The knee brace is steady. The knee brace is moving faster. It paces, swings left. It bounces up off the ground, then firmly back, reverberating with the leg. It contracts, expands, contracts, bends.
On July 16 in Las Vegas, its first NBA appearance, the knee brace is good for six points and six rebounds. The next day, it’s another six points and two more rebounds, and two days after that, two more points and two more rebounds.
Watch long enough, and it’s no longer a knee brace. Watch long enough, and you’ll see Robbie Hummel, with two working knees, a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey and a legitimate shot at the NBA.
Hummel, whom the Timberwolves selected with the 58th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, was once projected to be a lottery pick. But after two tears to the ACL in his right knee, the Purdue forward’s chances of making an NBA team were slim until the Timberwolves called his name in the final minutes of the draft. Now, a month later, he’s working to be seen as something more than his injury and to find a spot on Minnesota’s roster.
Hummel left Las Vegas Summer League pleased with his performance as a role player. He averaged 15.4 minutes off the bench and shot 42.1 percent from the field, averaging 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Those numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away, but they were enough for Hummel in the role he’s looking to fill.
“I feel like I played pretty well,” Hummel said. “I think I’m trying to fit a role at this point … with Derrick (Williams) and Wes (Johnson), trying to get them shots and then make open shots myself, rebound, defend. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
Hummel said that right now, his knee is the last thing on his mind. He’s still going through rehab from the tear he sustained on Oct. 16, 2010, but that’s become second nature. He’s thinking about basketball, about improving his game and making an NBA roster. The knee is just a fact, less of a worry.
At a workout in Minneapolis before the draft, Hummel joked about his lack of dunks and discussed his recovery, saying that he felt progress as his last season at Purdue progressed. The numbers support Hummel’s claims. Overall, the forward averaged 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, both career highs. But from Feb. 1 until his season ended on March 18, Hummel averaged 18.4 points and 9.1 rebounds, marked improvements over his early-season numbers.
Timberwolves player development coach Shawn Respert, who co-coached the summer league squad with David Adelman, said he was impressed with his first looks at Hummel in minicamp and at summer league. Although Hummel shot only 14.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc in Las Vegas, Respert said he’s seen evidence of the rookie’s 3-point shooting prowess and that he also was impressed with Hummel’s rebounding ability.
“We struggled shooting the basketball from a team perspective last year, and we didn’t get a lot of guys that could make shots,” Respert said. “But if we’re not making shots, that means there’s other opportunities to get the basketball, and Robbie is one of those guys we feel will give us extra possessions.”
Hummel also showed at summer league that he can defend well, covering big wing players with ease. He also can cover opponents in the post, Respert said, and he’s been easy to coach.
But what Respert found most impressive about Hummel was less obvious on the court than any physical trait. Hummel comes from a respected program at Purdue, with a coach, Matt Painter, who’s held in high regard throughout college athletics. With his injuries, the forward spent five years in the Boilermakers’ system, and it shows. Hummel has a great mental grasp on the game, Respert said, and he’s more versatile than most rookies. He can play in the pick-and-roll as both the ballhandler or on the weak side, for example, filling each role with equal familiarity
“I’m totally impressed with his ability to think the game,” Respert said. “I think some of us … assume all of these players coming into our league, that they should know how to play the game of basketball. It’s very surprising the number of guys you find out haven’t been in various situations to know what to do. Robbie is one of the guys that really surprised me because we can put him in different situations.”
That’s not to say that Hummel is perfectly polished and ready for the NBA. There’s still the knee injury to contend with, if not as an everyday concern then at least as a nagging worry. The rookie also needs to improve his 3-point shooting and play more aggressively, especially late in games. But it’s been just five outings, 79 minutes on the court in a venue much different from the NBA, so no assessment is yet complete. Hummel’s chances of making the Timberwolves are still very much alive.
When summer league ended Sunday, the Indiana native returned home to train. After a week and a half with coaches and several of his potential future teammates, Hummel now has a better idea of what he needs to do to improve and what role he might fill. His conversations with Johnson and Williams have been helpful, he said, but he’s had little chance to speak to any of the other Timberwolves players. That opportunity will come later, when coaches summon him to Minneapolis, and Hummel will be ready for that call.
“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.”