Notes on a Scrimmage: Bjelica Shines when the Defense is Moving

The Timberwolves opened up Target Center on Monday night to fans, providing a free-of-charge opportunity to see this year’s team play against itself in a semi-formal intrasquad scrimmage. There were refs and a scoreboard. There was not regulation time being kept. A team primarily comprised of Tyus Jones, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Nemanja Bjelica, Damjan Rudez and Karl-Anthony Towns easily defeated a team primarily comprised of Andre Miller, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Adreian Payne, Lorenzo Brown and Gorgui Dieng. The final score was 68-54, but the deficit was over 20 for most of the night.

As individuals, just about each player did some nice things at different points in the scrimmage. Jones showed that he knows how to play off of a ball screen and knock down perimeter jumpers. LaVine mixed in accurate jumpshooting with a dash of playmaking here and there. He also threw down a dunk or two. He nearly jammed right over Gorgui on the baseline, but was hacked too hard to hang onto the ball, so he went to the line instead. Wiggins made some shots and probably looked to facilitate for others a bit more than we’re used to seeing from him. Towns went hard after rebounds, talked on defense, and converted different types of shots near the basket.

On the losing team, things were less pretty. Miller did Miller things – a crafty layup here, a how-did-he-end-up-with-the-ball offensive rebound there. Martin was trying to bait refs into fouls in the early going, mostly to no avail. Muhammad missed badly on his first few shot attempts, but had more success later on both dribble drives and hard curling cuts. Dieng seems frustrated right now (in a general way, probably tied to his likely reserve status on this year’s team) but plays hard and made some things happen.

The most obvious player to talk about after the scrimmage is Nemanja Bjelica, both because this was the first time that we have seen him play in person (and for many, the first time they have seen him play at all) and also because he played very well, tonight. The media was questioning Coach Sam Mitchell about Bjelica immediately after the scrimmage, and Mitchell said that his new forward is sometimes “too unselfish,” but he has a hard time yelling at a player for that; he’d much prefer it to the opposite problem. Bjelica looked comfortable mixing it up for rebounds in the interior, and — on offense — thrived most when catching a pass after the defense had already begun shifting. Usually that shifting was in response to a ball screen that preceded his receiving the ball. Without that shifting, the entire Wolves team struggled offensively. They ended up with a spread out, 1-2-2 formation with wing entries and ball reversals that have almost no effect against modern NBA defenses, which are oftentimes a 1-2-2 shell masked as man-to-man.

This will probably be something I beat to death this year, but I really hope this team embraces the NBA’s modern trend not only toward three-point shooting, but — before that — ball screen action. Wing entry passes to set up a physical post-up matchup is not as effective as making defenses scramble apart, running and recovering, after a ball screen is set for a player who can pose a threat off the dribble. The Wolves are stockpiling young talent in the “can pose a threat off the dribble” department, which makes this style of play even more appealing. Ricky Rubio has been effective using ball screens since the first second he took an NBA floor. Kevin Martin is probably more of a pure shooter, but he knows how to dribble and score. Zach LaVine is a combo guard at heart and will certainly need to know how to dribble off a screen to reach his [very high] potential. Tyus Jones will make his NBA career off of pick-and-roll action. Andre Miller has already praised his “advanced” understanding of that action. And even bigger wings on this team like Shabazz Muhammad and Andrew Wiggins would do well to polish up their ball screen skills. It is how NBA basketball is played.

That’s a pretty big digression from praising Nemanja Bjelica. It just seemed to me that a lot of the best action tonight came when a ball screen was set (either by Bjelica or someone else) and he ended up with the ball and some space to dribble into. Once that preliminary action was complete, Bjelica looked like an expert passer, firing from wing to corner, to an open shooter standing in the best place on the floor to take a jumpshot. Said LaVine about Bjelica after the scrimmage, “If you in the corner and he’s on the wing, you know it’s comin.” That about sums it up. Bjelica looked good tonight. It’s easy to imagine sets with Ricky Rubio peeling around a Towns ball screen, kicking it to Bjelica, who then drives and dishes to an open Andrew Wiggins or Zach LaVine. That’s the sort of thing the Spurs and Warriors do, and the Wolves would be smart to imitate with their own talented players.

After the game outside the locker room, a funny scene developed when Bjelica and Nikola Pekovic came out by the media and Pek was frustrated that he had to wait for his buddy to give an interview. They had carpooled together.

The Wolves play against a different team — the Oklahoma City Thunder — on Wednesday night at Target Center. Ricky Rubio did not play tonight with what Mitchell described as a minor quadriceps injury, and it sounded (based on Mitchell’s remarks) like he may not play on Wednesday, either. Mitchell made the good point that they’d prefer to start the regular season healthy rather than worry about getting players like Ricky into preseason games. Still, this is added ammo for pundits who want to put the “injury prone” label on Rubio. At this point, I think his history is pretty clearly explained by two circumstances: (1) an ACL tear, which is a freak incident with a clear-cut recovery period; and (2) last year’s severe ankle sprain, which provided Flip Saunders with the cover he needed to Tank for Towns. I am hopeful and optimistic that Ricky’s injury struggles will not persist throughout the rest of his prime NBA career.

We’ll have more after Wednesday’s game.

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