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Q&A: Sam Mitchell weighs in on Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins — and the Wolves season so far

Part one of an extended conversation with the team’s interim coach. 

Sam Mitchell: "I am constantly tweaking our offense, trying to figure out what can we do to get more scoring."
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

On Dec. 12, I received a call from Sam Mitchell. The Minnesota Timberwolves coach was having dinner in Phoenix with a mutual friend of ours, Bob Hummel, who long ago covered the Wolves for the now-defunct Twin Cities Reader.

Hummel had read my MinnPost column regarding Mitchell’s often contentious relationship with the local media and, unbeknownst to me, had obviously made it a topic of conversation at the meal.

“Bob tells me that you are a fair guy and that’s good enough for me,” Mitchell said. “I will meet you one-on-one at any time and we’ll just sit down and talk. You can ask me whatever you want. Just don’t do it on the day of a game. I’m competitive as hell and my friends and family know enough to leave me alone on game days. Schedule it for some day after practice.”

The Wolves’ recent four-game home stand, with a day off between each game from Jan. 6 to Jan. 12, seemed like the most opportune time for this interview. It also would continue a burgeoning tradition, begun with the late Flip Saunders the previous two seasons, of MinnPost sitting down for an extended conversation at the beginning of a calendar year with a Wolves coach or president of basketball operations to discuss the current state of the team.

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The interview was scheduled for after practice on Jan. 7, through Wolves Public Relations Manager Aaron Seehusen, who sat in on the conversation. Despite a rough patch that had seen Mitchell’s team fall from a record of 9-13 at the time he called me to 12-24 by last Thursday (before subsequent losses to Cleveland and Dallas), Mitchell kept to his word and engaged in a completely on-the-record talk for 65 minutes.

What follows is the first part of that conversation. Look for the second part of this conversation later this week: 

MinnPost: Over the summer and early fall, you didn’t know how much control you were going to have over this team due to the failing but uncertain health of Flip Saunders. [Saunders passed away in late October, three days before the start of the season.] How soon did you know between the time it was announced you were temporarily taking over in September and then training camp and the beginning of the season? More specifically, how much of your independent stuff could you put in before the season started?

SM: We didn’t really know about coach [Saunders]. Always kind of in the back of our minds we just assumed that he was going to be coming back at some point. We didn’t know, but a date had been floated out, sometime in November [looking at Seehusen, who nods] that coach would be back.

So when that is in your mind, the tough thing is, you start off on the basis of defense because that was just the easiest thing to do. You are stuck by what you implement. When you are an assistant coach — at least my approach to being an assistant coach — I don’t walk in with an agenda. That ain’t my job. My job is to walk in with an open mind and open ears and when coach says, “OK, this is what I want to do defensively, this is what I want to do offensively,” look at those things he wants to do and help him tweak it to fit our team. You don’t come in and do it with your own plays and your own defensive principles. You don’t even think about that.

And so when I came in, all I was thinking about was, “OK, since we were so bad defensively last year, let’s just focus on the things we can try to change immediately.” So we put whole-heartedly into the defense. We were trying to get that better because coach runs a lot of stuff [on offense] that he likes to run. I ran some of his stuff, a couple of his sets in Toronto, but I ran a more wide-open game as far as pick and roll, because I had shooters. You know, I had Bargnani, Kapono, Parker, Bosh, Calderon — I had shooters. Matt Barnes. What’s the guy from UConn who could shoot? Donyell Marshall.

So I had shooters, bigs and littles. So we opened a lot of the game up with pick-and-rolls and pass-and-cut and shot a lot of threes. But you know coach runs a lot of sets.

MP: Tight weaves.

SM: And if you look at our team [in Minnesota], our personnel is not used to playing in flow. Our teams in Toronto were in the top five in scoring every year I was there. But if you look at our team, with Pek as your starting center, you’ve got to run a lot of half-court sets. And so with the thinking that coach was coming back, we just tried to focus a lot on defense. Because I didn’t know how long I was going to be interim coach.

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MP: Plus there is less of a variation on how coaches coach defense than offense, isn’t there?

