The vinyl decorations spread amidst facilities on campus at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas indicated the Thomas and Mack Center and Cox Pavillion had beeen transformed into a basketball haven. It was time for the Las Vegas portion of the NBA’s Summer League. The thankful, automated recording projected from the speakers spread throughout campus welcomed the public’s patronage. The LVSL is a place to learn the lesser-known names on the various Summer League rosters [knowing we will probably forget about them weeks later] while lustfully imagining prospects becoming the next best NBA superstars –or at least, at best, the latest three-and-D prototype[s]– before our eyes.
There are plenty of differences between regular season competition and what happens at the Las Vegas Summer League.
The exhibition tournament is essentially a trial ground for referees and players to hone their skills while remaining subservient to experiments conducted by the NBA, it’s teams and those who coach them. Officiating crews adhere to new points of emphasis while players are inserted into situations having heard minimal instructions on how to execute the game plan[s]. For Brady Heslip and Matt Janning being able to execute in unfamiliar circumstances is critical, because not every player gets to make the Wolves roster.
For any rookie, or player invited to play on the Summer League team it would be an unattainable feat to memorize Flip Saunders’ playbook by the opening tip of the first of game, because it is notoriously littered with exuberant amounts of plays. However, Saunders distributed the playbooks among his players and staff before assigning the Wolves assistant coaches as his surrogates that would assume the head coaching duties while in Las Vegas. This left 28 year-old Ryan Saunders and David Adelman –the son of the last person to coach a Timberwolves regular season game; Rick Adelman– to coach the team with Bobby Jackson, Sidney Lowe and Sam Mitchell by their side.
It was Mitchell who coached the Wolves first Summer League game, a defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks; 85-93.
Things had not begun swimmingly.
Zach LaVine went through the motions playing within the offense, and was unproductive after scoring on an alley oop play that began the game. Sometimes he conceded point guard duties to Alexey Shved, who sometimes played off-ball while LaVine operated the halfcourt offense. Neither noticeably assumed the role of floor-general, and by the time LaVine checked out of the game for the first time [couldn’t help myself with the rhyme] he had scored two points, committed one foul, and grabbed one rebound in nine-and-a-half minutes of playing time. An undoubtedly underwhelming first act for the 13th overall pick. Although, for those disinterested in following along with the Kevin Love saga at least watching LaVine adapt to the intricacies of the NBA served as a decent distraction from trade-speculation.
But what did [and still do] we expect from LaVine at LVSL and during the regular season?
Consequently; the consensus after the Wolves drafted him is that Flip Saunders drafted based on raw-athleticism. LaVine didn’t stand out in analytical draft models, and was merely a backup player during his only season at the University of California in Los Angeles. The knock on LaVine was, and is very broad and simple; he’s an athlete, not a basketball player.
Data gathered on websites like DraftExpress –as well as similarity scores such as VGL’s and those found at Hickory-High– is the information that becomes a premise when evaluating any player, and such evaluations exposed his potential to devolve into a ‘bust’ is an alarming factor when assessing LaVine’s skill-set. Counting the Baskets scored the Wolves selection a -11 reach from his projected draft selection. Vayne Lashro’s model projected LaVine as a 34 percent Bust, 38 percent Bench-warmer, 23 percent Starter, and 5 percent Star [18th most likely among the 2014 draft-class]. Hickory-High’s similarity scores compared LaVine to Avery Bradley, Eric Bledsoe, and former, Wolves second round draft selection Malcolm Lee.
All the while, regardless of any preconceived notions anyone had about LaVine, it was reported he was the one the Wolves would take if available at the 13th overall selection in the 2014 draft– that’s exactly what Flip Saunders did. As for the aftermath of the draft, Britt Robson, a renowned NBA scribe encapsulated this website’s stance after the decision was made to draft LaVine in the first round.
The most concentrated nesting ground for Wolves fans who do their homework by knowing and applying advanced analytics to the collegians and overseas amateurs available on draft night is at the website Canis Hoopus. And, as is normally the case, the consensus there is that the Wolves fared poorly, to the point of near-idiocy, in the draft. The main Canis Hoopus story on LaVine called him the third-best player on his college team and said he “showed little in the way of actual basketball skills” during his year at UCLA. Robson’s story was published on June 27th, 2014.
The Wolves had a chance to redeem themselves the following day against the Washington Wizards. This time, however, they would be under the command of Ryan Saunders.
The Wolves lost to the Wizards by the score of 59-67.
This contest was much sloppier than the first. Both teams attributed the woeful, overall scoring output although it wasn’t Mitchell –who, in 2007-2008, watched his Raptors attempt less free throws per game than any other team in the NBA. An indicator of weakness and execution of a coaches scheme– at the helm during Minnesota’s second, LVSL matchup.
