Summer League success showed what Timberwolves ‘want to build moving forward’

MINNEAPOLIS ⁠– The Timberwolves just claimed runner-up honors in the NBA Summer League, winning their first six games before falling to Memphis by three points in the title game Monday, July 15, to conclude the 10-day event in Las Vegas.

So what?

That’s an obvious, and fair, question asked by the masses whenever a team achieves a high level of success in any form of exhibition play.

What does the success of a team of young players — some of whom won’t sniff the NBA — mean for the future of the franchise? The Wolves’ two 2019 draft picks — Jarrett Culver and Jaylen Nowell — didn’t even play. Regardless, past history has shown an organization’s Summer League success hasn’t necessarily been an indication for a franchise’s future direction.

Still, the past 10 days of play is far from meaningless. Consider it the new regime’s opening statement.

“I think we saw what we want to build moving forward,” Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said in a phone interview late Monday night, “and have it be a sustainable model.”

Saunders didn’t coach the Summer League team, but was in Las Vegas for the league’s duration and active at team practices. He seems to view the July exhibition season as a Petri dish to test ideas and strategies that potentially could be used during the NBA season.

“You want to win every game — we’re competitors — but you also want to try different things, you want to try different ways of doing things,” Saunders said. “So that once the regular season hits, you actually have somewhat of a sample size.”

Most everything the Wolves tried over the past 10 days worked. Those who watched were enthralled with the way Minnesota played. The summer Wolves were polar opposites of the NBA team fans have watched in recent years, and an example of what Saunders, new basketball boss Gersson Rosas and co. hope their team will be for years to come.

Minnesota got many of its shots via impeccable, rapid ball movement that lends itself to aesthetically pleasing basketball and, more importantly, open looks.

Where on the floor those looks were coming from matters.

The Timberwolves have been crucified for their inability to adapt to the game’s analytics-driven approach that values basketball’s most efficient shots — 3-pointers, layups and free throws. Minnesota has ranked near the league’s basement in 3-point makes and attempts for years.

The summer Wolves, led by new Timberwolves assistant coach Pablo Prigioni, who will help Saunders run Minnesota’s offense, all but eliminated mid-range shots from their repertoire. It was very Houston Rockets-esque, and all seemingly by design.

The Wolves, as Rosas said last week to reporters, were “playing faster … playing more efficient” and “getting good shots, so it’s fun.”

“Valuing shots, that’s something that I’ve always been wanting to do, then Gersson is reinforcing it from a great model in Houston, it’s a big positive,” Saunders said. “The shot selection, we’ve been really, really emphasizing that, and then also moving the ball with the pass. I think we’ve had great ball movement all Summer League.”

Will the offense this fall be the same as what Prigioni drew up for the past two weeks? No. The summer Wolves didn’t have Karl-Anthony Towns.

“You’ve got to adjust with the players you have and adapt,” Saunders said. “(Towns) should be getting the ball at different spots. So you have these things that you find out in Summer League, maybe with other groups and other lineups. I think there will be a lot of similarities, but I also think there will be some adjustments.”

On the other end, Minnesota allowed fewer than 82 points per game, sixth-best in the Summer League. It was a welcomed performance for a franchise whose NBA team hasn’t consistently made stops in 15 years.

“Not a lot of teams play defense in Summer League,” Rosas said last week, “and our guys are doing it.”

Not a lot of Summer League teams have benches that show the enthusiasm the Wolves showed throughout. Not a lot of Summer League teams have the buy-in Minnesota had from the top of its roster to the bottom. That all fits into the culture the Wolves believe they’re building in Minnesota.

Rosas noted how passionate Minnesota’s coaching staff is, adding the product the Wolves’ Summer League team put on the court was a product of the work it did from its minicamp in Minneapolis to its practices in Las Vegas.

The early returns on the Wolves’ new processes are positive.

It’s all why Saunders thinks this year’s Summer League run generates more momentum for the franchise as a whole than the run he led the summer Wolves on in 2016, when Minnesota also reached the title game.

“Because it’s a very new system, just a new way of doing things,” Saunders said. “Not against any other way, it’s just a different way of doing things. I think we found some things that we really feel are going to be positive for us in the future that can propel us. We know it’s not going to be an overnight thing, but we feel good about where we think an identity can go.”

Those are all what Saunders called “team and cultural positives.” Summer League also offered many “individual positives.” Mitch Creek, Keita Bates-Diop and Josh Okogie were all on the Timberwolves’ roster last season. Bates-Diop and Okogie certainly will be on Minnesota’s opening-night roster. All three players were impressive over the past 10 days.

It wasn’t just them.

Kelan Martin led the team in points (12.9) and rebounds (6.6), and big man Naz Reid — whom the team has signed to a two-way deal — stood out thanks to his vast array of offensive skills.

“We feel like we found some talent,” Saunders said.

That’s what a team like Minnesota has to do. Many of the young, talented players who made an impact at Summer League will be present at Timberwolves’ training camp. The competition they will create is more than welcome in Minnesota. The bar, the Wolves hope, is on its way up.

“Every player that we sign, have traded for, drafted, I told them, I had a conversation that there’s nothing guaranteed,” Saunders said. “We’re going to have a competitive training camp. It’s going to be where there’s minutes available and where there’s roles available (to be won). I’m a firm believer that the coach doesn’t determine the playing time. Ultimately, it’s based on the work you put in.”