SM: No, everybody has different principles. Everybody has a different way of doing things. We did things in Toronto based on our size and lack of athleticism. We trapped and made people keep the ball. Our whole thing was we didn’t let you put us in rotation — we didn’t want to be chasing that ball. Because against good teams, you can’t outrun the basketball.

The toughest thing for me this year is that with our personnel, because we’re young and we don’t have shooters — or these guys haven’t developed into good shooters yet — is what can we run? I am constantly tweaking our offense, trying to figure out what can we do to get more scoring.

The toughest thing is that our best defensive team is not very good at scoring. But our guys that can score a little bit better — but are not world-beaters at scoring — they make a lot of mistakes defensively. So if you look at the games that we’ve won and games where we’ve been close, it has been our defense that has done it.

So when you look at it, what is going to give you a better chance to win? Obviously we need to get better offensively and try to open things up and get a little more flow and try to get some easy baskets. But at the end of the day, our inability, our not being able to shoot three-ball, is really tough because everybody just packs the paint. Everybody just sits on the elbows and the boxes and they take away our penetration. And they make us shoot jump shots. Which is tough on us.

That’s why our guys, we have to understand that we’ve got to be able to get out in transition and get some easy baskets. But the tough thing is — some teams like Sacramento, they leak guys out. But they’ve got DeMarcus Cousins down there, getting all the rebounds. When we start trying to leak guys out, then we don’t rebound.

MP: Yeah, Ricky [Rubio] is one of the better rebounding point guards, but that means playing him 94 feet.

SM:  Yeah, but we’ve got to commit all five guys. Because we’re not big and we don’t have a dominating guy who is going to go out there and you know he is going to get X amount of rebounds and start your outlet fast break. We’re already at a disadvantage because we’ve got everybody in the paint to rebound.

MP: Getting back to defense for a minute, you don’t trap that much —

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SM: You don’t see what we do. We do, you just don’t see it.

MP: You disguise the traps?

SM:  Well, I can’t say it because people will be able to read what we do, but we do certain things that, I wouldn’t say trap, but are designed to put a lot of pressure on the ball.

MP: And you started, it seemed like last night in particular [against Denver], switching guards more than you had been before.

SM: No, we didn’t switch.

MP: I mean, I saw it quite a bit with Ricky and Wigs [Andrew Wiggins] when you had [Gary] Harris and Jameer Nelson out there for Denver.

SM: Well, it depends on who it is. Harris and Randy [Foye] or Jameer Nelson, yeah, that’s a no-brainer. I don’t like switching, but if it makes common sense, yeah. Like a lot of times we will switch Nemanja [Bjelica] and Bazz [Shabazz Muhammad]. It depends on who the guy is rolling down to the post. Because, heck, Bazz is probably more physical than Bjelly.

MP: And Bjelly knows the perimeter because of Euroleague.

SM: Yeah.

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MP: Are the kids further behind defensively or offensively? It seems to me it is defensively, with Zach [LaVine] anyway.

SM: Offensively.

MP: You would say, even with Zach?

SM: Yeah. Because if you think about, everybody thinks it is just easy to play offense. But I can show you — OK, let me show you something.

There are two television monitors and a laptop all perched in a row across the side of Mitchell’s desk. All are frozen on tape of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the opponent the Wolves would be playing the next night [last Friday]. Mitchell spends the next five minutes showing the various ways that Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving excels on offense.

SM: Cleveland is just going one on one. The last three possessions they got two layups and a 15-foot jump shot and they didn’t run a single [set] play. So everybody thinks offense is easy, but the thing that Zach and them have to learn is how to cut, how to set your man up.

You know I took Zach out of the game in Philly, because for three possessions in a row he couldn’t get the ball. Now, he was the point guard, right? But he just walked out there. What about setting your man up? What about taking two hard steps away, then stepping into your guy, holding off, then [claps his hands] burst! You would think that’s just natural. But who coached him? I don’t know his high school coach. I don’t know his AAU coach. I know who his college coach was, but he didn’t start or play but 18 minutes a game in college.

