The Wolves host Moscow CKSA tomorrow night for their preseason opener. Moscow is Alexey Shved’s old team. It includes a small list of players that American hoops fans might recognize. Jeremy Pargo, for instance, was a star guard at Gonzaga and has had a few cups of coffee in the NBA. His best work — an assortment of posterizations — can be found on Youtube. Nenad Krstic played seven NBA seasons. He’s only 30 years old and presumably still plays basketball at a high level. Sonny Weems was a rotation player, if a mediocre one, for the Raptors, a couple seasons ago. And Victor Khryapa was an integral part of Russia’s bronze-medal performance in the 2012 Olympics. From the forward position, Khryapa rebounds, passes and shoots a high percentage from three.
For the Timberwolves players, it’ll be the first chance to test out new sets and plays, and to compete with one another instead of what must seem like endless position battles in practice scrimmages. For the coaches, it will be the first look at an updated roster with the game lights on. There will be a crowd, officials, and an opponent. Although the projected starting lineup seems set — barring any additional injuries, of course — there remain some outstanding questions in the playing rotation.
For the fans, here are a few things to look out for in an otherwise meaningless exhibition:
At media day, Rubio indicated that he has not changed his shooting form. So, naturally, I’m not expecting his shot mechanics to look any different. Ricky’s ability to knock down open shots off the dribble will be a key factor determining whether he becomes an All-Star or even All-NBA point guard in the coming years. His ability to make open threes off the catch will be a key factor determining how much flexibility Adelman has in his playing rotations. Basically: Can he play effective offense, off the ball? Tomorrow will be the first showcase of whatever progress Ricky made in the offseason.
Love’s Role: Positioning & Decision-Making
A lot of eyes will be on Kevin Love during tomorrow’s contest. He barely played last year and comes in looking to make all the noise about this season while muting out any lingering questions about the last one. The Wolves have committed their finances to the “Bruise Brothers” frontcourt of Love and Nikola Pekovic. Tomorrow should give an early look at how Coach Adelman plans to use their skill sets, hoping to maximize chemistry and collective productivity. I’m imagining plenty of pick-and-pops involving Love, and hoping to see those timing seals by Pekovic under the hoop. How much time will Love spend behind the three-point line? The positioning of these players is tied to a new emphasis on Love’s role as a facilitator of team offense. Tomorrow is much more a dress rehearsal than finished product, but there should be at least some evidence of change.
The Instincts of Derrick Williams
The bulk of attention paid to Derrick Williams in the early part of this season will be geared toward his slimmed-down frame (again) and attempt at playing small forward (again). I’m a broken record on hating the idea of Williams at the three. Seriously: there are articles being written — with ample ammo via Adelman quotes — that frame the Derrick-at-the-three issue as whether he can become as good as Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger. I love Brew and appreciate how Chase fits into Adelman’s system. But forgive me for vomiting at the thought of Corey Brewer as the 2013 upside of the second overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. If there’s an iota of hope that Williams can reach his potential, it’s playing closer to the basket, as a power forward.
At this point, “it is what it is” (or something). Kevin Love is back, and even if Williams stayed committed to the four, he wouldn’t get many minutes. I’m more interested in seeing whether or not Derrick looks more comfortable on the game floor. Anywhere on the game floor.
Zach Lowe wrote a recent column about NBA players entering “make or break” seasons. He headlined it with Williams, and had this to say about his decision-making and playing instincts:
Williams has struggled badly to make choices in even more crowded situations closer to the rim. He’s a bit of a ball-stopper, out of greed and decision paralysis — both no-nos in Rick Adelman’s corner offense. Way too many Minnesota possessions ended with Williams catching the ball after one action, holding it 20 feet from the hoop with a dozen or more ticks left on the shot clock, and then engaging in some very sad series of jab steps and crossover dribbles before launching a horrific step-back jumper. Watching Adelman’s reactions to these shots became the game-within-a-game for League Pass addicts and/or folks who enjoy coaches acting out their misery in hilariously grandiose pouty gestures.
I wish that wasn’t as spot-on and well-put as it is. The Wolves have had a lot of high draft picks in the last five years with wildly different levels of success and failure. Kevin Love is All-NBA. Jonny Flynn is out of the NBA. Ricky Rubio is a League Pass fave. Wes Johnson is a forgotten man. I think Derrick Williams will fall somewhere in between those extremes. Chances seem good that he’ll be moved before much longer, presumably to a team that doesn’t have such a good power forward that stands in his way of playing time.
Whether he’s a three or a four, a wing or a post, Williams needs to hit that cliche stage where “the game slows down.” To this point, his most comfortable moments seem to be when he catches and fires without hesitation. At times during last season, it was a welcome divergence from the drive-and-kick tendencies of almost all of this [healthy] teammates. But standing spot shooters are “role players” and Williams isn’t even that good — so far — as a standing shooter. (Aside from the left wing, for whatever reason.) Whether he’s shooting, passing, or dribbling off the catch in tomorrow’s game, I just hope the action looks smoother, more instinctual, and less like he’s testing out button combinations on NBA 2K.
Brewer, Shabazz, and Points in Transition
Last year’s injury-ravaged Wolves ranked 19th in the league in fast break points, with 12.4 per game. That’s not good enough for a team that has Ricky Rubio pushing the rock in transition, Kevin Love flinging 50-foot outlets, and — now — Corey Brewer and Shabazz Muhammad looking to leak out for easy dunks on the break. The league’s top fast-break team last year, the Denver Nuggets, scored 20.1 points that way, per game. Brewer, a member of that team, was so integral to its fast break that Zach Harper devoted a long, incredibly detailed post to “The Art of the Leak Out” and Corey Brewer’s unique abilities as a transitions scorer. Muhammad has also shown off some opportunistic instincts as a leaker-outer in transition. Watch each player tomorrow night to see what they’re doing as shots bounce off the rim and into the hands of Love, Rubio or Pekovic.
Just a few things to look out for in tomorrow’s return to Target Center. Should be fun.