Thank God that the short window of nice Minnesota weather is behind us and we can get back to our usual routine of spending 1 or 2 nights per week inside Target Center watching the Wolves, amiright? The fun parts of preseason are seeing the new faces and looking for signs of change, good or bad, that could impact the team’s chances at regular (and post!) season success. Two years ago at the home preseason debut, I was taken by how big and athletic Michael Beasley was, and the ease with which he could rise up for clear looks at the basket. Though Beas has enough weaknesses to offset this strength, it has been one that serves him well in giving his team a scoring punch. This was evident in a single viewing of a game that didn’t actually *matter*. Last year was Ricky’s debut. We did our best to temper enthusiasm, but the passes he was delivering were unlike anything we’d seen. Ricky had eyes on all sides of his head, it seemed. Like with Beasley’s dribble jumpers, Ricky’s passing wizardry carried over into the real games and he’s now one of the league’s most marketable young stars.
What should we keep an eye out for in tonight’s game against Chicago?
Wolves fans were intrigued by Shved when it was reported that he would enter the NBA and that he and the Wolves had mutual interest in each other. After his Olympic performance, where he and fellow new Timberwolf Andrei Kirilenko led Russia to an unexpected bronze medal, fans are psyched to see what young Alexey can do in the League. Tonight, I’m looking at three things: First and least exciting is defensive awareness. You’ll notice that when Shved’s man is away from the ball, he stands up and floats around a little bit, sometimes unsure of where both his man and the ball are. At least that’s what I observed during the Olympics. This was a problem that Michael Beasley had, and it led to many a benchings from Coach Adelman. Now, I’m not saying Shved needs to sit in a perfect defensive stance at all times. Even the best defenders don’t do that. But he needs to have his head on a swivel so he doesn’t get backcut for dunks or slammed on screens that he doesn’t see coming. Second is how he moves (or doesn’t) when he’s off the ball on offense. He’s allegedly a natural shooting guard, but in the Olympics I mainly saw him manning the point. With the team likely headed more toward a cutter-friendly offense, it’ll be important that the shooting guard know how to do it. Third, and perhaps most important, is how Shved plays with ball screens. Even if the Wolves add Princeton principles to their scheme, there will be plenty of possessions that end with ball-screen action. A limitation of last year’s Wolves was that Ricky was the only player capable of doing much with this common, effective set. Shved might have the potential to add a second weapon to the arsenal. He clearly likes to stop and pop. But if the time is right, can he dive hard into the lane and finish, ala Tony Parker? Can he rise up and cram on a slow help defender? How dynamic can Shved be? Oceanary of Canis Hoopus posited that Shved has Manu Ginobili upside. If there’s truth to that, we should see signs of it when he’s asked to slash to the bucket. I’ll cross my fingers and look for that tonight.
Passing – Love, Williams, and Pekovic
Each of the Wolves primary big men had assist-to-turnover ratios on the wrong side of 1.0 last season. Love *looks like* a good passer. I don’t mean that because he’s white, but because he sometimes shows unique ability to deliver clever passes; full-court outlets, or nifty bounces to a sealing Pekovic. But too often last year he was a ball-stopper who preferred forcing contact and dramatically crying to officials rather than sharing the ball with teammates. This year, he expects his assist numbers to rise even if it means (slightly) fewer points per game. I’ll be looking for evidence of change in tonight’s home opener. Derrick Williams only averaged 1.0 assists per 36 minutes. As a rookie without training camp or a defined position, he usually looked lost when he wasn’t cramming home an easy dunk set up by his friend Ricky. That’s a problem, because Williams’ greatest upside is a matchup-problem forward who attracts double teams. Think Blake Griffin only with a smoother shot and a few less inches on his vert. But Griffin understands double teams and passes out of them. (This is the best argument, if you want to make it, that Griffin is or will be better than Love.) Derrick doesn’t seem to be a good passer at all. Let’s see if anything has changed from a year ago. Pekovic is the worst passer of the three. It just isn’t on his radar. Or it wasn’t. Reports from camp (from Kevin Love interviews) are that Pek is now feeling the double team coming, and hitting open shooters. If and when Pek makes this transformation into an all-around offensive force, he’ll be one of the best offensive centers in the league next to Howard, Bynum and Marc Gasol.
Will we see any? I was able to watch the first Pacers game, and I didn’t see backcuts even if I did see player movement and passing. The big-to-small exchanges were happening too close to the corners of the floor to allow for effective backdoor cuts. Tonight, I’m interested to see if any easy baskets come via backdoor passes from Love or Williams, either from the elbow or the top of the key.
What else should we be looking for in the Target Center opener?