Last Saturday afternoon the Minnesota Timberwolves staged “Fan Fest,” a public practice at Target Center designed to generate the sort of inconsequential enthusiasm that is tailor-made for this fitful placenta stage of the NBA season.
This was the time to scrutinize the shooting form of Bryn Forbes as he variously splashed and clanked three-pointers; to gauge the engagement of D’Angelo Russell as the point guard with the expiring contract; to try and determine whether or not you needed to remember the name of CJ Elleby.
Less strenuously, it was the time to soak in the first glance of prized acquisition Rudy Gobert walking around in a Timberwolves uniform, to revel in a quicksilver dunk by Jaden McDaniels, get reacquainted with the blend of silky speed and nonchalant brawn that is Anthony Edwards, and affirm that the pregnancy of the 2022-23 season was indeed well into its final trimester.
For better and for worse, the revelation of what this particular edition of the Timberwolves have in store for us will continue to tease itself out at a molasses pace, taunting and tantalizing in a manner that makes “fan dance” a double entendre for burlesque and b-ball.
The dawn of the KAT-Gobert era
The most consequential question facing this season’s Wolves is how well the team’s biggest and arguably best players – Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns – can synergize their talents, especially on defense, in a league that is trending toward smaller players utilizing rapid ball movement and outside shooting. Circumstances have conspired against the Wolves even beginning to address the subject. Gobert was away from Minnesota’s informal preseason workouts this summer due to his participation in the EuroBasket tournament representing the national team from his native France. And Towns has missed the entirety of the league’s official training camp period thus far due to a non-COVID illness that, according to his girlfriend’s social media, prompted a visit to the hospital.
KAT was smiling on the bench in street clothes during Fan Fest, and is expected to start practicing at some point this week. After the public practice on Saturday, head coach Chris Finch said that plans to rest Gobert (who is already in shape due to EuroBasket) more during the team’s four preseason games will be recalibrated to provide him more time with Towns together on the court. KAT is unlikely to suit up for the first of those games, tonight in Miami.
During the first week of camp, the Wolves’ work on defense has focused almost exclusively on the “drop coverage” scheme that emphasizes Gobert’s elite rim protection skills. It is markedly different than the “high wall” scheme that the team used the vast majority of last season, when KAT instead of Gobert was the starting center. In KAT’s absence thus far in training camp, the team has been playing another significant newcomer, Kyle Anderson, at power forward, the position KAT is expected to play in a frontcourt tandem with Gobert when everyone is healthy this season.
Manning power forward in drop coverage in the modern NBA will require KAT to cover more space and challenge the rapidity of his foot speed and decision-making. In my interview with Finch last month, he stressed that he wanted to keep his defensive schemes fluid early in the season until he and the Wolves had a better sense of how opponents would attack Minnesota’s two bigs lineup. Whether it is drop coverage, a more switch-heavy scheme, or a straight zone, however, the more time KAT and Gobert can become accustomed to each other’s rhythms and tendencies on the court, the better they can cope with whatever opponents concoct.
It’s a setback, but measuring how much it penalizes the team’s prospects brings to mind the various timelines at play. Sure, the sooner you can optimize synergy, the better. But it bears noting that the blockbuster trade for Gobert was always meant to be a four-year project – an extraordinarily wide window for a deal of this magnitude. Gobert is under contract through 2026, KAT a year after that. The Wolves are in the driver’s seat on any negotiations after the rookie contracts for Edwards and McDaniels expire, leaving only DLo in contract limbo among the supposed starters for the foreseeable future.
A total team effort
While the compatibility of the two bigs appropriately garners most of the attention, an intriguing battle is going to play itself out at the other end of the rotation. Most NBA teams use nine players in a game. Some bump it to 10, and the Wolves experimented with 11 for a while last season. Right now it seems logical to slot eight players into regular duty: The aforementioned five starters, forwards Anderson and Taurean Prince, and backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin.
The ninth slot is currently assumed to belong to combo guard Jaylen Nowell. In late June, Finch lumped Nowell in with Edwards and McDaniels as young talents whose development were key to the team’s improvement in the 2022-23 season. But after president of basketball operations Tim Connelly sent out four players and the Wolves top draft pick off the team’s prospective roster for Gobert, he filled two of the gaps with a couple of savvy veterans, Austin Rivers and Bryn Forbes, who possess valuable but divergent skill sets.
The Wolves media contingent was blessed to have the ever-voluble assistant coach Micah Nori fill in for Finch after practice last week, and he adroitly laid out why slots nine through 11 could be in flux on a situational basis throughout the season.
“Do we need defense? Austin is obviously a very good defender,” Nori began. “Need someone to space the floor when Rudy and DLo are out there? Well then Bryn Forbes can make (those space-creating, long-distance) shots. And nights when things seem really bogged down, and you need somebody to create (shots for themselves and the rest of the offense), you go to Jaylen. What you don’t want to do is leave any stone unturned. It is nice to have those luxuries.”
When I posed a similar round-robin scenario to Finch in our conversation last month, he expressed hope that Nowell would separate himself from the competition. But don’t count out either Rivers or Forbes, who, despite their journeymen status in recent seasons, have each managed to rack up higher-than-expected playing time for an assortment of winning teams. (Hat tip to the great NBA writer for The Ringer, Rob Mahoney, for raising this point in conversation when he was in town recently to cover the Wolves.)
