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Impressions from Wolves media day: Flip is spinning, Rubio is bigger and Wiggins is unfazed by it all

Media Day has all the superficiality of speed dating, but it is useful as a first step in establishing context to a long NBA season. 

Ricky Rubio’s accuracy and proclivity as a shooter may be the largest “X factor” for a team and a season that currently has more potential alignments and outcomes than a Tic-tac-toe board.
MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig

Media Day with the Minnesota Timberwolves, as with any NBA team, is best relegated to gleaning first impressions about muscle tone and attitude, bodies and body language. Put simply, you see how the players have been taking care of themselves and hear what messages they want to convey — or don’t care about delivering — to the wretched horde that will be covering their exploits over the next seven months.

The process has the formal superficiality of speed dating. Players rotate in — sometimes in pairs — before the assembled media for a ten-minute question-and-answer period. It would be foolish to put too much stock into anything that is said or demonstrated during this time, of course, but it is useful as a first step in establishing context to a long season.

With that caveat in place, here are my reactions to “Media Day,” spiced with some takeaways from the scrimmages at “Dunks After Dark,” the midnight coming-out party the team staged for its fan base and an NBA-TV audience, which is how I watched it in Mankato earlier today.

Flip and spin: The opening song and dance

The player interviews were preceded by twenty minutes with Flip Saunders, who, as part owner, President of Basketball Operations and now head coach, has more control over this franchise than anyone in Timberwolves history.

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The first nine-plus years of Saunders’ NBA coaching career were spent with the Wolves, of course. Since returning to the franchise after more than five years coaching in Detroit and Washington and another year or so working for ESPN, he has become much more practiced in the art of spin.

For example, since trading his superstar Kevin Love for a package that includes the top overall draft picks of the past two years, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, plus forward Thaddeus Young, Saunders has been repeating his contention that the deal gives the Wolves an “identity” that was lacking last season. Including the Wolves top draft pick Zach LaVine in the equation, Saunders says that new identity emphasizes athleticism and defense. But in the next breath, Saunders will also point out that nearly all of the players — sometimes he says five of the top six, sometimes eleven of thirteen — from last year’s team are returning, and that the Wolves “aren’t rebuilding, we’re building on what we have.”

Got that? This is an established team with an exciting new identity. In a similar vein, Saunders says he will rely on the veteran holdovers to take the pressure off the incoming youngsters, but then also says he believes in giving as much responsibility to talented young players as they can handle.

So begins a fascinating dance between developing the kids and mollifying the vets, a yo-yo, back-and-forth necessity that enhances the need for spin.  One thing Saunders said that required no contradictory qualifier is that this will be the most competitive training camp of his long NBA tenure. That’s because, with the departure of Love, the Wolves are bereft of genuine stars (identifying their best player makes for a fascinating debate) even as Saunders has done an excellent job of stockpiling the roster with promising talent that isn’t close to being ready to win games at this level. The gap between the best player and worst player on the 15-man roster is probably smaller than any other NBA squad.

Another potential source of concern heading into this season is how well Saunders can adapt his signature coaching style to reflect changes in the modern game. Early in his career, Saunders was never a big proponent of the three-point shot, which has evolved into an integral, if not paramount, component of the modern NBA offense. Thus it was discouraging to hear Saunders spin and sidestep a question about the team’s relative lack of three-point marksmen now that Love is gone. “We want makers, not shooters,” he replied, emphasizing shot selection while launching into an anecdote about telling his young players they would have to run laps for every three-pointer they missed. So nobody attempted any treys. If you are afraid to take them because of added exercise, I don’t want you taking them during a game, Saunders instructed them. 

But figuring out shot selection is part of the weaning process for the likes of LaVine and Wiggins, and both will need that skill to fulfill their considerable potential. The coach’s laps gambit squelches the trial-and-error process in that regard. If Saunders wants to discourage wayward treys, he should start with veteran Corey Brewer, even he should encourage another vet, Kevin Martin, to devote more of his offense to shots behind the three-point arc.

Some of the other signature attributes of Saunders’ coaching style will be put to the test this coming season. He has always made it a priority to establish a pecking order on the roster, properly believing that it enhances team chemistry when players know their place. On Media Day, he claimed that part of his sterling record for winning close games comes from this philosophy. “Number one, we have to get a pecking order so we know who to count on in certain situations.” Okay, but how does an established pecking order gibe with a roster that you hope is in flux as the youngsters increasingly come to challenge the vets for playing time?

In short, we can expect a lot of pretzel logic from Flip Saunders this coming campaign.

A plethora of wings

When looking at the 2014-15 roster and sussing the Media Day player interviews, perhaps the most tangible reason for optimism is the stockpile of swingmen, or “wings,” that Saunders has assembled. These are the players who can “swing” between the shooting guard and small forward positions, with some even capable of getting minutes at power forward or point guard, depending on their size and skills. Positive signs abound among this group. If there is credence to Saunders’ “identity” comment, it is that an organization that historically has relied on big men may be looking at significant upgrades in its performance on the wing.

Let’s begin with the holdovers. The most revelatory comment of the entire Media Day sessions was issued by Kevin Martin, who said, more than once, that he hasn’t delivered a maximum effort the past few years.

