s ability to make shots, play defense and snare offensive rebounds. He’s done his research on the forward since receiving an email from his agent weeks ago that indicated Gelabale would like to make an NBA comeback. Just last weekend, Kahn spoke with Tony Parker in San Antonio about the forward, and he’s also discussed him with another national team teammate, Nicolas Batum. Both had glowing recommendations of Gelabale, Kahn said.
The Timberwolves’ injury exception permits them to sign one player to a short-term deal; hence Johnson’s 10-day contract. Gelabale’s space, however, doesn’t have such restrictions, and though the Timberwolves have been admittedly leery to lock a player into a long-term deal in that spot, a decision hasn’t been made either way about Gelabale’s longevity in Minnesota. For now, it’s a 10-day contract, and they’ll go from there. For his part, the forward has been clamoring to return to the NBA for years, and this stint is the culmination of protracted efforts to get out of Europe and back to the NBA.
“I always thinking like that when I was … playing in France,” Gelabale said. “I was thinking to come back. I was in Russia thinking about it. I was in Spain thinking about it. Now I’m here, and I want to enjoy it.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-11 center whose biggest drawback is his skinny frame, averaged 10.9 points and 6.1 rebounds in 14 games this season for the Santa Cruz Warriors of the D-League. He was in camp with the Timberwolves last fall after having had brief stints with the Celtics, Hornets and Blazers in the past two seasons. In 41 career NBA games since he was undrafted out of LSU, he has averaged 2.1 points and 1.8 rebounds. For him, the call-up was something of a pleasant surprise.
“We were just trying to win (in Santa Cruz),” Johnson said. “That was pretty much my main focus, not really the call-up thing. Some guys can get caught up with that. You just go in and play and try to win. Things will work out.”
Unlike many players brought on for 10-day contracts, Gelabale and Johnson will likely get their fair share of minutes. Going into Saturday’s game, the team has nine healthy players including the two new signees, one game-time decision in the ill Dante Cunningham, and six players (including Nikola Pekovic and Alexey Shved, who hurt themselves Thursday) out with injuries.
For Johnson, the transition may not be too tough; he was one of Minnesota’s final cuts out of training camp and said he still feels comfortable with the team’s plays. He’ll have to refresh himself, he said, but he’s confident that he’ll be able to do what the Timberwolves need from him: provide some energy, protect the basket and run the floor. Gelabale, however, is with his third team in as many months and playing in the NBA for the first time in five years. Fortunately for the Timberwolves, there doesn’t seem to be too much of a language barrier, but he has limited time to make a case for himself to stick in the NBA.
“It’s going to be hard because I just played with Valencia for one month,” Gelabale said. “I have to know all the plays, and now I come back and I have to know all these plays. I’m a little bit confused in my head. I’m a professional player, so I have to be ready to know all the plays quickly.”
The Timberwolves’ newest signees are hardly the kind of players who will turn things around and boost Minnesota back to its mid-December form, but for now, they’ll do. For a team that’s been lacking energy and sheer numbers, barring catastrophic mistakes, they should be able to swing things in a slightly positive direction and give their teammates a rest, if nothing else.