Athletic LaVine, Robinson III part of Wolves’ new transition attack

MINNEAPOLIS — Zach LaVine’s head slumped down toward the Barclays Center table in Brooklyn before he erected himself and uttered the naughty phrase lip-read around the Twin Cities.

About an hour later in a ballroom in St. John, Ind., Glenn Robinson III breathed his own sigh of relief before hastily arranging a flight to Minnesota.

Friday in the Target Center skyway lobby, LaVine and Robinson sat next to each other as Timberwolves teammates for the first time. Flip Saunders lauded their athleticism. The pair of young, green players praised each other.

And as Minnesota’s 2014 draft picks prepare for the next step on their basketball journeys under the watchful eye of Saunders, they’re providing a clearer picture of where this up-in-the-air organization is headed.

Tempo. Tenacity. Defensive havoc. Not unlike the Wolves groups Saunders led to the playoffs in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

"We’ve always been push-first," Saunders said, alluding to his plans to deploy a transition-oriented attack.

Those teams, of course, had a once-in-a-generation player in Kevin Garnett. LaVine and Robinson aren’t destined for that caliber of greatness, but they do possess the hops, speed and physical gifts the Wolves covet as they seek to develop an identity along with stability.

"If they can’t touch you," LaVine said, "that’s a good thing."

Said Robinson: "I definitely do think we’re here for a purpose — speed the tempo up a little bit."

Young emotion

The damaged psyche of Timberwolves fans tends to reveal itself in the most trifling ways.

Before approaching the stage at Thursday night’s draft, LaVine arose from his chair and let out an "(expletive) me" that sent Twitter into a firestorm of defeatism. The prevailing interpretation suggested the UCLA shooting guard wasn’t happy coming to a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 10 years and has a star player in Kevin Love who wants out of town.

In LaVine’s heart of hearts, that may be the case. But the No. 13 overall selection reiterated during an introductory press conference Friday in Minneapolis his initial reaction was one of relief, not dissatisfaction.

But he did allow that he’s an emotional 19-year-old, one who has a lot to learn about making grown-man money playing a grown-man’s game.

"When my named got called, I lost it," LaVine said with a huge grin. "I’m a very emotional person. I didn’t mean any sort of disrespect to anyone. I’m the most excited person. It was almost like in disbelief that I said that. I felt bad and thought, ‘OK. That’s not the best first impression.’ I hope I can make that up.

"I got up on the stage with the commissioner and I was out of breath a little bit. I told him that I couldn’t breathe. He was like, ‘Yo. You need to calm down.’"

There’s an unmistakable swagger that borders on arrogance with which LaVine speaks. It’s derived from interior confidence, the kind that drives a freshman who started one collegiate game to declare for the NBA Draft.

Receiving limited minutes behind Bryce Alford, the son of Bruins coach Steve Alford, LaVine averaged 9.4 points per game last season. In three NCAA tournament games, he scored eight points.

But Saunders saw something in the 6-foot-5, 180-pound prospect from Seattle, the son of a former linebacker who had a brief stint with the Seahawks in 1987. Short spurts of game action revealed a swift, fluid athlete who could attack the basket and wreak chaos in the defensive backcourt.

His notions were confirmed when LaVine became the only player to finish in the top 10 in all five strength and agility tests at last month’s NBA draft combine. He also recorded a record 46-inch vertical jump while working out for the Lakers.

"Just this year, people started realizing my athleticism," said LaVine, who stands to make between $4.3 million and $6.5 million over the next three years (assuming the Wolves grant him the standard third, team-option season on his rookie deal). "They knew I could dunk and everything, but never people were like ‘Oh, he’s this great athlete.’ Man, I can jump out the gym."

That ability renders LaVine somewhat of a YouTube sensation thanks to a slate of high-flying dunks.

But he’s out to prove he’s more than that.

A 37.5 percent 3-point shooter who made 48 3s last year, LaVine can help Minnesota stretch the floor. He also can play both the point and the wing, Saunders said, and should be able to use his 6-8 wingspan to thwart passing lanes on the perimeter.

One of LaVine’s biggest question marks is his ability to absorb the mental aspects of an NBA system. He is, after all, a teenager with only one year of college under his belt.

But Saunders doesn’t foresee that being an issue.

"That’s up to the coach. That’s what it boils down to," Saunders said. "Many times, it’s (about) the coach’s ability to develop players. It’s the coach’s ability to, one, have the players buy in, put your hands on them, work with them and make them understand."

And preliminary conversations with LaVine don’t reveal a kid who willingly listens to detractors.

"I don’t like doubters," said LaVine, who picked No. 8 in honor of childhood idol Kobe Bryant. "I don’t want to come off as cocky or arrogant in any way. I’m a really down-to-earth person; I don’t want to put myself on a pedestal above anybody else, but I know I put the work in and I know what I’ve done in the gym, so I’m confident in my talents."