People think that learning is easy. But if it is not a habit — OK, you watch Kyrie Irving. Every time he goes to get the ball, he steps into his guy and then breaks off — every time. That’s all he knows. It is a habit. I learned it when I started going to basketball camp. But back then, that was professional coaches at those camps, high school and college coaches teaching us. It wasn’t some guy that owned a car wash and had some money and decided he was going to start an AAU team and he was gonna be the coach because he read a book or he watched basketball, and thinking he can coach. No, I had professional coaches.

So, we’re trying to teach him and others about spacing; about timing; when to cut; finishing your cut

MP: Shot selection.

SM: Shot selection. Passing. Did you see that pass last night? [Denver] switched Jameer Nelson on to G [Gorgui Dieng]. Zach was at the top of the key. What pass do you throw, with Jameer Nelson at 5-9 [listed at 6-0] and Gorgui at 6-11? He threw him a bounce pass. Not only a bounce pass, but he tried to throw [Mitchell leans to the side and flicks his outstretched right wrist as if putting English on the ball] a pass as though it is going to spin back to G miraculously. And I’m sitting there thinking, this is an NBA player. This is the 13th pick in the draft. And Gorgui has a 5-9 guard on him who is 34 years old [as of Feb. 9]. And our second-year point guard tries to throw him a bounce pass, instead of just throw it up there toward the basket.

Now people will say, “He should know that.” Well, we can’t take for granted that he does, because he showed last night that he don’t. So we have to teach everything. If we forget one thing, it bites us in the ass. If we forget telling our guy not to walk up but to step in and now break and get open, then we don’t get open.

We have to teach them how to set a proper screen at the right angle. We put in something today and the difference is the angle of the screen. [He stands up to demonstrate, showing that the Wolves were setting screens in a manner that compelled opponents easy access to the player with the ball.] I’m saying, “Now why would you set a screen that way when we want are trying to get [the opponent] to go the other way?” And they looked at me, so I said, “OK, let me show you how to set the screen.”

These are things that veteran teams just take for granted. We have to teach all of that. So, OK, people think, “Well you told them.” But how long does it take to break bad habits, habits that you have had ever since you started playing basketball? You can’t just do it by telling them once. If no one has ever taught you how to set a proper screen, I have got to show you Monday, I have got to show you Tuesday, I got to show you Wednesday, on tape Thursday, on tape Friday — until it becomes second nature.

So how long does it take? For every guy it is different. The great ones, like KG — [snaps fingers]. Man, KG just picked it up. Other guys, it takes a while. But that is the difference between winning and losing. That is the difference between you being able to get down here [motions at spot on floor] with your first dribble instead of your third dribble. It makes all the difference.

MP: Time wasted.

SM: Not just avoiding time wasted, but creating gaps and seams.

MP: I know it is only 35, 36 games into the season, but do you feel like they are picking up these fundamentals or do you feel like they are static right now?

SM: Not static, but it is like some guys learn at a different pace. I understand your question. Think about where G has come from. But I have coached G hard this year. G has made tremendous strides. Look at Bazz, how he is starting to move the ball. You’ve seen Bazz play — eyes on that rim all the time. But you can’t play like that [laughs]. You have got to learn to play with others. But if you look at Bazz the last few games, he is moving the basketball.

MP: And his shot selection is a lot better, including squaring up for those corner threes.

SM: Getting a lot better, yes. And so now when he’s driving, instead of shooting floaters over those 7-2 guys, he’s doing this [mimics pass]. Because that [floater] is a bad shot against those big guys. You may make one or two out of 10, but that is a 20 percent shot. We want to get you to where you have a 50 to 60 to 70 percent chance of scoring when we move the ball.

So when you look at G and Bazz, they’re getting it. Look at Andrew Wiggins, the progression that he is making, and look at Karl [Anthony Towns]. Well Zach, everybody learns at a different pace. But now we’re also asking Zach to play a position he has never played before. So everybody picks up things at a different pace.

MP: The thing about Zach, you wanted him to be a two-guard in training camp and it quickly didn’t work out very well. Then later into this season, you again created space for him at the two-guard by cutting K-Mart’s [Kevin Martin’s] minutes and again it didn’t work well. But when I look at Zach’s game, it seems like his natural skill set and progression are much better suited for shooting guard than point guard. He doesn’t have enough court vision or share-the-ball mentality to play the point.

