The Timberwolves, along with most other NBA teams, hosted their annual Media Day today. At Target Center, players dressed up in their white game uniforms and posed for pictures out on the arena floor. After general manager Milt Newton and head coach Sam Mitchell were finished, each player took a turn at the front of the press room, answering whatever questions came their way.
There were some common themes and answers throughout. Most, if not everybody was asked about Flip Saunders being away from the team in cancer recovery. Each response was the same; both predictable and unquestionably genuine: everybody wishes for, and expects a strong recovery for Saunders while he spends time (entirely) away from the Timberwolves. Of note, Newton reiterated that there is to be zero contact with Flip right now, per the directive of Glen Taylor. His recovery is not only the most important thing to Taylor and the Saunders Family, but it is the only thing.
Another basic, common message that seemed to repeat itself was that Sam Mitchell is a more intense coach than Saunders. The players have only been exposed to Head Coach Mitchell in the open gym setting thus far, but they are already convinced that he will be more of a disciplinarian; more of a yeller. When Kevin Martin was asked if that is an outdated teaching style in today’s NBA, he said no, and pointed to Gregg Popovich and the Spurs who respond to harsh criticisms because they respect the person dishing it out. He says these players have similar respect for Mitchell and it will not be a problem. That seems like both the right attitude to take, and also something that can’t be proven true for at least a couple months.
What follows are my biggest takeaways from each individual presser. These are my interpretations here, and I’ll paraphrase most comments because I was taking notes instead of recording. I thought there were a lot of interesting answers in an event that is sometimes filled with safe cliches.
Newton went first today. He said the Wolves will try to be a more aggressive defensive team than they were last year. Newton talked about Ricky Rubio and said that they won’t worry about what Ricky can or cannot do. He is going to run the offense and take open shots. There was something relieving about the way he made that seem so simple and obvious. Newton said that, from a roster building standpoint, they had “the whole board covered,” on player development. KG will mentor the bigs, Tayshaun Prince the wings, and Andre Miller the guards.
Coach Mitchell had a few noteworthy things to say, when he wasn’t passing over reasonable questions by playing the “It’s too early” card. As he told Jerry Zgoda in his recent interview for the Star Tribune, Mitchell made clear that this season is more about player development than winning now. When pressed for more detail, he said that the young players will need the opportunity to play in games, in order to get better. He said he was less concerned about the veterans’ minutes (meaning Miller/Prince/KG).
Mitchell was pressed on his three-point shooting philosophy and it sounded exactly like Flip Saunders’. Based on his answers today, Mitchell does not believe that teams go out of their way to generate good three-point shots throughout the game, but instead those shots come out of the flow of an offense. This was not encouraging, but we’ll see what sort of sets he runs and what they lead to.
A final point from Mitchell was that he wants these young players to first do the things that they are comfortable doing, before branching out into other areas. This is the opposite of what Flip did with Wiggins last year, when he was constantly putting pressure on him to attack, attack, attack. It is also the opposite of what Kurt Rambis used to do when he would emphasize how he was making players do things they had not done before. It seems more from the Adelman and (long before him) Bill Musselman schools of thought, in terms of putting players in position to do what they can do well, in games.
KG was a riot. He started things out — after fist bumping a few familiar faces from the local press — by asking that nobody ask him any stupid questions. If anyone violated that basic request, he’d end it and go home. Everyone laughed. KG wanted to be clear that the Wolves have a GREAT — not good, GREAT — group of young guys here that are eager to learn. When talking himself through a question about whether he could’ve imagined his career going full circle and ending here, he said probably not, but also, “I am a Minnesotan.” He acknowledged that he plans to become an owner of this team. He talked interestingly about how in Minnesota the first time around he tried to be a “two-way player,” and that when he went to Boston he shifted his emphasis to defense first. On what position he likes better, there was no ambivalence: “I still hate the center position.”
However many games he plays this year, I hope we get a lot of Kevin Garnett media availability.
Local product Tyus Jones was his typical calm, smooth self, fielding questions and giving out answers that said all of the right things. Tyus seemed to understand completely that his transition period will take a while, and he showed no signs of any impatience in that regard. He’s going to learn from the pros playing ahead of him. He knows that his minutes will be limited, if not mostly non-existent.
Professor Andre Miller was soft spoken and complimentary of Jones, who he has been playing with for the past couple weeks. Miller said that Jones is going to surprise a lot of people because he’s way more advanced than he would’ve guessed and way more advanced than Miller himself was at the same age. He listed Tyus’s patience in making decisions with the ball as something they share as players. Miller said that he approaches every season as if he is battling for a starting spot, but also seemed to understand the situation here. He said he didn’t know KG personally, but recalled some of their old playoff battles and said he had a lot of respect for him.
Prince spoke for quite a long time about a lot of different things, going back to his days in Detroit and how a long list of veterans helped establish that lasting, winning culture that he was long a part of. He listed out names like Cliff Robinson, Danny Manning, Jon Barry, and Corliss Williamson, before even reaching his own famous group that included Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, and Rasheed and Ben Wallace. I came away from his session, however, thinking most about playing time. Prince talked about how many games he’s played in his career, due to the years and years of extended playoff runs in Detroit. He seemed to believe (perhaps accurately) that people around the league think he’s finished as a significant contributor. He said that while he cannot play 35-40 minutes a night like he used to, people would be crazy to think he can’t give 20 good minutes a night. This came after Prince was asked about minutes and whether Flip had talked to him about his role. Interestingly, he suggested that they had, but that things were uncertain now that Mitchell was coach.