As Nori notes, the options generated by the competition is a luxury when considering personnel so far down the roster. It is a tribute to Connelly’s acumen, and an indication that there are clever ways to compensate for the talent drain resulting the slew of future draft picks (and swapped positions in drafts when the Wolves aren’t outright punting their top choice) that Connelly sacrificed in order to obtain Gobert.
Addressing the elephant in the room
We’ll close this column on a fraught subject – the notorious homophobic Instagram message that Edwards sent out and then deleted. Recording a group of strangers minding their own business on the street – one of them was a man wearing a bra – he referred to them as “queer” and rhetorically asked what the world was coming to.
I initially decided I wasn’t going to engage the issue, for personal reasons. Back in the Stone Age of the early 1970s when I was a high school football player, I occasionally used the slur-word that rhymes with maggot in my interactions not only with teammates in the locker room but with friends and acquaintances in the hallways. Yes, that was a long time ago and we are supposedly much more enlightened, or at least less permissive, about wanton verbal bigotry. I could use the excuse that it was more culturally acceptable, and that I really wasn’t aware of how much damage could be wrought – both true.
But I did know the word held a special charge that it cut deeper than, say, another epithet. And despite knowing that, I still remember how arrogant I felt about being able to use it – it was “no big deal.”
I wasn’t much younger at the time than Ant is now. Consequently, while I clearly felt Ant’s comments on the Instagram video were wrong, I also felt it would be hypocritical of me to call him out for it. The fact that I’m an old white guy and he’s a young Black man underscored the logic of sitting this one out.
What changed my mind was Ant’s responses to pointed questions from the Star Tribune’s Wolves beat writer Chris Hine, as well as other folks on the beat like Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press and Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic. I’ve covered Ant on a regular basis since he was drafted by the Wolves two years ago. Like the vast majority of folks, I have been simultaneously impressed and charmed by his superb instincts and internal compass, which has enabled him to connect with people in an honest, guileless manner. Those positive impressions have explicitly come through in my coverage.
The Ant I saw on Media Day was different. Everyone understood he was enmeshed in the first public relations crisis of his career and were more than a little curious how he would affect it via his response. The result was contrition on autopilot.
The words were blanket expressions of regret, safely non-specific and lacking any of the intuitive insight and self-knowledge that have made his previous interactions with the media and the public so mutually rewarding. Hine was persistent, but it was the opposite of hounding – he was trying wedge open opportunities for Ant to express himself in ways that would repair Ant’s relationship with the portion of the fan base he had maligned.
Hine finally pierced the veil when, after hearing Ant say that the previous two weeks of controversy had been a learning experience, he asked Ant what specifically he had learned and had specifically reflected on in the last two weeks. Ant started into another pro forma answer, then stopped.
“That’s a good question,” replied Edwards. “What have I learned in the last two weeks?”
A brief moment later he had what sounded like his most sincere response of the day: “In a blink of an eye, things can be gone, man. You’ve got to think before you speak.”
The fallout from Ant’s Instagram homophobia was more dramatic than might normally be expected because Ant himself had set such a high bar for empathy and amiable human relations, joyfully investing his own emotions as a conduit to connect with others. In retrospect, no one should have reasonably expected even a precocious media savant to deliver another heartfelt command performance at a reckoning from where his previously unerring instincts had gone horribly wrong for the first time.
At Media Day, Ant was a celebrated public figure whose character was under critical scrutiny less than two months after his 21st birthday. Under the circumstances, he was simply too immature – as I and most of us would have been – for genuine atonement.
So why harp on it here? Because I don’t shy away from Ant’s immaturity under other circumstances. When he says he wants to guard the opponent’s best player and the team goes along with it, I’m going to write that it is not because Ant is the best option, but because it is the best way to inspire his engagement, and that his off-ball defense and the nuances of the pick-and-roll will almost certainly still be problematic. And if and when those problems inevitably manifest themselves, I won’t hesitate to point them out.
I harped on it because it affects Ant’s capacity for leadership. When he spoke out about his teammates’ lack of selfless hustle in the first few weeks of last season, we in the media perked up about his leadership potential. Being able to honestly absorb and learn from the error of shaming a segment of the fan base is another mark of a leader.
I harped on it because Tim Connelly reveals a lot more by his actions than his words – he keeps most things irritatingly close to the vest. But the one consistent theme the highest-paid and most influential member of the Timberwolves front office does hammer home at every opportunity is that his organization goes out of its way to recruit and retain good people, who honor the franchise by respecting the community who come to watch them perform. If that isn’t mere lip service, then Ant’s gaffe deserves notice.
That said, moving forward I’m going to be paying far more attention to Ant’s defense than I am his ongoing reconciliation with homophobia. I’m better qualified in that particular area, and have less personal baggage to sort out. Besides, Finch has noted the distinction between learning hard lessons in private and learning them in public. Having faced appropriate blowback, Ant deserves the time and the space to grow up in this regard.
And as that maturation process happens, the hope here is that Ant is able to retain his effervescence, which is borne in part by his youthful glee and guileless innocence, his expectation of good-faith engagement. These are precious traits that are frequently dented, if not crushed, by necessary, painful, lessons learned. Expect me to harp on their preservation whenever possible.