LAS VEGAS — The NBA Summer League is the ideal place for young players to get adjusted to the speed of the NBA, to learn critical strategies and concepts their new teams and coaches espouse, and to try out new players and new roles that could help the team during the season. It’s not necessarily about winning, but getting better as individual players and as a team.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are doing just that.
As a team, the Timberwolves are starting to get comfortable running new head coach Flip Saunders’ offensive sets that include a lot of motion and screening both on the perimeter and in the key. Players communicated with each other throughout Thursday’s game and the offense flowed. There were several bright spots individually as well.
First-round draft pick Zach LaVine showed increasing promise as the week went on, ramping up his scoring totals from the 13 points in his first game Saturday, to 20 on Wednesday and 16 in Thursday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings even after Alexey Shved’s groin injury forced LaVine to take over the main point guard role.
He’s done it with a style that reminds you of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook — a long-limbed leaper who is nearly unstoppable once he gets
moving, but with a lightning-quick jump shot that he’s not shy about putting on display. And of course, there’s the otherworldly leaping ability that he put featured again Thursday, both with his crowd-pleasing warmup dunks and the powerful slam he completed off of a half court lob from Shabazz Muhammad to open Minnesota’s scoring.
There’s not a lot left for LaVine to improve upon in the Summer League after Thursday’s 16 point, four rebound, four assist, one block showing without once turning the ball over. Now he is looking forward to the next step: learning.
"I felt really comfortable. It’s been a really good experience," the rookie said of his experience in Las Vegas. "Coach Saunders got a big, big playbook. I think I know pretty much all the plays right now, but I’m definitely going to be studying when that big ol’ book comes."
Another key takeaway from Thursday’s game was LaVine’s success out of the pick and roll. He and center Kyrylo Fesenko seemed to really have a connection, and LaVine was able to create space for his own shot or find Fesenko diving to the basket on multiple occasions, including one spectacular pass over the outstretched arms of the defense that led Fesenko right to the front of the rim for an easy layup. His early comfortableness with the play that has become the foundation of many NBA offenses is something that can only improve when a veteran player is involved during the season.
"I just read the defense and take what they give me. If they’re ‘ice’-ing it or if I come off and the big man hedges I can throw it up to the big fella or bounce it to him where he can catch it, but if they stack back I can hit my jumper there," LaVine explained.
Gorgui Dieng also excelled throughout the Summer League, quietly contributing great games to build on a strong finish to the regular season. He has scored in double figures in all but one game and pulled down 12 rebounds to go with the eye-popping 19 he had Wednesday. With the roster light on big men, Dieng’s contributions are going to be critical, and the team has to like see how much he has improved.
"Gorgui’s made a lot of progress. We’re going to need him to fill roles for us and do the dirty work, " said Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders. "We’ve got some things we need to work on with him, but he’s definitely shown a lot of progress and he can score around the basket. He’s got a lot of raw talent and he’s going to be a very good player for us."
In addition to the welcomed success of their guaranteed roster players — including Shabazz Muhammad’s efficient 24 points Thursday — the Timberwolves may have found a diamond in the rough.
Brady Heslip came out of nowhere to make a name for himself Thursday as he joined the starting lineup after playing just 14 minutes previously. He can likely thank Shved’s injury for the start and almost 28 minutes of playing time, but he made the most of it by knocking down four out of five 3-pointers on his way to a 16-point, two-assist game. The former Baylor star’s beautiful shot was not missed by many in the know, and he came off the court feeling good.
"Wish Brady Heslip could stick with Minny. That stroke is still pure," tweeted TNT’s David Aldridge.
"Brady was good. A lot of credit goes to him not playing much the first few games and then being inserted into the starting lineup in a tournament game like this against a team that has a lot of rotation players in the NBA," Saunders said. "If Brady can keep hitting shots he can find a role with anybody. He’s a good player and he stepped up for us today."
Heslip’s great outside shooting would help a Timberwolves team that finished 26th in the league in percentage of made 3-pointers last year. And if he doesn’t stick with the Timberwolves, he’s comfortable knowing that his skill set is highly desired in the basketball world. So much so that he already has offers to play overseas.
The Timberwolves play their final Summer League game Friday against the Phoenix Suns.
GAME NOTES: Glenn Robinson III finally found his shot Thursday as he contributed eight points, two rebounds, an assist and a steal off the bench. . . . Muhammad had an inconsistent summer due to an ankle injury, but he was great Thursday with 24 points, three rebounds, two steals and an assist. . . . The Timberwolves’ 16 offensive rebounds Thursday continued a trend of excellence in that area as they have had more offensive rebounds than each of their Summer League opponents.