Welcome to Part III of my four-part interview with Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch. Parts I and II can be found here and here. They comprised the first half of a conversation that lasted nearly 70 minutes and mostly dealt with how the addition of star center Rudy Gobert will affect the offensive and (especially) defensive schemes the Wolves will deploy in the 2022-23 season.
This second half – including today’s column and the one that will run Saturday –focuses more on specific players and personnel, their growth and compatibility. And it addresses how Finch’s own standing and responsibilities within the organization have changed with the hiring of President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and his bountiful staff.
MinnPost: Have you thought much about combinations of players you want together on the floor in rotation? It seems like Ant (Anthony Edwards) and KAT (Karl-Anthony Towns) and Kyle Anderson form a natural trio and Rudy and DLo (D’Angelo Russell) and Taurean Prince would work well together just in terms of floor spacing and skill-set fits.
Chris Finch: A little bit. Again, I’m trying not to go into the season with too many assumptions; I want to see how things unfold. I do like the combination of DLo with Rudy as much as possible, that’s kind of an obvious one. And Ant and KAT a lot, to maintain that floor-spacing for Ant. So I could see those being pivot points for everything else that we do.
MP: If you have Rudy, DLo and Kyle, there is not a lot of shooting on the floor.
CF: No, but Kyle is so good at attacking closeouts, and you can’t speed him up. Yeah, they might tag off of him, but he is going to drive it to the paint and make the next play. To me, having spacing around a guy like Rudy is not just having shooters. If you have someone with ball skills, who can do something with it … I mean, we can also play Kyle as a point guard in that lineup, and put DLo off the ball. They might switch it – they can do a lot of different things. But the reality is that Kyle is skilled, adept and big enough to be able to find those things.
MP: Kyle is going to be pretty important, isn’t he?
CF: Very. We picked him up before we did the trade, not even knowing – at the time we decided that we wanted him, we were debating the Rudy trade. But we just knew that this guy fills so many gaps. He’s got great size and he’s mature and he’s a good leader and he’s quiet in the way that you need and want mature players to be. And he’s serious. That was just literally nothing that wasn’t highly valued about him.
MP: Will you have another playmaker on the floor if you do run him in a quasi-point guard role, like J-Mac (Jordan McLaughlin) on the floor too?
CF: Yeah I can see that.
MP: Then you have multiple outlets even without the shooting.
CF: I think Jaylen Nowell, too, can be more of a playmaker for us. Jaylen is a hard-wired scorer. But he is one of those guys that can turn corners off DHOs (dribble hand-offs), pin-downs, or pick-and-roll and be able to get to the heart of the defense and make plays. In his limited minutes (in previous seasons) he wanted to impact scoring and we needed that. But right now one of the things we have been talking to him about is just expanding his game to be more of a playmaker.
My first half-season here, he was playing more as a playmaker for us. He did a lot of primary ball-handling and I thought he did a great job with that. Last year we had so many ball-handlers, so he didn’t do it as much.
MP: I was shocked to see that he shot almost 40% from three-point range.
CF: Yeah, I have never viewed him as not a shooter.
MP: But his game is built to burn opponents who encourage you to take midrange shots.
CF: Exactly. He can get to the paint. So I think him, I think Austin Rivers is another guy who can handle it well enough when he is out there, and also shooting with those guys. Austin is great from the corners, a little less-great above the break, but has learned how he can impact the game offensively, off the ball or with the ball. Because all these guys come into the league thinking they are going to score, score, score. But he has matured his game to what the NBA requires of him. But I like the fact that he can handle enough.
MP: Without setting anything in concrete two weeks before training camp, do you think that ninth slot in the rotation is going to get crowded between Jaylen, Austin Rivers and Bryn Forbes? Will playing time be situational?
CF: Could be, yeah. I mean, we haven’t even talked about Bryn.
MP: Yeah. And I count eight players in front of those guys.
