Wolves’ young players getting plenty of preseason court time
Timberwolves rookies Andrew Wiggins (with ball) and Zach LaVine (left), as well as veteran Mo Williams (right), aren't much for singing, but the newcomers will see plenty of court time in the preseason as they learn Minnesota's playbook.
MINNEAPOLIS — In a 21st-century, YouTube-generation version of rookie hazing, Timberwolves newcomers stood up before their teammates Friday night at Rounders Sports Bar in Mankato, Minn., and belted out some contemporary karaoke tunes.
Andrew Wiggins rapped along with Tupac’s "Dear Mama." Zach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III teamed up for a duet cover of Usher’s "You Got it Bad." Even 12th-year veteran Mo Williams, who signed this summer as an unrestricted free agent, grabbed the mic at one point.
The consensus: "Nobody can really sing on this team," point guard Ricky Rubio said.
"Not one person," LaVine agreed. "I think I can sing in the shower, but that’s about it."
Extracurricular talent — or lack thereof — aside, the NBA initiation process for LaVine, Wiggins and Robinson is in full effect.
Nights like Friday are aimed at building cohesion. Menial labor, such as putting away basketballs like Robinson did after practice Monday, keeps the value of dues-paying at the forefront.
And a week of training camp at Minnesota State in Mankato taught them the rest.
"I ran into (6-foot-11, 290-pound center Nikola) Pekovic one screen, and my whole body just collapsed," said LaVine, who’s 19 like Wiggins and weighs 180 pounds. "I thought, ‘Wait a minute.’"
Six days of rigorous, physical practice in owner Glen Taylor’s hometown has led up to Tuesday and the first of seven preseason contests, this one at Indiana’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse. A focus on defense and imbuing the rookies with plays and concepts to memorize now shifts to evaluating what they can do outside of rehearsal time.
"Practice is different than game," Rubio said." We’re going to see how they adapt in an NBA game, even if it’s preseason. We’re going to have some games to see how they react, especially their defense."
Which is why coach and president Flip Saunders will play more newcomers than veterans between now and Oct. 24, the date of Minnesota’s final exhibition test. He’ll go with combinations of 10 or 11 different players in each game, ensuring a good look at each one’s development.
Minnesota spent plenty of practice time walking through defensive tactics. How much of that information sunk in will be revealed Tuesday. So will the new guys’ knack for moving the ball and executing on offense.
Saunders said he’ll be looking for "hockey assists" — secondary passes that lead directly to helpers that show up in the box score.
"I don’t know much we’ll play a lot of our vets," Saunders said after practice Monday. "And we’re not going to play all 18 guys. . . . We’ll have some of the vets play a little bit, but probably will not have them play excessive-type minutes."
That means plenty of reps for Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. Although he’s still a rookie, he’s begun to settle in and looked less and less lost as the preseason has progressed, Saunders said.
"He’s very advanced defensively," Saunders said. "His shot’s getting more consistent. He’s understanding more about spacing and where to pass the ball, where to take cuts. . . . His next step will be being able to understand how we want to play and being able to execute more and exert his athleticism more in the flux of maybe a half-court type offense."
LaVine has been working at both the point and shooting guard positions, a doubly steep learning curve but one he’s handled well, Saunders said. The next three weeks will go a long way in determining where the UCLA product fits in a guard rotation that includes Rubio, Williams and J.J. Barea.
The only real roster mystery is who gets weeded out. Including Robinson’s partially guaranteed deal, Minnesota owes 16 players money for this season. Saunders has until 4 p.m. Oct. 27 to trim the roster to 15.
Center Kyrylo Fesenko and guard Brady Heslip are virtually out. The final spot appears to come down to either Robinson or Barea, whom Saunders reportedly has tried to trade in the past.
Saunders said Monday he’ll likely wait until after the final preseason game to make any cuts.
The veterans, meanwhile, have a season to prepare for, too. With limited reps available, they’re being asked to focus on individual readiness while helping the youngsters along.
Even if that means razzing them a little bit here and there.
"We know we’re probably not going to play as much as we would normally," small forward Corey Brewer said, "but you’ve got to play hard when you’re on the court and try to teach these young guys what they can do, what they can’t do. We’ve got to get them ready, because we’re going to need those guys this year."
‘Game changer’: Having been on both sides of the NBA’s accord with national television networks, Saunders can lend some unique perspective on the landmark TV deal agreed upon by the league, ESPN and TNT on Monday.
The former ESPN NBA analyst called it a "game-changer."
"It’s one of those things that helps everybody," Saunders said. "There’s no question that when you’re in a league and you’re a player, you’re an owner, a coach — no matter who you are — that when you have more money coming in, that’s a benefit. That’s something as a league, we have to respect."
According to the New York Times, the accord is valued at more than $2.5 billion per year. The astronomical boost in revenue is expected to precede a dramatic salary cap increase but could make way for another lockout in 2017, when both the league and the National Basketball Players’ Association can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement.
In the short term, a larger pie shared by every team means players up for extension can ask for more money. Ricky Rubio, who will become a restricted free agent after this season if he and the Wolves don’t sign an extension by Oct. 31, is one of them.
But he downplayed the TV contract’s significance Monday.
"It’s good for the players, you know, money, but I just play basketball because I love basketball," Rubio said.