LAS VEGAS — As the questions about Kevin Love’s future with the Minnesota Timberwolves swirl, the team — now fully under the command of second-year president and first-year head coach Flip Saunders — is looking to strengthen its growing core of young talent in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
Coming off of last Wednesday’s scrimmage which drew 6,000 fans to Minnesota’s Target Center, the Timberwolves want to see what their young players can do against opposing teams with players who hungry for a chance to prove themselves.
One of the first questions for the Timberwolves is "What can Zach LaVine do?"
The 13th pick in the NBA Draft answered it immediately. LaVine brought the ball up the court as the Timberwolves won the tipoff, threw a short pass to third-year guard Alexey Shved and darted to the basket. Shved promptly tossed a high lob toward the far side of the rim for a leaping LaVine to gather before finishing the alley-oop with a soaring one-handed dunk above the helpless Dallas Mavericks defense.
That kind of athleticism is what pushed the 19-year-old LaVine’s stock up the draft board despite a lackluster freshman season at the UCLA, and he finished his first game with a decent line of 13 points, two assists, two steals and three rebounds. He had mixed feelings about his debut, however, as his five turnovers were the thing that stuck with him after the game despite a blistering stretch in which he made jump shot, a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer as he played both on and off the ball.
"I hold myself to high standards. I’d give myself a C today," LaVine said. "I got to improve. Be a little bit more aggressive, getting started a little bit earlier, cutting down on my turnovers."
The rookie noted that he started playing "a little bit fast" after the opening alley-oop, but he settled in as the game progressed, thanks in part to second-year swingman Shabazz Muhammad’s guidance and empathy for the "jitters" can come with being a rookie.
"My thing here is helping the young guys out. Guys like Zach and Glenn (Robinson III), guys who need to learn the plays and rotations," Muhammad said. "I’m just going to help those guys out until we can carry it over to the regular season."
Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell was more concerned with LaVine’s defense — at which LaVine struggled on occasion — but Mitchell was happy with the rookie’s second-half adjustments and praised his "high basketball IQ."
"He’s got to get used to the misdirection plays and getting sucked in, and then making sure he’s helping on the weak side," Mitchell said. "I thought he did a much better job in the second half with his defense."
LaVine’s fellow UCLA one-and-done teammate Muhammad had little in the way of struggles. He dominated the offense throughout the game once he found his shot and finished with a 27-point, 11-rebound effort (both game highs), including eight points and five rebounds in the fourth quarter. He played 31 of the game’s 40 minutes and said he felt great having lost weight at the request of new coach Flip Saunders.
"I definitely noticed it. I can tell when I’m running the floor and getting rebounds. I like playing really tenacious on the glass and I have to be in really good shape to do that," Muhammad said.
"Tenacious" is exactly what Muhammad was, leaping in from multiple angles and fighting in traffic for rebounds, including multiple put-backs of his own misses. That tenacity will help him carve out his role during the season, as the coaches are emphasizing his scoring and rebounding abilities this summer.
Behind them, Gorgui Dieng looked to build off his terrific ending to last year’s regular season. The second-year big man out of Louisville posted averages of 11.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and two blocks per game in April, and he was a rock for the young Timberwolves team Saturday with a double-double of his own on 12 points, 10 rebounds, an assist, two steals and two blocks.
Beyond the solid stat line, Dieng was an intimidating presence in the paint, flying around to contest shots and disrupt the Mavericks’ offensive flow and. Having carved out 31 minutes per game in April, Dieng’s development into a productive big man has to relieve some pressure if Kevin Love does leave.
Shved’s move to the point guard position got off to a rocky start as he struggled with his decision-making. Three poor passes led directly to turnovers, but he rallied to add 14 points, three rebounds and three assists for the game, and, more importantly, he finished the game without another turnover.
Robinson had a quietly productive game with seven points, five rebounds and a steal. The second-round draft pick looked comfortable playing without the ball and used his athleticism to create havoc on defense, which will be valuable to the team in the regular season.
"That’s one thing that I think is a good opportunity for us to all mix in and gel in," Muhammad said. "It’s all five guys that are guaranteed roster spots and I think we did a good job gelling out there a little bit."
Game notes: Robinson was the only starting player to not score double-digit points, but he only took five shots and made two of them. . . . Dieng nearly had a second assist as he scooped up a loose-ball near half court and, without looking, shoveled it behind him to a sprinting Muhammad for monstrous dunk, but Muhammad was fouled. . . . Muhammad didn’t get credit for it in the box score, but he threw himself in front of what would have been an enormous slam dunk and made the opponent earn his points from the foul line.