The NBA Summer League offers a minimal sample size, but the Timberwolves still might not have to look far to fill their final roster spot.
Assuming restricted free-agent center Nikola Pekovic re-signs in the coming days, 14 of 15 positions are already accounted for. The final slot could be filled through another free-agent signing for a minimum salary, or perhaps via a trade.
Or president of basketball operations Flip Saunders could just give a nod to the last man standing in Las Vegas this week.
A handful of players, especially in the Timberwolves’ past two summer-league games, have stated their case to keep wearing the black and blue once this wild week-and-change out west is over. Several more are worthy of a shot somewhere — Europe, the NBA D-League, perhaps another NBA franchise — according to coach David Adelman.
“Obviously not all these guys will play for us next year,” said Adelman, whose bunch faces the D-League Select team Thursday night in the second round of tournament play, “but to look them up in six months and seeing them get paid somewhere because they deserve to get paid, that’s the cool part.”
Minnesota already knows of three summer-league participants that’ll be somewhere in the rotation this upcoming season. First-round draft picks Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng and guaranteed-contract returner Chris Johnson all have impressed through four games.
But second-round draft picks Robbie Hummel (2012) and Lorenzo Brown (2013) are in the mix, too, alongside a few free agents that showed up in Minneapolis for camp last week just hoping for a sliver of opportunity.
“You’re playing for your career,” said Adelman, recently promoted from his player development role to an assistant’s position under his father, Rick Adelman. “If you make the right plays, people want you on your team.”
Hummel’s made a lot of the right plays.
Drafted 58th overall last summer, Hummel’s biggest obstacle to NBA readiness has been the health of his knees. His 20 minutes per contest are a good step in validating self-claims he’s close to 100 percent. The 6-foot-8, 215-pound small forward is moving around fairly well and still has the shooting touch that made him so dangerous at Purdue.
In Minnesota’s 91-89 loss to Phoenix on Monday, Hummel scored 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field. His production dropped off during the Timberwolves’ victories Tuesday and Wednesday (a combined 3-for-10 from the floor), though he only played nine minutes in the second win.
It’s a lesson in how few opportunities pro hopefuls are granted in Vegas. Minnesota’s also fairly deep at small forward without Hummel’s services, having drafted Muhammad and signed Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer to free-agent contracts.
The Timberwolves did, however, use a draft pick on Hummel a year ago, so there’s a bit of an added investment there that could pay off in his favor, provided he continues to prove he’s healthy.
Brown’s contributions have been more subtle. Deemed a “first-round talent” by Saunders, he has started just once. But he has committed only one turnover in each of his past two games. In Wednesday’s victory over Sacramento, he scored 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting and scrapped his way to six rebounds.
Behind the draft selections, fellow Illinois products Demitri McCamey and Brandon Paul are inching close toward realizing their NBA dream.
Paul went undrafted after graduating from Illinois and has yet to sign with an NBA team. He’s still adjusting to the speed and physicality of the pro game, along with every other summer-league rookie, but has seen his playing time and output increase over the past few days.
His best performance came Tuesday against the Heat, when he scored 13 points in 22 minutes on the floor.
McCamey has aided Paul’s transition, drawing upon experience gained playing for the Chicago Bulls in last year’s summer league and spent 2012-13 in the D-League. In addition to directing pointers toward his former Illini teammate, he’s made some considerable noise himself. He didn’t receive any minutes during Minnesota’s opener Saturday but has scored 13 and 15 points in two of three games since then.
Mccamey’s a point guard by trade, an area on the depth chart the Timberwolves front office had to whittle down this offseason. But if Minnesota can stay alive in the tournament, he and Paul just might crack an NBA training camp roster.
“McCamey can flat-out shoot it,” Adelman said. “He’s got such a good pace to his game.”
Said Paul: “We’ve just been grinding.”
So has Muhammad, one of the most-watched players at summer league given his 14th overall selection, Las Vegas heritage and criticism-laced path to the NBA. He struggled early on, shooting 9-for-26 in his first three outings and never scoring more than eight points. But Wednesday, he broke out a bit, nailing 3-of-4 3-pointers on the way to a game-high 17 points.
“Just take our time,” Muhammad said of the team’s rookies approach to adjusting. “We’re getting used to it.”
Dieng has displayed the skill set advertised when Minnesota drafted him 21st overall, playing solid interior defense and creating offensively with his above-average ball-skills for a 6-11 center. He’s even stepped back and hit a couple of jump shots, a dimension of his game that could prove very effective down the road.
Johnson has performed well in the post, too. His 5.5 rebounds per game are second on the team behind Hummel, and a few athletic dunks and blocks have displayed his ability to effectively carry an added 15 pounds of muscle.
Together, the Timberwolves are shooting 50 percent from 3 entering Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. rematch with the D-League Select team. Win then, and Minnesota will advance to the quarterfinals of the league’s first-ever championship tournament.
But surviving and advancing pales in comparison to drawing the eyes of scouts and general managers swarming the UNLV campus this week, Adelman said.
“In all honesty, I don’t care,” Adelman said. “I just like seeing guys get opportunities and play well.”