Big Dog, Little Wolf

When it came to hoops, Robinson grew up as more of a comparison than a person.

His father, former NBA All-Star and college player of the year Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, tried to shield him from it. But from the moment he first picked up a basketball, Glenn Robinson III was destined to be stacked up against the likes of his dad.

It probably isn’t fair. The elder Robinson was drafted first overall in 1994 after being honored as college basketball’s top player the previous season. His son, by contrast, played an integral role on Michigan teams that reached the 2013 national title game and this year’s Elite Eight but didn’t develop into a bona fide star.

As he sat surrounded by family members in the ballroom his mother had rented out for the draft Thursday, Robinson’s initial anticipation slowly melted into anxiety, he said. Projected by some — including Saunders — as a first-round pick, he began waiting to hear his name called once the lottery selections finished up.

Robinson waited. And waited.

"As the selection show went on," Robinson said, "I got kind of nervous."

Finally, with the 40th overall selection, Minnesota officially signed off on his chance to follow in the footsteps of his father, also a small forward.

But that’s not Robinson’s main fuel as he commences his NBA career. Instead, it’s illustrating to the teams that passed on him they made a mistake.

"It definitely gives me motivation," said Robinson, who will wear No. 22 for Minnesota. "But I’m a big believer in everything happens for a reason. I’m very excited I ended up here on a team who really needs some wing play."

Playing out of position as a sophomore may have hurt Robinson’s stock. The 6-6, 220-pounder fit into John Beilein’s scheme at power forward but will man the three in the NBA.

Like LaVine, Robinson is long, lanky and can be a fast-break force, Saunders said. Robinson shot 52.5 percent from the floor and averaged 12 points per game during his college career.

He’s got a similar build and skill set to his pops. But Big Dog told has always told his young pup to be his own player, Glenn Robinson III said.

"One thing my dad always told me is he didn’t want me to play basketball because he did," Robinson said. "Do it because I wanted to. That’s been something that’s really helped me; it hasn’t put any pressure on me at all. I’m playing the game for myself and for my family."

Joked Saunders, who coached the Wolves from 1995-2005 and faced Robinson’s Milwaukee teams frequently: "I realized that I was getting pretty old, because 10 years ago I was talking to Kevin Garnett about how to stop Glenn Robinson, and now I’m coaching his kid."

Brothers in pace

LaVine and Robinson didn’t cross paths until a pre-draft workout in Chicago this spring.

While going through drills in front of Bulls brass, it didn’t take Robinson long to notice LaVine’s deftness with the ball in his hands.


"Very athletic," Robinson said of his new teammate. "I think everybody knows that. But he’s more than that. He’s a very skilled basketball player who will develop into a great overall basketball player."

The perception, apparently, was mutual.

"Thanks, bro," LaVine chimed back at Robinson on Friday. "I watched Glenn when I was a senior in high school. When the Top 10 plays would come on (ESPN), I’d see him jumping out of the gym dunking on someone."

It’s a Saunders brainchild that’s easy to visualize: passing wizard Ricky Rubio flying up the floor with LaVine on one flank and Robinson on the other. Both said they’re most excited to play alongside the Spanish point guard, and Saunders made it clear he picked the pair in part because of their collective propensity for running the floor.

"I can definitely see that now, us being two dudes on the break that can get out and run," LaVine said. "We can jump, and we can also spot up and shoot and create our own shot as well. With (Rubio), you’ve got to be looking for passes everywhere. It’s going to be a lot of fun."

Wisely, neither LaVine nor Robinson mentioned Love.

The 19- and 20-year-old enter a fracas of a franchise that could look significantly different by the time they don a Timberwolves game uniform. Saunders still has a midlevel exception with which to lure a free agent if he so chooses and must decide whether to deal or keep Love before the start of training camp.

But he pushed the organization’s 2014 construction project forward this week, nabbing a pair of players that directly fit the schemes he wishes to use in his role as head coach.

And that entails a lot of up-and-down.

"We had a great night last night," Wolves general manager Milt Newton said. "We look forward to seeing (LaVine and Robinson) develop and contribute to the basketball team in a way that will take us to the next level, and we look forward to seeing them grow as men as well."

Another Wolverine: Robinson won’t be the only former Michigan player suiting up for Minnesota’s NBA Summer League squad next month in Las Vegas.

According to the Detroit News, ex-Wolverines power forward Jordan Morgan will join his former teammate out in the desert. Morgan, a 6-8, 240-pound bruiser from Detroit, worked out for the Wolves, Cavaliers, Bulls, Grizzlies and Pistons leading up to the draft and was tabbed by some as a second-round prospect.

But he didn’t hear his name called Thursday and will try to crack a roster as a free agent.

During Michigan’s run to the Elite Eight, Morgan averaged 6.4 points and five rebounds per game. He scored in double figures in all four of the Wolverines’ NCAA tournament games, including double-doubles against Wofford and Texas.

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