SM: I agree, but when you look at him at the two-guard, look who he has got to guard. Tomorrow, J.R. Smith: 6-6, 230 [listed at 225 pounds]. And the list goes on and on.

MP: I know. Frequent mismatches defensively.

SM: And so Zach hasn’t figured out that if you are going to give up size, he ain’t figured out how to use his speed. My thing used to be that if you are bigger than me and you are going to beat me up, I am going to run you until your tongue falls out of your mouth. But if you ask Zach right now — and you ask most second-year players — what is the best thing that you do? They can’t tell you.  

Zach right now is just trying to play. When you start playing and thinking, that’s when you’ve got something, when you can do both. As long as you are just playing, you are just out there. And when I say playing and thinking, I am saying doing it without being hesitant. You are just reading as you go.

We are trying to teach Zach certain things that I just knew. I never worried about you guarding me if I was going to down-screen. Because I am going to set you up. I don’t care how shitty the screen is, I am going to make you run into that screen. I am going to take you where I want to take you and make you run into that screen. And then I’m going to come off. Now when I come off, and you are locking and trailing behind, now what is my next read? The big guy. Is he going to step out, or allow me to curl, and if I curl is he going to bump? Is the guy in the lane going to try and shoot the gap? But see, I processed all of that like that [snaps fingers], whereas Zach still does this —

I told him today, when we were practicing. We’re running a play. He catches the ball. He does this [mimics a dribble] and then he does that [mimics a perimeter pass to the side]. I said “Zach … ”

MP: Don’t dribble.

SM: And he said, “Coach, I didn’t do that.” And I said, “Zach, do you think I would blow this whistle and say you just dribbled the ball before you passed it if it didn’t happen? You went from a live dribble, where you still have all your options, to doing this [dribbling once and catching it before passing]. Now what if that guy you are passing to is not open? [By starting and then picking up dribble] you have already predetermined that you are passing the ball. What if he is not open? You’re my point guard, you just picked the ball up and now you are stuck. Rather than catching it, ripping it, being a triple threat, so that if a guy comes open, boom! Now if he isn’t open, you can come back off the screen with your dribble. But you just killed everything we are trying to do on this play because of that one dribble.

Now we are talking with Zach and working with Zach about this over and over.

MP: It seems as if he always goes into that dribble even when he catches the ball open behind the three point line.

SM: Thank you for watching. He’ll be wide open for a three …

MP: a catch-and-shoot three, where his accuracy is much better?

SM: [nods] A catch-and-shoot. And then he’ll do this [mimics], dribble towards the guy.

MP: after an unnecessary up fake …

SM: dribble closer to the guy and get to a contested shot.

MP: Often a long fade-away two pointer.

SM:  And when you ask him — during a timeout, I’ll say, “Zach, why didn’t you shoot the ball?” He’ll say, “I didn’t feel like I was in rhythm or ready to shoot.” But then you dribbled into the defense and took a bad shot. “Was that a bad shot?” See, he doesn’t even realize that he dribbled and then did that. It is so ingrained in him from AAU, and we are trying to break him of that habit.

MP: Moving to Andrew Wiggins, the first month of the season I think he took some people by surprise, but even so, he seems to have hit a wall recently. Is it fatigue or have teams scouted him now and adjusted defensively to stop him?

SM: Now think about it. He is 20. He is in his second year. He is 6-8 and 199 pounds. OK? Now they are putting guys on him and he isn’t a jump shooter. Everything he does is going to the basket, to score and get his free throws. But now the bigs are coming over and they are just going vertical [straight up]. And now when he catches the ball they are sending guys, because they know he likes to spin. They are sending guys different ways. So now we are teaching him how to play out of a double team. Now you have to catch it and see where the double team is coming from and you have got to pass — or if you do decide to attack, you have to decide which guy do you attack?

MP: To get the foul, which he does well.

