Preview: Timberwolves hope new culture translates to wins

MINNEAPOLIS — The featured attraction of this latest fresh start for the Minnesota Timberwolves is Karl-Anthony Towns, the two-time All-Star center who finished in the top 20 in the NBA last season in more than a dozen major statistical categories.

After a tumultuous start to 2018-19 that led to a revamped front office, a new head coach, Ryan Saunders, and several changes to the roster, Towns in year five has the reins of this team both on and off the court. That’s where the next step in his development began to take place during the offseason, encouraging teammates to spend more time in town for workouts and with each other away from the facility.

“That’s different than what I’ve been used to here in Minnesota,” Towns said, “and it’s going to show.”

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The youngest head coach in the NBA at age 33, yet still a decade older than Towns, Saunders has taken over the position his beloved father held for 10 seasons with the Wolves plus a one-year return in 2014-15 before he died of cancer.

Saunders will run a faster offense with greater emphasis on 3-point shooting than his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau. Starting halfway through last season when he took over as interim coach, Saunders has also helped usher in a more upbeat environment, a power-of-positivity approach that’s a clear contrast from Thibodeau’s throwback style. Still, don’t mistake such a young, affable authority for a pushover.

“He also has a side where he’s a dog, you know?” Towns said. “He’s a dog, especially when it comes to getting things right, doing what he commands and asks.”

Culture and process have become just as prominent of concepts around the Timberwolves as perimeter shooting.

“I’m just going to continue doing what I’ve been doing, and that is holding players accountable in my own way and making sure that we’re getting better every day,” Saunders said. “We can’t skip days.”

Minnesota opens the season Oct. 23 at Brooklyn.

WHAT’S THE POINT?

The Wolves are counting on a return to full strength by point guard Jeff Teague, who was limited to a career-low 42 games due to a left ankle injury that lingered throughout the second half of the season and required a cleanup surgery. That was the first of his 10 years in the NBA in which Teague did not reach the playoffs.

“It’s like a blank canvas. We can do anything we want to do. Our team could be really good. No one’s expecting much, and that’s the beauty of it,” said Teague, who’s in the final season of a three-year, $57 million contract.

With Tyus Jones now playing for Memphis, Shabazz Napier will be the primary backup. Rookie Jarrett Culver could be groomed for an eventual takeover.

HIGH HOPES

The Timberwolves moved up in the draft for the sixth overall pick to take Culver, the 6-foot-5 sparkplug from national runner-up Texas Tech. He’s long and quick, with defensive ability on the perimeter the Wolves have badly needed for years.

With Towns, Robert Covington, Andrew Wiggins and Teague locked in to the lineup, there’s a starting spot on the wing that could be rotated depending on matchups and health. Culver will likely be in that mix with Jake Layman, Josh Okogie and Treveon Graham.

MOVING PARTS

The strategy under Saunders has also shifted on defense, where the Timberwolves finished 23rd in the NBA last season with an average of 114 points allowed per game. In keeping with a league trend, they’ll employ more switching to better head off pick-and-rolls and other problematic plays and lean heavily on the long arms and court instinct of Covington.

“It’s just going to give me more freedom to be able to see things on a different scale depending on how and where I am,” Covington said.

THE FACILITATOR

Towns can not only shoot the 3-pointer as well as any big man in the league, but he can be a deft distributor, a skill new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas and Saunders have urged him to use more. One quick flick of the ball out of the post is all it takes to set up a wide-open 3-pointer for a teammate.

“It’s really fun to have the ball in my hands where I am able to do things I’ve been doing since high school, which is be an elite passer,” Towns said. “That’s really where my comfortability in my game comes if I’m not able to score.”

STILL HERE

The longest-tenured player on the team is backup center Gorgui Dieng, who has played for five head coaches in six years and still has two more seasons and more than $35 million remaining on a contract he signed three years ago. With newcomers Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh in the mix as big men off the bench, playing time for Dieng could be sporadic. But over the last eight games of last season, Dieng averaged 14.5 points in 21.5 minutes while shooting 55.2% from the floor.

“When you look at numbers and the way that guys are looking, I’m very consistent since I’ve been in this league,” Dieng said.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

LAST SEASON: 36-46, finished 11th in Western Conference.

COACH: Ryan Saunders (second season, 17-25 as interim coach last season).

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Jeff Teague (12.1 ppg), G Andrew Wiggins (18.1), F Jake Layman (7.6), F Robert Covington (14.5), C Karl-Anthony Towns (24.4).

KEY LOSSES: G Derrick Rose, G Tyus Jones, F Taj Gibson, F Dario Saric, F Anthony Tolliver, G Jerryd Bayless, F Luol Deng.

KEY ADDITIONS: Layman, G Jarrett Culver, G Shabazz Napier, G/F Treveon Graham, F Noah Vonleh, F Jordan Bell, G Jaylen Nowell, C Naz Reid.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Towns is as versatile of a big man as there is in the league, but he can’t carry the scoring load alone so the pressure will be on Wiggins to take a step forward under Saunders in the second year of his max contract extension carrying a $27 million salary cap hit. Having a healthy Covington, the team’s best defender who arrived in the Jimmy Butler trade from the Sixers last season but missed the last 45 games because of a bone bruise on his knee, will be a critical factor. Culver, the sixth overall pick in the draft out of NCAA runner up Texas Tech, ought to provide more of that valuable perimeter defense along with Josh Okogie off the bench. Either of them could crack the starting lineup at some point, too.

OUTLOOK: The Timberwolves have started fresh, yet again, with Saunders, the youngest coach in the league, beneath an overhauled front office headed by new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas. With Towns and Wiggins, they have a pair of under-25 standouts locked in, and a quiet offseason relative to the rest of the NBA yielded some useful role players in Layman, Vonleh, Bell, Napier and Graham. The first steps are to establish themselves as a far more consistent and efficient team on defense and shooting from the outside. With the Western Conference even more loaded than before, though, it will be tough to measure progress in the standings. Increasing their win total will be a tall order.