Under [Ryan] Saunders, the Timberwolves simply failed to manufacture anything on the offensive end. I asked Matt Janning — a Watertown, Minnesota native — what it was like to play under coach [Ryan] Saunders, who, at age 28, is not much older than Janning . “He’s trying to get a feel for things,” Janning answered “[Ryan] knows what he’s talking about and is engaged in the game. He’s always communicating, telling guys where to go and what to do, and does an good job of reinforcing what our role is on both ends of the floor.” [Ryan] Saunders frequently called for mid-court meetings with LaVine and Shved, presenting a desire to frequently communicate with players.
As a team, the Wolves are collectively absorbing the ins-and-outs of [Flip] Saunders’ extensive playbook while growing accustomed to the pace at which the NBA game is played.
As for Janning, he often found himself matched up against Otto Porter, and committed three fouls trying slow down the one who Washington selected with the third overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Janning also scored five points [2 of 5 shooting [[1 of 3 on 3ptFG]] and grabbed two rebounds playing in 18 minutes.
The Timberwolves had lost three games, after being defeated by the the Chicago Bulls, 107-73, as Doug McDermott continued to shine at LVSL.
The Bulls dismantled the Wolves, and McDermott effortlessly contributed 20 points on 7 of 13 shooting from the field [4 of 7 on 3PT FGA]. Gorgui Dieng, Kyrylo Fesenko, Thomas Robinson III and Shabazz Muhammad started the game aside LaVine, who had undoubtedly become more proactive searching for ways to contribute while he was on the floor. —
Shabazz Muhammad is officially free. — Jim Petersen (@JimPeteHoops) February 26, 2014
When the Timberwolves defeated the Phoenix Suns back in February, during the 2013-2014 NBA season –the night he was set free– Shabazz Muhammad scored 20 points on 8 of 13 shooting, in addition to collecting six boards. More importantly, he hustled to make every play necessary– Shabazz was the x-factor in the victory. It had been the Wolves inability to win tight games, similar to the one played that night in Phoenix, that left the Wolves outside of postseason contention. Perhaps the sliver of Muhammad’s potential on display was only the beginning of what would come next.
Selected 14th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, the figurative road to success has had its ups-and-downs. Previously, before his breakout game against the Suns Muhammad had been placed on an assignment to play with the Iowa Energy of the D-League. He played three games with Iowa, who scored at a rate of 133 points per game while averaging a 119.4 offensive rating during that span. Pre-Shabazz, the Energy scored at a rate of 113.2 PPG with an offensive rating of just 104. Muhammad averaged 25 PPG on 57 percent FG shooting in addition to collecting nearly 10 rebounds per game during his assignment to the D-League.
“Last year, I thought I played pretty well,” said Muhammad, who led the Wolves’ LVSL team with 15 points per game through two contests. “Some people said I could’ve got more minutes, some people said I shouldn’t. But it’s all about playing hard and being a good teammate and stuff like that, and I think Flip’s going to take care of everything else.”
In the Wolves third game at LVSL Shabazz had been more than merely set-free. He was loose, and there was no way to constrain his effort. Muhammad managed to rifle off 15 shots in 25 minutes on the floor against Chicago.
Heading into his third Summer League game LaVine had made only 7 of 23 field goal attempts, but was growing accustomed to the pace of Summer League– his productivity marginally increased with each game. He slashed into the painted area with little idea of what would happen next, but Lavine turned chaos into order by getting to the free throw line 10 times against the Wizards.
Alexey Shved suffered an ankle injury against Washington and it was determined he had played his last game of the trip, henceforth, LaVine no longer playing aside someone else who spent a good portion of their career playing point guard.
“What’s hard for both those guys is that they’re similar in the sense of where they want to be on the floor if they don’t have the ball,” David Adelman explained after the Wolves loss to the Bulls, “They’re both used to going and getting the ball in order to save the other four. When you have two of those guys you’re spacing can be a little bit different. I don’t think that’s a selfish thing, it’s just a discomfort for both of those guys because they’re very similar.”
LaVine had spent time playing off-ball and at point guard, too, with DJ Kennedy operating the offense in Shved’s absence. Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune asked [David] Adelman how the Wolves planned to deploy LaVine during the regular season.
“We’d like to have him to do both things, ” Adelman answered, “I thought he did a really good job coming off wide-pin downs, and we would swing it to him in the step-up pick-and-rolls. He’s gotta be able to do that, as he’s gotta learn how to run the team. That’s what this Summer League’s about. We’re trying to see where he’s at.”
Gorgui Dieng scored only six points against the Bulls. The distinguishable flaw in his game is obvious: Dieng struggles to sternly face the hoop in the triple threat position at the areas 10+ feet from the basket.
This is an example of a difference between NCAA and NBA basketball, and Dieng is still growing accustomed to the physicality at the professional level. Aggressive defenders ensure there isn’t space to pivot, or reverse-pivot into position where he can become a viable threat on the offensive end. Defenders executed their plan to disrupt the Wolves, second year center out of Louisville and Dieng was unproductive, and a liability, against the Bulls. He scored only six points, committed five turnovers, five-fouls, and shot only three-of-five from the field throughout 25 minutes of playing time.