Wolves using summer league as pseudo training camp
With little room on the roster, the Minnesota Timberwolves will use the NBA Summer League to allow returning players and rookies to get familiar with each other, the offense and defense.
By Phil ErvinFOX Sports North
MINNEAPOLIS -- Potential over prospects. Evaluation over supplementation.
This time a year ago, Flip Saunders had a roster to fill out. Heading into the 2014 NBA Las Vegas Summer League, though, he's got one to develop.
Four players under guaranteed contracts will suit up for the Timberwolves the next two weeks in the desert. A fifth will be with the team but isn't expected to play.
Minnesota currently has only two open roster spots to fill. So its three round-robin games and tournament play at the UNLV campus aren't as much of a tryout as they are a pre-training camp training camp.
"The main thing is to give them repetitions," said Saunders, the club's first-year head coach and second-year president of basketball operations. "Let them play, let them get familiar with the things that we're going to do offensively, defensively, get a baseline for those guys to see some things they need to work on coming into training camp."
"They" being 2014 first-round draft pick Zach LaVine, second-round choice Glenn Robinson III and veterans (in the technical sense, at least) Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Alexey Shved. Oft-injured small forward Chase Budinger flew Friday with the team to Las Vegas, though he's working out on a practice-only basis strictly to make sure his damaged right knee is back in prime shape.
For the likes of summer league invitees Jordan Morgan, Kyrylo Fesenko and Watertown, Minn., native Matt Janning, there are only two Wolves roster spots technically up for grabs. One of them could go to Robinson, whom Saunders nabbed 40th overall but calls a "first-round talent," and the other may be reserved for a free-agent signing.
The entire scope could change in either direction if Kevin Love is dealt in the next few days. But as of now, there's less room for a contract-garnering impression on this year's summer league squad.
Last season, Robbie Hummel, Othyus Jeffers, Lorenzo Brown and Chris Johnson all represented Minnesota in Vegas. All four were invited to training camp and played in the preseason. Hummel lasted the entire regular season before being waived this summer.
This year's summer league fringe aspirants could glean a training camp invite. But it's less likely any of them would stick in a manner similar to Hummel.
So Saunders will be looking primarily at his incumbent players -- the ones guaranteed to be in a Timberwolves uniform beyond the month of July -- and how they'll fit into his defense-centric, run-and-gun style.
"You can learn a lot," Saunders said. "Some guys drown when you throw a lot of stuff at them; some guys rise to the top."
Stretching out that analogy, Dieng tops a list of players Saunders says are "floating," for the most part. The second-year center from Senegal closed his rookie campaign on a stretch that netted him second-team all-rookie honors and has added 17 pounds to his 6-foot-11 frame in hopes of maintaining a stronger, more sustainable post presence.
He'll test the added muscle starting at 5:30 p.m. Saturday against Dallas.
"I want to try to see if I like a lot of weight on me," said Dieng, who averaged 12 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while starting 15 of Minnesota's final 18 games last season. "I think that's important for me to just try it."
Muhammad heads to his hometown with an opposite charge. Saunders asked him to lose 15 pounds this offseason, and the Las Vegas native is about a third of the way there.
He showed flashes last season, dominating during a weeklong NBA Developmental League stretch and averaging 23.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals per 48 minutes at the NBA level.
But Muhammad appeared in just 37 contests and averaged 7.8 minutes under retired head man Rick Adelman.
"Last year, I thought I played pretty well," said Muhammad, drafted 14th overall last summer after one season at UCLA. "Some people said I could've got more minutes. Some people said I shouldn't, but it's about just playing hard and being a good teammate and stuff like that. I think Flip's going to take care of everything else."
There's analogous incentive for fellow Bruin one-and-done LaVine, the 13th overall pick in this year's draft who started one collegiate contest. His stock rose primarily because of a strong pre-draft workout circuit and through-the-roof athleticism.
"Man, I can jump out the gym," the charismatic 19-year-old grinned at his introductory press conference.
But whether he can score and defend with the likes of NBA players is not yet known. His potential there can either rise or fall in Las Vegas.
And then there's Shved, playing his first summer league after two mostly tumultuous seasons with the Wolves. Since a first half of his inaugural NBA campaign that had him in rookie of the year discussions, the Russian guard has fallen off considerably.
From his debut Nov. 11, 2012 through Feb. 2, 2013, he averaged 11 points per game, shot 37.9 percent from the floor and made 31.6 percent of his 3-point attempts. Since then, his numbers are 4.8, 34.1 percent and 27.6 percent.
Summer League could be his final chance to prove he's worthy of a roster spot rather than a buyout of the final guaranteed year on his contract, worth about $3.2 million.
"I want to play. That's it," Shved said. "I want to show I try my best, I practicing hard. I'm going to do everything what (Saunders) wants, no matter what."
Robinson could also be fighting for a roster spot. Saunders said the team will wait to sign the second-rounder until at least after summer league.
"We want flexibility," Saunders said.
Which leaves little room for Fesenko, a center who has 135 games of NBA experience under his belt, Morgan, a stout but undersized center from Michigan, and the rest of the bunch to crack the roster. The best they can hope is to show well enough to land a training camp invite -- in Minnesota or elsewhere -- and/or a call-up due to injury during the season.
The Wolves play Dallas on Saturday then take on Washington on Sunday at 9:30 p.m. before wrapping up preliminary play Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. against Chicago. For the second consecutive year, all 24 teams will be seeded into a bracketed tournament that concludes with a championship tilt Monday, July 21.
Every team is guaranteed at least five contests.
"I've been watching a lot of (Orlando Summer League) games," LaVine said. "It's your first little bit of competition with other players you've been playing against in (pre-draft) workouts, in college and on teams you've been seeing on TV. It's going to be a lot of fun."