Thinning the Herd (The Field of Dreams Edition)

A lot has changed in Timberwolves Land since mid-May. It was then that the organization was informed that Kevin Love planned to opt out and leave the franchise — per his contractual rights — in the summer of 2015. From that point through August 23, Flip Saunders was scrambling. Not only did he have multiple picks in the June draft, but he was also charged with the task of trading a superstar player.

Rather than re-hash the process and results for the umpteenth time, it’s sufficient to say that Flip got ‘er done. For Love, he got back Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young. If either Wiggins or Bennett reaches his potential (or, gasp, if both do) it could go down as the greatest ever return in this “departing/disgruntled star wants out” trade scenario. Plus, Thad Young is already a good player who might fit nicely in a front court that already includes Gorgui Dieng and Nikola Pekovic at the center position.

But there is one little problem with this Timberwolves roster, as currently constructed:

There are too many guys. (Eds. Note: For more on this, see, inter alia, excellent posts here and here.)

More specifically, there are too many guys that will expect — and *should* expect — some playing time. And that brings us to positional battles, and the possibility that some Timberwolves players will need to spend time in the D-League — playing for the Iowa Energy (technically this is the Memphis Grizzlies affiliate, but that’s where they sent Shabazz last year because the Wolves don’t have their own team). Saunders has extensive experience in minor league basketball, coaching in the old CBA, and is a firm believer in it as a developing environment for certain players. It seems inevitable that, at some point this season, a Wolf or two will be sent down for some game reps.

For a young basketball player, the NBA — even on the Minnesota Timberwolves — must feel a bit like heaven on Earth. There are the big crowds, the SportsCenter highlights, the glitz and glamor, and the competition against players that were considered celebrity heroes just a short time ago. The whole thing must be a real trip for a new player entering the league.

The D-League… well, the D-League probably feels a bit more like Iowa.

So we thought it worthwhile to run through the candidates for D-League Duty, and predict which guys might end up playing some minor league ball in 2014-15.

The Candidates

We see four main candidates to do hard time in the D-League this season: Zach Lavine, Shabazz Muhammad, Robbie Hummel, and Anthony Bennett.

Let’s take them one at a time:

Candidate 1: Zach LaVine

Patrick J: Zach Lavine (Eds. Note: “Lavine” is the unofficial spelling) is the top contender to be this year’s Sprite Slam-Dunk Champion–if he’s in the NBA come All-Star weekend. Lavine is the top candidate for a prolonged D-League assignment this season, unless the Wolves ink Glenn Robinson III to a contract, which remains uncertain at this point. Assuming they don’t, Lavine is the most-likely D-Leaguer for two reasons. First, he’s the only rookie of the three guys on the roster who have potential but, well, really *need* to develop as pro basketball players. Lavine is young, raw, stuck between positions, and didn’t play big minutes at UCLA in his only year of college basketball. If Flip Saunders gives him minutes early in the season and Lavine’s learning curve is exceedingly high–or if his practice performances make it so clear that this is the case that he never cracks the Wolves’ early-season rotation–he’d be better off playing big minutes and getting the point-guard reps he needs.

I’m a Zach Lavine fan, but I hope he digs on corn.

Andy G: Agree 100%. As I said in my podcast rant the other day I don’t expect Lavine to be ready, this season. While his athleticism is off-the-charts and of another planet, his basketball skills and intelligence will need some work. He was not a starter last year on his college team. That’s a red flag. I can’t imagine him earning minutes over Ricky Rubio, Mo Williams, or J.J. Barea (if he’s still here) at point guard. At the other guard, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Wiggins, and even Williams and Barea would seem like far-better choices, if competitive basketball is the goal. (And at this point, Flip says that’s the goal.)

The only potential way that I see Lavine being ready, right away, is as a ball-dominant point guard who defenders simply cannot stay in front of very easily. If he has some level of effectiveness as a slasher off the dribble, he could command some immediate playing time as a reserve point guard. But given his skinny frame, I even expect that to take more than one year’s time to develop.

So, I think the D-League would be a great place for LaVine to get game reps, and I suspect Flip Saunders agrees with me.

Verdict:

Zach LaVine: “Is this Heaven?”

(Kevin Costner voice) “No… It’s Iowa.”

 

Candidate 2: Shabazz Muhammad

Patrick J: Shabazz demonstrated last year that he has a knack for scoring (we knew that), a knack for scoring almost entirely from the left block (we didn’t know that), a knack for offensive rebounding (wasn’t his calling card coming into the League), and–perhaps most important–he might have the best “motor” on the team. (Eds. Note: Motor is a stupid cliche, but the general idea is actually a *really* important characteristic of Muhammad).

Why might Shabazz be looking at a second consecutive season with at least a stint in the D-League? In short, his game is currently limited to those things mentioned above. And by “limited,” I really mean, “that’s it.” Like Lavine, neither Shabazz’s body nor his skill-set imply a clear-cut NBA position. Chances are, he’ll have to be able to play minutes at both the three and at the four in order to be more than a 12-15 minute-per-game bit player.