What this tells me is that Prince expects to be a part of the regular rotation.
Andrew Wiggins is a man of few words and that is just fine. Between Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns this team’s young core has enough gregarious types. Wiggins answers a question efficiently, and then smiles instead of expounding. Everybody likes the guy and thinks he’s going to be great. In his few words today, Wiggins said his body feels good (after the Team Canada tournaments) and he’s ready to go. He anticipates improvement from his strong rookie year.
Payne was not asked many questions. He has been working to become a more versatile defender who can guard multiple positions, and also on extending his three-point shooting range. He spent six weeks in Minneapolis over the summer.
LaVine talked about his offseason work, which included getting up “a million” jumpers, and a lot of time in the weight room. He isn’t sure yet if he will try to repeat as Slam Dunk Champ as right now, he’s just focused on the season. Even if I don’t believe that for a second, it was absolutely the right thing to say. LaVine feels capable of playing either guard spot.
Pek’s presser was not the happiest. He is candid about the uncertainty of his playing future. Pek won’t be ready or the opener, and he may not be ready for a long time after that. He looks heavier and less ripped than we’ve seen him in recent seasons. He had trouble showering this summer, due to his size and having a foot in a cast. Things don’t sound too good for Pek’s basketball future. He’s still a badass though.
Bjelica began with some prepared remarks, explaining how excited he was to be here and in particular how excited he was that he would be on the same team as Kevin Garnett. He talked about playing many times against both Pek and Ricky overseas and how he was happy to be on their side, now. As far as his place on this team he said, “I’m a rookie, but I’m not.” He’s a 27-year old who was just named the most valuable player in Europe, so his answer makes sense. When Bjelica finished his presser, an applause erupted in the back of the room. Ricky Rubio was there, congratulating his fellow foreign Timberwolf on getting through a round of English-speaking questions.
Rubio’s presser was probably the most encouraging one, if you hope to see good basketball starting now. Contrary to Mitchell setting low expectations and emphasizing development, Ricky feels this team not only can win games now, but it should be expected to. He thinks they can have a season like the Suns did a couple years back when they were widely predicted to finish at the bottom of the league but instead won 48 games. When asked about his shooting, he mentioned that he made 89 out of 100 threes the other day, which was his personal best. He is more concerned about sticking mid-range jumpers off the dribble though, as he feels that is the key shot for point guards in today’s NBA. On leadership, Ricky feels he is one, but that any team needs a group of leaders. He thinks KG should be a leader, and Andrew Wiggins should be a leader. On Wiggins, Ricky described how mentally tough his young teammate is. The main Rubio quote was a simple one:
“It’s all about winning.”
Gorgui did not seem overly happy in his presser. Maybe that’s because the team just drafted a big man number one overall, and brought in another from overseas. Who knows. He got defensive when asked what he worked on improving over the offseason. On defending big post players — something he absolutely needs to improve on to ever become a starting center — he said that teams have to double team Dwight Howard; an answer that seemed to fail to acknowledge that Dieng has required double-team help on a lot more than just D12, so far. He has a lot of pride, which is good.
Shabazz looks great, again. He’s been working out with Crazy Frank in California, putting on muscle and getting in shape for the season. He seems very upbeat. The most encouraging Shabazz quotes had to do with perimeter defense and his understanding that he needs to stretch out his defensive coverage to the three-point line if he wants to become a starting wing (he mentioned this in response to my question about he and Wiggins forming an impressive wing pair; something he feels is right on the money). Shabazz also told the crowd of media to look out for a new move: His Right-Handed Hook shot. He claims to be making it every bit as much as his left which I find hard to believe but am very anxious to see.
What a fun player.
I’m not very familiar with Rudez at this point, except that he is known as a great perimeter shooter. That is exactly what he emphasized when asked what he brings to the table. He also spoke outstanding English for a player born and raised overseas (Croatia).
Martin speaks his mind at these things. Today, he was asked if he might be better suited as a 6th Man and he shot that right down. He said in no uncertain terms that he is the starting off guard on this team. Hopefully Coach Mitchell and Shabazz get that memo, so there is no misunderstanding. Also, and on a more encouraging note, Martin totally embraced the media’s prodding about the need for more three-pointers. Martin agrees with that wholeheartedly, pointing out how that’s just the way things are now in the NBA. Hopefully Mitchell gets that memo as well.
Karl Towns is an unrealistically-nice guy. At the outset, he jokingly announced his retirement from basketball. He loves Minnesota not only because of the love people show him but because of the love people show each other. From Kevin Garnett, he wants to learn how to be a champion. At Hazeltine the other day, where he was golfing with Timberwolves staff, he nearly drove the 10th green and accidentally hit ahead of the group ahead of him. He apologized to the camera, if they were watching, during his presser. He’s excited for the Ryder Cup coming to Hazeltine.
Towns already loves playing with Ricky Rubio, which makes sense. He also said positive things about Tyus (“even though he’s a Dukie”) and just about everybody else whose name came up.
This is pro sports, and people will judge KAT by his on-court performance first and foremost. But assuming that pans out like we hope and expect, he will be an immensely popular player and person in this state.
Training Camp starts tomorrow at the new Mayo Clinic building in Downtown Minneapolis. This’ll be an interesting season.