CF: I’d like to think that Jaylen is going to jump up and take control of that opportunity there. But there are opportunities to play small around KAT that would give us a chance to get Bryn on the floor.
MP: And there are times when you guys are going to need his shooting from outside. What’s amazing is that every one of your perimeter players was below the NBA average in true shooting percentage last season and yet you guys were still seventh in offensive efficiency because of your shot selection leaning into at-the-rim and three-pointers. But a lot of that was because your bigs were so highly efficient, and that is likely to increase this season.
CF: I think we have the most-efficient rolling big and the most-efficient popping big in the league, so between those two we should be able to figure something out. Obviously Jaden is going to have to make shots for us at a bigger clip.
MP: Yeah, defenses are going to leave him alone.
CF: Oh yeah, he is going to get looks.
MP: How much do you want him to catch-and-shoot and how much do you want him to put it on the deck?
CF: I would say it is like 50-50. His drives to the basket out of the corners last year were pretty good and that’s one of the ways we want to develop him. He’s got too much game just to be a spot shooter.
MP: It took a long time for him to believe that last year.
CF: I think (assistant coach and director of player development) Joe Boylan has done a phenomenal job of getting Jaden to read those close-outs. And with his length, he is literally one dribble to the rim.
MP: You began to see that competitiveness that you don’t get from him too often on offense – his dunks were with a fury.
CF: Also, I think he can be good with Rudy turning corners on DHOs. I think he has a good feel for making those passes; it is just that he hasn’t had a chance to do it. He has the ability to get into the heart of the defense with his length. But then he kind of slows down just enough to be able to make the late play. Which is like DLo’s deal. Where Anthony is different, Anthony is explosive and has to make all of his passes to Rudy early rather than late.
So yeah, Jaden has had a great summer, he looks great, has a ton of confidence. We have tried to teach him how to dictate physicality; hit first and finish.
MP: Do you think he is ever going to be able to be one of those guys that is physical?
CF: Ahh, he’s never going to stack on, like, 30 pounds.
MP: He works so hard and yet it never seems like he adds that weight. Last season he got pushed around too much.
CF: Some of it is body type. He has a high center of gravity. But there is also a difference in man-strength, growing into your muscles; all of us go through that and fortunately for us that is still ahead for him, whether he puts on another five pounds or another twenty pounds. I don’t want him to bulk up too much. I want him to get stronger. They are telling me he is, and I’ve seen it, with his ability to withstand hits better than it has been. But it is a little different when Kawhi Leonard is the one hitting you instead of (Wolves rookie) Wendell Moore.
MP: Where that lack of strength has hurt him most on defense is fouls. When you are getting pushed around, you don’t get the whistles.
CF: No. The unfair thing for him is that he has to guard these high-leverage stars who get the benefit of the whistle and also know how to put people in that (fouling) situation. Those guys are also smart. They know Jaden is foul-prone and they try to draw them early and get him out of the game. Because they don’t want that length on them.
MP: Do you ever see him bumping up from the 3 position? I know you were intrigued with him at the 4 before sometimes.
CF: No, I think if he can excel at the 3, we can become extremely different, with all that length.
MP: And it takes the sting out of losing Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt) and PatBev (Patrick Beverly).
CF: There is less of a pain there, yeah. Also, he can play out there with Taurean, play out there with Kyle and when that happens, who is the 4 or the 3 or whatever? I don’t really know.
MP: Any two or three of them has the makings of a great switch lineup for you.
CF: And also the league now has become, “You are what you can guard.” Offensively you are either a point, a wing or a big. And those guys are all wings.
MP: One of the most important parts of your job is going to be developing Ant. Some of that is beyond basketball skills. You coached him tougher than anybody on the roster last year.
CF: For sure.
MP: When he had that injury, that tendinopathy thing, you didn’t give him much leeway. Was that purposeful to some extent? Do you know what you have to do to get him through some things?