SM: But you’ve got to attack a guy. And this is all new for him now. So we are telling him that he has one of two choices, because this way [down in the paint being guarded] has gotten harder, so now he has got to run, to play in transition so the defense can’t get set. So that means he has got to work even harder. Whereas before, he could jog down court and we could run a set for him and he’d go one-on-one and get a basket — get fouled or get a bucket. Now, [we want him thinking] I have got to guard, I have got to rebound — because we can’t leak out.

MP: That’s why it is important that he plays shooting guard instead of small forward: to avoid all that pounding at both ends?

SM: Britt, I’m not stupid. If you ask him right now, do you want to play the 2 [shooting guard] or do you want to play the 3 [small forward], he’ll tell you right now he wants to play the 2. He doesn’t want to get beat up. If he’s a 3, he’s got to deal with Lebron James all night tomorrow. When [Oklahoma City] comes in, you’ve got to deal with Kevin Durant at 6-10, and then there are physical guys who are going to beat you up.

Plus, we don’t have many advantages on the court. That is the one advantage that we do have most nights, that we have size at the two guard with Wiggins.

MP: And often an edge in quickness there too.

SM: On most nights that [matchup] is the only advantage we have. Now you look at Cleveland. Unless they are playing Golden State or the Clippers — and I wouldn’t even say the Clippers — Kyrie Irving has the advantage.

MP: Offensively anyway.

SM: Yeah, against other point guards offensively. He can shoot threes; he can drive to the basket; he can shoot it left; he can shoot it right. So most nights, he has got an advantage. J.R. Smith, probably about 50-50. Lebron James every night, okay? So every night, pretty much, they have an advantage at two positions. So it is tilted to them. Now think about us tomorrow. We are going to give up size by the ying-yang. They come off the bench with Timofey Mozgov at 7-1. So [Karl-Anthony Towns] is going to start the game with Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love banging him. Then he gets Mozgov at 7-1.

MP: Just like last night against Denver and their size.

SM: Exactly. Not that KAT is not more skilled. But what I’m saying is that when you are giving up 40, 50 pounds, man, you start off running and jumping and making shots, but by the start of that fourth quarter — when you are doing this the whole time [mimics jousting for position under the basket] for 30 minutes, then in the last five minutes of the game you are going to feel it in your legs. It wears you down. So by the time KAT gets to the fourth quarter, he’s beat up. He’s tired from all that pushing. And, to his credit, he plays so hard, he competes so hard, he tries so hard.

MP: Earlier this season I said to you that I admired the way Towns worked to deny position to his opponent early in the possession and you partially disagreed, saying it didn’t happen all the time that way.  What do you think happens the other times?

SM: This is what happens. [Goes to whiteboard on the wall, points to low left block near the basket.] He gives up too much post position. What we are teaching him is that by the time his guy gets to here, he’s dead — or we have got to trap. The strong play is the defense here [goes to elbow by the foul line].

MP: But he constantly gets whistled for fouls denying up there. I guess that is just part of the rookie process?

SM: Part of the process. I watch KG, he’s draped on people, and they don’t even blow the whistle. Towns touches his man one time, and they’ll blow the whistle. If KAT does this [puts hands as if on opponent’s waist] for one second, they’ll blow the whistle on him. It is going to come with time. But he has got to learn that if he doesn’t start meeting them at the free throw line, he’s in trouble. And that’s what we try and tell him. He fights his ass off once you get down [by the basket] but he’s giving up fifty pounds.

I know you have to make me not get to where I want to get. And that’s hard. Hell, you’ve got to starting fighting them just inside the top of the key.

MP: Is Ricky’s [shooting] differential in the first quarter versus the rest of the game fatigue in the legs or something else?

SM: Well I just think for Ricky, I think a lot of it is fatigue. He plays really hard. He is not strong physically; he doesn’t have strong legs for an NBA player. I remember when KG came into the league, everybody was talking about how skinny he was. But his legs are like tree trunks. You can’t move him.

I remember when I was in Houston in 1985, got drafted by the Rockets and I was in the weight room, and they put 135 pounds on the bench. And Hakeem Olajuwon couldn’t get it off his chest. 135. So we were all laughing, and you know what Hakeem said? “Come get me off the block.” He laughed. “Come get me off the block.” I can’t bench press 135 pounds, but you can’t stop me from getting the ball wherever I want it on the block.