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Specifically, in a reference to Saunders replacing Rick Adelman, Martin said, “Flip is more demanding. I’m not going to get away with the things I got away with last year…not get by on talent…it is good to see him hold me accountable.” Earlier, he confessed that he had been “riding the coat tails of superstars” like Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City and Kevin Love of Minnesota “the past three or four years,” and again said, “I can’t get away with things I have gotten away with before.”

Now Martin’s tone was playful throughout his session, and I know he believes his words were leavened by this tongue-in-cheek approach. But he spoke the absolute truth. Whatever motivates him toward accepting and changing that reality is a positive force.

The other returning starter, Corey Brewer, was less sanguine. You could tell Brewer, who won two national championships in college at Florida, is disdainful of a couple of hotshot kids using college as merely a pivot to the pros, kids who are now being hyped as the new blood that will change the face and fortunes of the franchise. Brewer’s calling card is energy and disruptive defense; in that respect, the upstarts are on his “identity” turf.

Brewer chafed when I suggested that Wiggins — who Saunders has frequently hyped as a ready-made NBA defender — may now emerge as the team’s “wing stopper,” the one charged with shutting down the opponents top wing scorer. I reasoned that Wiggins, who outweighs Brewer by 15 pounds, may better be able to defend the post, leaving Brewer to return to his more comfortable role as a disrupter who presses and double-teams on a freelance basis.

Brewer replied that if I believed that, “you’re not watching me; nobody posted me up.” What I watched was a player frequently out of position because he gambled for steals and leaked out early for outlet passes from Kevin Love; a 185-pound player frequently asked to guard opponents who are 30 or 40 pounds heavier; a player ill-suited for the role of defensive stopper.

On the other hand, Brewer’s feisty attitude heading into training camp certainly won’t hurt the competitive jousting that will make everybody better in the long run.

Probably the most encouraging mixture of physical health and mental attitude came from Chase Budinger, who pronounced himself in the best shape since undergoing two knee operations the past two seasons. Budinger also seemed both comfortable in his own skin and anxious to prove what he can do in the crowded field of wings. Certainly, his three-point shooting and ability to move without the ball can be valuable to the Wolves.

Second-year swingman Shabazz Muhammad has undergone the most dramatic physical change, having lost 20 pounds and transforming his body to the point where his face and entire mien look different. Because Muhammad was most effective battling big, heavy opponents down in the paint for points and rebounds last season, I asked him if the weight loss was such a good idea. “I’m much stronger, much quicker now,” he said firmly, brimming with pride and confidence. He honestly believes he will be better in the paint because of his conditioning.

Then there are the heralded teenagers, whose temperaments are fire (Zach LaVine) and ice (Andrew Wiggins). LaVine commented about how much planning and emphasis he put into the dunk contest he was going to have with Wiggins down in Mankato. Wiggins said quietly that he knows when he plays that he can “impact the game.” In an earlier interview, Wiggins had told me he thought there was more pressure on him coming into college than coming into the pros. He seems unfazed by it all. Within minutes of the start of the scrimmaging at the Dunks After Dark event, he cleanly, almost casually, blocked Muhammad’s shot on a drive to the hoop.

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In short, the Wolves seem to have a large, variegated and tasty of order of wings to sort through, without even mentioning Robbie Hummel and Glen Robinson III, two guys who seem ideal in the role of guys who practice hard and stay ready at the end of the bench.

Odds and ends

The notion of “veterans mentoring the youngsters” is one of those stale clichés that is easy to state but difficult to ascertain, let alone execute, in a definitive manner. But the way Mo Williams breezed in, spouted lessons he had learned in strategically detailed terms, and simultaneously downplayed his stature while talking about how he can communicate with his teammates, indicates that the Wolves made a wise investment in the veteran combo guard. 

Incoming power forward Thaddeus Young is an upgrade in talent over former Timberwolf Dante Cunningham but shares Cunningham’s penchant for emphasizing his coachability. Young declared that if Saunders wanted him to run through a brick wall, he would do so, and claimed he would trip his grandmother if it helped his team win games. He also is very careful with his words—when I asked him to describe his ideal role on the team, he replied, “Just being me, being solid, being efficient.” 

Of course, that caution didn’t prevent a blogger from perverting his comment in praise of Kevin Love into a knock on Kevin Love. “Click bait” and clichés are the bane of journalism — and increasingly siphon the joy out of any commentary in sports, much in they way they have done so in politics. 

Ricky Rubio looks bigger and dramatically more mature than before. For the second Media Day in a row, he has treated the interview session as a mundane part of the process. When I asked him about Saunders’ contention that he tries to pass so fervently that his shot is a default behavior — and thus frequently inaccurate — he more or less agreed, but also didn’t seem inclined to change that mindset. Why someone with such a high basketball IQ can’t see the benefits of calling his own number more often to keep defenses honest is baffling. The unpleasant alternative theory—that his flagrant unselfishness masks his lack of confidence as a shooter—should be revealed or debunked during the upcoming training camp. Rubio’s accuracy and proclivity as a shooter may be the largest “X factor” for a team and a season that currently has more potential alignments and outcomes than a Tic-tac-toe board.