The Wolves have a glut of guys who can play the small forward position and who are older and who are currently more polished (Chase Budinger), more highly paid (Corey Brewer), a better fit at that position (Budinger, Brewer, and Andrew Wiggins), or more talented (Wiggins). So, as with Lavine, if Shabazz doesn’t establish himself  in training camp and the initial month of the season as a rotation player, a trip to Iowa could be in his future. (Eds. Note: Iowa will instantly get WAY cooler if ‘Bazz and Lavine hit town together.)

Andy G: You hit the main point: The Wolves have a ton of competition for forward minutes. Shabazz’s ticket to playing time in 2014-15 will have to involve improved defensive awareness. He looked *really* lost in his early stints last year, which is why I don’t and can’t blame Adelman for being patient with his Shabazz Trigger. Shabazz will also need to sharpen up his three-point range, which looked like a real weapon when he was coming out of UCLA (he shot 38 percent from downtown in his one college season).

Shabazz has a higher upside than Brewer, Budinger, or Hummel. He probably has a lower upside than Bennett and he almost certainly has a lower upside than Wiggins and Young. So he’s somewhere in the middle in terms of potential, and will need to differentiate himself early from the higher-paid, “NBA ready” guys like Brew.

He’ll need to do that with that motor you touched on, scoring and rebounding aggressively in the paint, but with a more well-rounded floor game. Will this happen?

Verdict:

Shabazz Muhammad: “Is this Heaven?”

(Kevin Costner voice) “No… It’s Iowa.”

 

Candidate 3: Robbie Hummel

Andy G: In case you missed it–we don’t blame you if you did–the Wolves re-signed Robbie Hummel to a one-year deal. Hummel is both young and inexperienced. He played one season abroad, and then spent last season sitting on the end of the Wolves bench. As such, Hummel is a candidate to spend some time in the D-League.

I don’t expect to see him in the D-League next season, however, for three reasons.

First, Hummel has little to learn in the D-League. He does not need to add much, if any, polish to his skill set. Hummel understands how to play basketball as well as anyone on the post-Love Timberwolves roster. Just watch his positioning on both ends of the court and try to find mistakes. You won’t find (m)any. (Really, I dare you. TRY!) Seriously, Rick Adelman, who was never known to mince words, lauded Hummel at every opportunity, because “he knows how to play.” (Eds. Note: Vague, but real.) Hummel makes the right cuts, rarely misses defensive rotations, and makes the kind of quick, crisp passes that are necessary in good offensive sets.

Second, Hummel has limited upside due to knee injuries and his undersized, kinda-tweenerish status as an NBA forward. There isn’t much point in trying to get him reps in hopes of a higher ceiling. It isn’t there. He is what he is.

Third, Hummel is already an NBA-caliber forward. Remember last year, when the Timberwolves bench was really bad and cost them a bunch of games? Well if you check out the team’s on/off, plus/minus numbers, you’ll see that reinforced by the positive numbers for starters and the universally negative numbers for the bench players…. the bench players, except for Hummel, that is. He was the lone Timberwolves reserve (who played extensive minutes, anyway) who had a winning score during his time on the floor, last season.

Plus-minus can be misleading, but in Hummel’s case, I think he showed that he was better able to fit into a coherent offensive structure than the likes of Barea, Alexey Shved, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, last year. This isn’t particularly high praise, but it means he is not a D-League player.

Verdict:

Robbie Hummel: “Is this heaven?

Yes.

 

Candidate 4: Anthony Bennett

Patrick J: If the Wolves assign Anthony Bennett to the D-League this season, Bennett would be the first #1 overall NBA draft pick ever to be reassigned to the D-League. Bennett’s development last season in Cleveland was stunted by injuries and illnesses and Mike Brown. (Oh, and Andrew Bynum.) When Bennett did play, it often looked as though the game was moving too fast for him. A trip to the D-League *last year* would’ve been in order, had Bennett been consistently healthy enough, and the Cavs good enough, to warrant it.

But it’s a new day, and like last season, Anthony Bennett is likely to avert a D-League appearance. Bennett appears to be healthy, in shape, and has joined a team with a gaping, Kevin Love-sized hole, at the power forward position. Bennett is likely to start the season backing up newly acquired vet Thad Young at the four, and he appears poised to establish himself as a legitimate NBA rotation player right away. The only scenarios in which I’d envision the Wolves assigning Bennett to the D-League are (1) if he sustains another injury and needs to play himself into shape when he’s ready to return, or (2) if he loses the backup PF minutes to Shabazz Muhammad and can’t crack Saunders’ regular rotation. We obviously hope that no. 1 won’t happen. No. 2 looks unlikely, as Shabazz has dropped some weight and will have an even more difficult time defending power forwards than he did previously, and, as mentioned above, it’s very far from clear that Shabazz’s final positional destination is as a power forward. Bennett is a natural power forward, and for a team that’s in the midst of a major rebuild, Saunders is likely to – and should – want to groom Bennett for that spot.

Verdict:

Anthony Bennett: “Is this heaven?

Yes.

***

Now that you know which Wolves we expect to spend at least part of 2014-15 D-Leaguing it, tell us who you expect to hear Kevin Costner’s voice.

’til next time.

2 Comments

Filed under INBOX, Timberwolves

2 responses to “Thinning the Herd (The Field of Dreams Edition)

  1. What about Glenn Robinson — heaven or Iowa?

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