NBA summer league isn't just for rookies
LAS VEGAS – Mike Harris has played in 34 NBA games over three seasons, none since April 9, 2011. He's 29 years old, and since graduating from Rice in 2005, he's played for 10 different teams, in everything from NBA games to summer league to overseas contests.
In basketball, unproven at 29 can translate to irrelevant. Harris hasn't stuck at the professional level in the United States, and he might never see action in another NBA game. But for the past week and a half, he's been an important player on the Timberwolves' summer league squad.
Harris is the second-oldest player on the Timberwolves' summer league team, which with its average age of 24.9 years, boasts the second-oldest of the 23 NBA teams' rosters. Only the Knicks, with an average age of 25.3, fielded an older team. But the Timberwolves' age was not forced upon them. It's intentional, a conscious decision by coaches to put together a group of players from whom younger teammates can learn.
"What we did was try to step to the players who have been through this experience before," coach Shawn Respert said of the Timberwolves' roster. "Some games, you won't play, and when you don't play, you can still sit on the bench and look and learn and help the guys who are out there playing."
"We put that onus on our players to help us facilitate those guys that come out of the game and onto the bench. Help bring that anxiety down, that anger about coming out of the game, so that their minds are back clear to playing the type of basketball that we need them to play."
Harris is one of those players. So too is 29-year-old Coby Karl, the oldest player on the Timberwolves' roster who's bounced around the world of basketball since finishing at Boise State in 2007. Then there's Israel's Lior Eliyahu, 26, and the 27-year-old Zabian Dowdell, who's played in just one NBA season since going pro in 2007. Kammron Taylor, a 27-year-old Minneapolis native, has never played in an NBA, but he too was important during the five games in Las Vegas.
These are not household names. They never will be. But for Shawn Respert and David Adelman, co-coaches of the Timberwolves' summer league team, they were an informed decision. When teams put together summer league rosters, there are a number of directions in which they can go to select players. Some teams bring in a crop of undrafted rookies. Others field more young players from their own NBA rosters. Others defer to their recently selected lottery picks. And some, like the Timberwolves, look for a large dose of experience, perhaps with little NBA success.
For a team that was plagued with immaturity and inexperience last season, it's not the craziest idea. The Timberwolves don't have a big-name rookie at summer league; instead, their roster is built around players with NBA experience who've yet to meet their potential: Derrick Williams and Wes Johnson. This isn't an exhibition of their skills, but rather a chance for them to learn, and as such, the Timberwolves' cadre of older players might come in more instrumental than it might appear.
"I think the funny thing is the guys that play for us during the season have a lot to learn from these guys that may not play for us during the real NBA season," Adelman said. "These guys play together. They screen for each other. They make the extra pass. They communicate defensively. I think sometimes that stuff is lost."
Respert, who took on more responsibility during summer league than his regular-season role as a player development coach typically offers, gives a lot of credit to his team's older players. He spoke favorably of Karl and Harris as "young coaches" who've settled down the team's younger players and helped them get into the right mentality to play.
For Karl, that role comes naturally. He's the son of Denver Nuggets' coach George Karl, and with his experiences over the past five years, he knows how to adjust. Karl has played in the NBA, in regular-season games with the Lakers, Cavaliers and Warriors, in the D-League and across Europe – an a-typical resume that's almost normal on this year's Timberwolves' summer league roster. He's become more accustomed to playing with new teammates and to helping younger players as he's aged into something of a veteran.
"I think you see, especially with myself and Mike and Zabian, guys that have been in and out of the NBA and have been through this experience a couple times, you try to make them understand that it's not all about scoring," Karl said. "It's not all about flash or about making a great play. It's about making the right play and passing, making that extra pass."
Karl admitted that much of what he preaches to younger players might sound clichéd, but it's exactly what coaches want. Karl has been both a player and an observer of the sport for years. He's watched his father and the multiple teams for which he plays. Although he hasn't found individual success, Karl knows that the best teams win by doing the simple things right.
They make extra passes. They play solid defense. They do many of the things with which last year's Timberwolves' team struggled.
"If these young guys we have like Derrick can learn anything, it's about that this is a five-man game," Adelman said. "If you're good at being in a five-man game, you're just taking the next step."
It might be tempting to make a crack about the Timberwolves' too-big, too-old roster. But summer league isn't about fielding a team of stars, not when the only stars who play at summer league are typically no older than 21 or 22 – the last kind of players the Timberwolves need. Summer league isn't even about winning, unless you're the Bobcats and are starved to prove you can win at even the lowest level. These games are about learning and improvement. They're extra competition, a chance to experiment and make mistakes. They're about gaining exposure.
Derrick Williams and Wes Johnson might never see the likes of Coby Karl, Mike Harris and company again. This might be the last shot at playing in the NBA for many of the players whom the Timberwolves brought to Las Vegas. But if this week unfolded the way that Adelman and Respert hoped, the roster choices might pay off. Good habits aren't learned in a week, but still, this couldn't have hurt.
Plus, Karl can shoot a pretty solid three.
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