CF: I think with a guy like Ant, he wants to be coached hard. He likes that, feeds off that. I think it is also important to show him that he still has a pathway of learning and earning. And is important that he goes through that path. The injury thing was, we didn’t know what to make of it and Ant didn’t know what to make of it. He’d never been hurt before and so we didn’t know how much it was really bothering him. He would say it was bothering him but then it would be fine the next day. I want Ant to develop the mindset that great players play every night. I said, “Look around the league. Lebron (James), (Russell) Westbrook, (James) Harden, KD (Kevin Durant) when he is not hurt. Giannis (Antetokounmpo). These guys are not resting. If you want to be a great player in this league, you have to play both ends of the floor and you’ve got to play every night.” He has it in him to do that. His mindset is that way. He loves to play, wants to play. Physically he is a specimen, so he should be able to play, to do this.
I think as we go forward with Ant, the refining process of his game we have got to take to another level. The feel, the reads, how to draw fouls, how to close games, how to read the floor. We’ve had bits and pieces of it all coming at him so fast, and he was getting a taste of all that stuff. But now we have got to chunk it out for him and go through all these progressions. We’ve done a bit of that this summer as well as working on his finishing. But I’m really big on, you’ve got to be great at what you are already good at. So keep building on those things.
A lot of young players have this habit of, “I want to add this and I want to add this,” and the reality is you don’t add anything because you don’t perfect what you are already good at, and, those other things you are adding, you may only have two opportunities a game to utilize them.
MP: I hear what you are saying. I mean, when it comes to finishing at the rim, Ant is fantastic to watch, but the stat sheet shows he is mediocre at that skill.
CF: He’s elite at getting there, he is average at finishing. So if you are elite at getting there, how do you become elite at what you do when you are there? Whether that is kick-outs, or drawing the foul or finishing the shot. Those are all things that; let’s work on those before we start working on a post-up game where I might put you in the post twice a game.
MP: And maybe shave off a three-pointer or two so you have more opportunities to drive.
CF: Right, although I do believe the shooting is real. And the off-the-dribble shooting. If you can shoot the ball well off the dribble the way it is looking like he will be able to do, that’s a pretty dangerous weapon.
MP: He reminds me a little bit of Paul George.
CF: His growth?
MP: That he is more versatile that you originally think and at the same time you are teasing; you don’t know where the real ceiling is.
CF: That’s a great comp because Paul George now in my mind is one of the hardest covers in the league because he can get his shot up over highly-contesting defenders.
MP: And it becomes a matter of whether he is beating himself that night or not. Which to some extent is another way he reminds me of what Ant will be. But to continue this: You have to anticipate the inevitable maturity of Ant both pro and con. He is going to lose his innocence.
MP: I think of Kevin Durant and when he came into the league. He was such a golden boy, with undeniable easygoing charisma and now he just seems so embittered. Not that Ant is automatically going to go that way. But he is inevitably going to get dented along the way. The latest thing with his homophobic remarks is a prominent early dent that won’t fade easily. There are inevitably going to be others that happen in various aspects as he matures and the pressure and the media glare build. And it is going to be hard to keep the best elements of himself.
CF: Managing that change is an organizational approach, not just something we do at the coaching level. What I believe, and what gives us great hope, is that the DNA of Ant as a person is very good. I think he was raised in a tough environment the best that anyone could be under those circumstances. He cares about doing the right, and doing right by people. Some of us learn lessons young, some of us learn life lessons later and most of us learn lessons privately. Ant is going to learn most of his lessons publicly. But I do believe he had the personality to weather that and still be focused on growing as a person and as a player.
I love him. He is a joy to coach, he really is. You just point him in the right direction, tell him what you need and he really tries to do it. And at some point there will be pushback; he’ll think he does know better. And there are times when he is already there. And that is the stubbornness that all great players have.
The final part of our interview with Coach Finch runs tomorrow.