Saunders wants Wolves to be ‘makers, not shooters’

Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders (right) is trying to improve the shooting of players like point guard Ricky Rubio, who has a career field-goal percentage of just 36.8.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Even in a world where young stars are pampered to sometimes gross excess, the good, old-fashioned threat of suicides still holds sway.

During the Timberwolves’ rookie camp last month, coach and president Flip Saunders noticed Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and friends taking an exorbitant amount of 3-pointers. As he’s been wont to do since he first had the coach’s whistle back in his hand, Saunders halted practice and told them each missed 3 the rest of the day would result in a wind sprint.

For the final 35 minutes of the workout, no one shot from behind the arc.

"I told them if they don’t have any confidence to make a 3 because you are going to run, I don’t want you to shoot that in a game, either," Saunders said. "That is the mentality that we have to get to. We have to take shots and when we shoot it, that we believe it’s going in."

There hasn’t been much logical reason for that belief around the Target Center the past half-decade. Since 2005, the Wolves rank 26th in the league in field-goal percentage (44.6 percent) and 29th in 3-point percentage (34.3).

Last season, Minnesota’s 44.4 percent field-goal clip was 23rd in the league. A year after finishing dead last in 3-point shooting, the Wolves shot 34.1 percent and moved up to 26th.

And that was with Kevin Love, who’s wearing Cavaliers wine and gold this season.

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There’s a glaring correlation, of course, between the Wolves’ errant field-goal attempts and their 10-year postseason drought, the NBA’s longest active one.

Much of the blame is projected upon Ricky Rubio. The point guard is a 36.8-percent career shooter.

But it’s a widespread problem, even on a revamped roster that has folks around here more excited about professional hoops than they’ve been in a while. Of Minnesota’s returners, only Kevin Martin and Robbie Hummel shot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc. Mo Williams makes a nice addition, and Thaddeus Young can hit big jumpers from time to time.

LaVine and Wiggins aren’t yet known for their shooting. Anthony Bennett, the 2013 draft’s No. 1 overall pick, made 35.6 percent of his field-goals in a disappointing rookie campaign.

There are no quick fixes at this point. But there are ways to chip away at the deficit.

"It’s more psychological than anything," newly hired shooting coach Mike Penberthy said.

The focus

Saunders’ run-and-gun offense will be aimed at creating easy buckets, either via the fast break or driving to the hoop quickly while defenses are still on their heels.

But shots won’t always come so effortlessly. And when they don’t, one area of evaluation will be harped upon in the Wolves’ film room this season.

Proper shot selection.

"What is a good shot? What isn’t a good shot?" Saunders said. "Many times, we have guys take 3-point shots that say, ‘Hey coach, I’m wide open.’ I say, ‘Yeah, there is a reason.’ They aren’t going to guard you out there. They want you to shoot that.

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"We want makers. Not shooters."

That means players remaining in their lane. Young, for example, has a green light to shoot 3s when they’re available after adding that facet to his game last season. His backup, Bennett, is being asked to dial back on the outside assault.

Bennett attempted one three per game and made just 24.5 percent of them last year. Midrange jumpers and finishing at the rim are much more within his skillset, so that’s what Saunders has told him to do.

Effective team shooting requires each player knowing his role.

That means Martin (38.5 percent career 3-point shooter), Williams (38.5), Chase Budinger and J.J. Barea (34.7) taking the bulk of long-distance shots. LaVine, Wiggins and Bennett, meanwhile, are being asked to develop their game while staying within themselves.

"With our rookies, we’ve got a lot of potential," Rubio said. "I wouldn’t say we took a step back to make two forward; we just have to see how they fit in the league. A player can be all hype and have great potential, but not everybody fits well in this league.  We’ll see how the rookies fit and how they fit with us, too."

The guru

Hired shortly before training camp after working with Rubio, LaVine, Budinger and Shabazz Muhammad this summer, Penberthy jokes if NBA games were H-O-R-S-E, he’d still be in the league.

"He can still light it up out here with the best of them," Budinger said. "Just watching him, he’ll rattle off 10 in a row from 3 without even trying."

This is the man charged with helping turn around Minnesota’s shooting woes. Penberthy’s smooth outside stroke landed him a spot on the Lakers for two years, including the 2000-01 championship team, and he continues to impart it upon players today.

Saunders thinks Penberthy can be the next Chip Engelland, the famed Spurs shooting coach. Like Engelland, Penberthy will work with players mostly on a one-on-one basis outside of practice.

The job for me is to get them shots and then they have to make it.

Flip Saunders

He’s already begun, sticking around with guys like Budinger and Robbie Hummel immediately following workouts.

"Sometimes you can miss shots, but if you take the right shot, it’s the right shot," Rubio said. "Coach says he’s coaching right or bad shots. When it’s a bad shot, even if it goes in, sometimes you have to learn why it was a bad shot. It’s something that you have to learn through your career."

And so is overcoming the mental block associated with a cold shooting spell. The best shooters move on from misses quickly.

Rubio, admittedly, isn’t always able to do that.

"When the ball doesn’t go in even if it’s a good shot, sometimes I get too frustrated," said Rubio, who’s currently in contract extension discussions and reportedly wants a max contract despite his shooting struggles. "I just have to be focused on the next play. Sometimes, I think too much."

But Penberthy isn’t about to reconstruct a player’s shot unless he needs to. Instead, he hones in on the finite details — a lack of leg power here, a slightly misaligned elbow there.

For example, after a practice last week, Penberthy spent about 15 minutes having Budinger shoot jump shots from near half-court. Why? To make sure his body was aligned correctly and he was putting enough force into his shot.

Budinger struggled to do that last season after coming back from a second knee surgery in the same calendar year.

"Sometimes if you get with shooting coaches, they try to pretty much totally change up your shot, and mentally that’s what kills guys," Budinger said. "It totally messes them up. But Mike’s really good at — he knows everybody’s got a different type of shot, so he doesn’t try to correct anybody; he shows you how to improve it a tiny bit."

No games of H-O-R-S-E yet, though, Budinger said.

"I don’t think anybody would take him up on that," Budinger cracked.

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The plan of attack

Saunders may not have the luxury of volume-shooter abundance. But he does have a deep, athletic roster that leaves his rotation options wide open.

If he hopes to pour in some successive points, he can play Williams at the one and some combination of Martin, Budinger and Barea at the two and three. If Saunders wants to go defensive, Wiggins likely will join Rubio, Corey Brewer and Young in a steals-generating lineup Saunders calls "Gamblers Anonymous."

No matter how Saunders mixes and matches, he’s likely to have a capable shooter on the floor.

But ability and dependability are two different things.

"The job for me is to get them shots," Saunders said, "and then they have to make it."

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