Wrapping up Summer League and looking forward for the Wolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves wrapped up the Las Vegas Summer League with a loss in the championship game to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Despite the loss in the title game, the Summer League as a whole still will be considered a success for the Wolves as a franchise. Things felt different for the franchise both on and off the court for the first time in a long time. Here are some observations from the 10 days in Vegas.

Culture changing

This has been talked about plenty, both here on SKORNorth.com and elsewhere since the Wolves turned the keys to the organization over to Gersson Rosas in early May. Things were going to have to change if the organization wanted to be on the right path.

It’s early, and everything done at Summer League should be taken with a grain of salt, but the Wolves finally look like they’re headed in the right direction. The team is undergoing a culture shift that won’t be completed for a while – at least not until everyone is bought in – but it did start to show in Summer League. The Wolves had arguably the loudest bench of any team in Vegas. There was at least one occasion that an official had to warn the Wolves reserves to make sure they weren’t getting too far onto the court while celebrating.

During at least one game, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and newcomers Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, and Jordan Bell also sat courtside. That hasn’t always been the case for the Wolves. That alone won’t win any games, but it can start to create an environment that Wolves need to get the most out of what they have. In the coming season, that’s going to be part of the route they’ll need to take in order to arrive at a successful destination.

Playing Style

This was the thing that most people will be looking forward to seeing the most when the beginning of the season rolls around in October. It’s no secret that under Tom Thibodeau that Wolves played a mostly outdated brand of basketball. They took more midrange jumpers than almost everyone else (hello, San Antonio), were middle of the pack in shots attempted at the rim, and were 26th in the league in 3-pointers attempted.

Here’s the shot distribution for the Wolves throughout the 2018-19 season. Note how high the distribution percentage is for midrange shots. It’s not pretty.

The regular season shot distribution chart for the 2018-19 Minnesota Timberwolves

Now, these are small sample sizes, and against a much lower level of competition, but look how stark the change is in some of the team’s Summer League games. They look incredibly different than what this franchise is used to.

Shot chart in Summer League against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Shot chart from the Summer League game against the Atlanta Hawks
Shot chart for the Summer League game against the Milwaukee Bucks

The Wolves have talked about looking different and trying to move into the more modern NBA stylistically. They’ve also repeatedly used the phrase “actions over words” when talking about it. This is a very small sample size in a relatively meaningless Summer League, but it’s an action nonetheless. The action of carrying this type of stuff into the regular season will matter more, but this is a start.

Youth movement

This isn’t necessarily a Summer League observation, because almost every team in the history of Summer League has been a young team. Veterans don’t (normally) get sent to play out there, and nor should they. But the actual Timberwolves should end up as one of the younger squads next season.

Last year the Wolves couldn’t tout themselves up as young pups. Sure, there was young talent on the roster, but there also were six guys at least 30 years of age. That’s going to be drastically different when opening night rolls around for the 2019-20 season.

Barring no roster changes between now and the start of the season, the Wolves are set to open up the year with one player – Jeff Teague – that’s older than 30 years old. Only a second will turn 30 during the season in Gorgui Dieng. That’s quite a difference from one year ago.

The roster at the end of the season had an average age of 27.3 years old. To start the season next year they’ll likely have only three guys over 27 on the squad. That’s a huge difference.

Naz Reid showing out

Naz Reid was supposed to be a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Well, at least that’s how he was viewed when coming out of high school. He was a 5-star big man from New Jersey and the 18th ranked player in his graduating class. The sky was supposed to be the limit.

Fast-forward through one uninspiring year at LSU and Reid now finds himself on a two-way contract with the Wolves after not being selected on draft night. He was arguably the most impressive guy on the floor during the Summer League in Vegas, and showed up against some of the better competition, too.

“Yeah, I mean I think we’ve seen that he’s got an incredible amount of talent, and every time I tell somebody that he just turned 19 years old, they can’t believe me,” head coach Ryan Saunders said during Summer League. “His upside is tremendous, we really love what he can bring to us. His ability to shoot the ball, how he moves, and he’s solid down low. He’s impressed me in terms of how he’s defended. I’m really excited to have him be a part of this group.”

Reid finished the showcase with an 11.9 points per game average while shooting 46% from the floor and finished 8-for-21 from 3-point range. He’s going to be the first opportunity the Wolves have to show off their new player development program from the ground floor. Yes, we’re going to learn about Andrew Wiggins, too, but Reid is someone that the Wolves will be able to mold from Day 1, and that’s something that could turn out to be a huge benefit for both the player and the organization.

There’s plenty to be excited about with Reid, but there’s also reason to be skeptical. Guys of his talent level don’t often go undrafted, but there’s a reason that he wasn’t selected with any of the 60 selections on draft night. Sometime from now it will either be known that everyone was right in passing over Reid, or that the Wolves pulled off a heist.

Missing pieces

Summer League is all about seeing guys get second chances to make an impact on the NBA after going undrafted, trying to latch on somewhere else, and seeing draft picks suit up for their new squad for the first time.

For the Wolves, they had a successful Summer League run despite neither of their draft picks playing a single minute. Jaylen Nowell, the team’s second-round pick, missed all seven games with a contusion on his leg, while No. 6 overall selection Jarrett Culver was held out for precautionary reasons.

Nowell’s injury happened during the team’s minicamp, and isn’t really all that noteworthy. Those things happen, it’s part of basketball. Culver missing Summer League was interesting, though.

He wasn’t allowed on the court for game action by the Wolves in part because they didn’t officially acquire him until July 6, which was the day after their first Summer League game. The NBA didn’t allow for the deal to happen until then, which meant that the Wolves couldn’t even allow him in the facility before that. It’s a ridiculous rule that really needs to be changed.

“We’d love for him to play here but realistically he’s too important to us,” Rosas said. “The way things are, not having had a chance to do the full training camp with our team, not having played 5-on-5 in such a long time. He’s too important. He’s here doing practices and individual work. But for him and for us, we decided the best thing was not to have him participate.”

Moving forward

Since it’s now officially quiet time in the NBA, there’s not a ton to talk about. Of course, that means it’s time for Las Vegas to drop the season win totals for each individual team. Depending on the sports book, the number for the Wolves might be a little bit different, but the one that was sent to SKOR North via email on Tuesday morning was set at 35.5, so that’s what we’re going with for the sake of this writing.

It might be tough to see the Wolves get above that number, considering how loaded the Western Conference is slated to be this season. If the Wolves do get above that number, it’s because everything went better than as planned. It would mean that Towns took another leap and solidified himself as a top-12 player in the NBA, Wiggins drastically improved, and Culver was a huge success in his rookie season.

If the Wolves don’t reach 36 wins, well, it might not be all that surprising this season.