MANKATO, Minn. – Training camp is officially underway as the 2019-20 NBA season is beginning to creep up slowly but surely. The Timberwolves have moved their operation to Taylor Arena on the campus of Minnesota State University, Mankato for the first pair of practices.
This is something that the franchise used to do on a regular basis, but has ceased to do over the last five years. With owner Glen Taylor’s Mankato roots, it’s something that makes sense for the organization to do. This is a group that is trying to change the culture to something both new and old. The Wolves want this to be a family atmosphere, far different than what it was under Tom Thibodeau, but much closer to what it once was under Flip Saunders.
The team spent Tuesday practicing before a group outing at night at Taylor’s Mankato home. Becky Taylor’s famous lasagna was served with garlic bread and Caesar salad, and a team bonding experience was had.
“It was a special moment for us and our team,” Jarrett Culver said. “Just being able to go to his house. It’s good team bonding as well. Just learning about Glen and his experience and how he became the owner and stuff like that. Him telling his story, I feel like was good for us.”
Moments like these might not produce wins on the basketball floor immediately. In fact, there’s probably very little correlation to how much lasagna was served and whether or not the Wolves win on opening night in Brooklyn. But there is a relationship between a night like Tuesday and the team’s culture.
It’s something that seems like it isn’t a big deal, but it’s another step in repairing the image of a franchise that was dragged through the mud at this time last season.
“Very important,” Jake Layman said of the team outing. “I haven’t done much of that so far in my career so for me, it’s new as well. But it’s great to just kind of talk to everybody in the whole organization and meet everybody and really get to know them.”
This is a group that’s still in the getting-to-know-each-other phase of things. Yes, they spent more time together during the summer than previous editions of the Timberwolves had, but this is still all very new.
On the floor
What the Timberwolves employ as philosophy both offensively and defensively has been hinted at plenty throughout the summer, but it’s difficult to have a concrete idea of what everything will look like until it’s actually on the floor. But we can certainly say that things are expected to look different this year than they did at any point last season.
The Wolves have talked about utilizing Karl-Anthony Towns in different spots on the floor than they previously have. That not only changes his role a bit, but it also changes the roles of those on the floor with him. The result of that could lead to an offense that’s more predicated on wing players cutting to the basket than previously. A reason for optimism about that strategy is that the Wolves are better suited for this type of offense than they would have been last year. They’re a younger team now than they were last year, and it certainly isn’t a stretch to say that they’re more athletic, too.
Layman is one of the better examples of this.
“His ability to cut to the basket is really good,” Shabazz Napier, who is teaming up with Layman for a second time, said at media day. “He’s able to slash, he’s able to shoot the ball, he’s a high-flier. He’s really athletic, really athletic. He has an IQ for the game, he understands what to do, what not to do.”
“Yeah, I think that’s just a part of my game, the cutting off the ball,” Layman said. “I think we have some great passers here who can find me on those cuts. So far, it’s been working out really well.”
It will be interesting to see how much time Layman spends on the floor alongside Towns. There’s a possibility that he’s the one that fills the open starting spot left by the departure of Dario Saric. Towns, Robert Covington, Andrew Wiggins, and Jeff Teague all seem to be locks to open up the season as starters, but that fifth spot could go a number of different ways.
The other options could include Josh Okogie or Jarrett Culver if the team opts to play small, or Noah Vonleh or Jordan Bell if more size is needed. It’s something that could fluctuate throughout the season, too.
All of the wings will be relied upon to be adequate cutters during the year.
“The way we’re playing, we’re reading off what the defense gives us,” Okogie said. “A lot of times the defense is going to help double-team KAT, try to help towards Jeff, so there’s going to be a lot more opportunities for me to cut and get easy baskets.”
Cleaning up a gray area
Layman isn’t just a basketball player that’s good at cutting, but he’s also the one with the Timberwolves that has the biggest head start on the defensive system that assistant coach David Vanterpool will employ. The two spent the last few years together in Portland.
While Vanterpool will be changing what the Wolves do, it’s all familiar to Layman.
“Absolutely, it’s our same philosophies from Portland that he’s bringing here,” Layman said. “I’m definitely one to speak up whenever I see something like that for sure.”
The specifics of the system aren’t yet known, but what’s been done in Portland defensively over the past few years has been drastically better than what’s gone on in Minnesota. It’s fair to expect an improvement for the Wolves from last year’s 24th-best defense in the league.
“I think there’s more structure,” Okogie said of the differences in philosophy. “We’re trying to eliminate the gray area in terms of concepts, so everybody knows what we’re doing and everybody is on the same page, and I think that’s one thing that he’s really brought to this organization that’s been great for us, kind of that structure and stability.
“There’s always confusion when you’re on defense, because all of the offenses are really good, especially when you’re playing really good offensive teams, but according to the structure that we’re trying to implement now, we should be alright.”
Helping the Minnesota basketball community
For Wednesday’s practice, the Wolves opened up the session to over 100 local high school basketball coaches.
“It’s important,” head coach Ryan Saunders said. “That’s something we’ve always believed in. that’s something my family has always believed in is that the game of basketball is about getting engaged. It’s something that can do great things for you and I feel very fortunate that it’s done great things for my life. So, for that reason, the least you can do is make sure to share any bit of knowledge that you may have or your staff may have for people to take from being around this practice.”