MP: And that’s what Gorgui needs too; more lower body strength.

SM: Gorgui don’t have no junk in his trunk. Gorgui don’t weigh but 230 [he is listed at 241], at 6-11. I weigh more than G! So you see what happens with G, when he gets bumped.

MP: And he’s competitive, so he gets pissed off and overreacts and gets fouled or makes a mistake.

SM: So part of what we are doing, that I’m doing [reaches behind him for a small stack of plastic-bound folders and lays the one with Andrew Wiggins’ name and picture on the cover down on the table] for every player is [this individual guide] for player development. If you look at this [flips pages, most of them full of numbers on some pages, some highlighted in yellow marker, other pages marked with bullet points], we are going through this. We are doing it on every player.

So this is Andrew’s. We are working with him on all of this. Andrew Wiggins. [Points to paragraph.] His mental approach and what we are trying to do [to improve it]. What we are doing to him and where he is right now and where he ranks. What he has done thus far. His shots that he has taken. What we are focusing on and working with him on, and where he ranks in those areas. And then, when we get down here to what we are doing with him.

[Points to specific highlighted numbers.] Pull-up jump shots. He has got to make fifty [in practice]. Pick and roll passing. Three-point shooting: got to make 50 at five different spots. Defensive areas of focus. There is video stuff and different points of emphasis. Free throws. Every day they have to make 50 in practice, but they have to shoot 85 percent or keep doing it. Three point shooting. You’ve got to make 25 in five spots — it is up to you how long it takes.

Then we go ahead into weight training, alright? Pictures: Look at how he looks there [a series of photos have the month they were taken listed below]. We got him up to 200 pounds — he was listed at 194. But this is six pounds of muscle, alright? Lean muscle mass. Strength exam we go here: This is his history. Areas of improvement: This is where he has improved. Here is the focus of where we are working. Summary. [The last page or two detailing what has been laid out.] And we are doing this on every player.

MP: So where it says Phase II, that means what is next?

SM: What’s next. Every player. The Timberwolves have never done this before. We did it in Toronto. So at the end of the year, when my general manager would ask me questions about this, this, this and this—[picks up Wiggins folder and slaps it down on table] there you go on every player.

Every shot he took for the season, every weight he lifted, everything we talked to him about, everything we worked with him about. So then when someone wants to come in and say, “Hey now, Andrew Wiggins didn’t do this or this or this.” Wait a minute now, hold on. We got it documented. And we show this to the player and they sign it. This is what we have done with you. So they can’t say, “Coach we didn’t do that.” Every day we chart every shot they take in practice, and games. The Timberwolves have never done that. I started doing this in Toronto on every player. Every player. So that at the end of the season when the general manager had questions, I could pull that book out and show him every single day for the season.

And we update this three times a year. We start it at a certain point in the season and then another point and then at the end of the season. And the same thing is going to happen—we are going to have a player development program this summer. This is something the Timberwolves have never done that we have got to do — our summer program. Not summer league. Not come in here four days before summer league and try to do something. We want them here — they have three weeks off and then we need them here. They have got to get bigger, they have got to get stronger — but not just go pack on dead weight, that slow you down and cause injuries. Lean mass that adds proper weight.

I remember when I was in Milwaukee and they kept bulking up Joel Przybilla to guard Shaq. I get there as an assistant coach, and I said, “Coach, Joel is here in the East and Shaq is in the West. He’ll only play Shaq twice.” You see, he can’t move. Joel Przybilla was a shot-blocker. Athlete. Man, they put on like 40 pounds in Milwaukee and his feet started hurting and he couldn’t run or jump — he couldn’t do nothing. So I got him to lose weight and try to get him back to what he used to be — long and athletic and a shot-blocker, with lean muscle mass.

That’s the thing we’ve got to do here. Wigs is going to gain weight. But we want him when the weight comes to put on functional weight, lean muscle. Just think, if we can get him to 205 by the end of the summer if he is in my program or 208 in his muscle, how much quicker and more bouncy and athletic he is going to be — and stronger. So it is important that our guys give up some time this summer and I am going to push hard for them to be here this summer.