The Timberwolves’ summer-league run in Las Vegas is over and, with a 1-4 record, they may have reminded fans a little too much of the regular-season team that was the NBA’s worst last year.
But summer league is summer league for a reason, and what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and various other such reassuring platitudes indeed apply. Minnesota’s summer squad was stocked with the young, athletic potential that has many around the league forecasting a positive turnaround in the not-too-distant future for this franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in more than a decade.
No. 1 overall draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns showed signs of stardom (along with evidence that he’s still just 19 years old); the other first-rounder, hometown hero Tyus Jones, was a bit more turnover-prone than expected. There were stars and duds, breakout performances and disappointing letdowns. There was an initial win over the Lakers, and then four straight losses.
Reading into the NBA Summer League may be making much ado about nothing, but now there’s no more Wolves basketball until October, so let’s make some more ado about it anyway.
Most valuable player: Adreian Payne
Payne was one of four players to appear in every game, starting four, and played the second-most minutes of anyone on the Wolves’ roster. He averaged 14.2 points (tied for second-most) on 40.4 percent shooting, along with a team-high 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists. The power forward also showed nice range, sinking 6 of 16 3-pointers (37.5 percent), and good defensive positioning, averaging 3.4 fouls per game in a league where contact is frequent and foul-outs come after 10 personals. Payne scored in double figures in every game, including an 18-point performance against the Jazz, and grabbed 15 rebounds in the last contest against the Cavaliers.
Minnesota liked the Michigan State big man a lot before last year’s draft, having scouted him heavily and worked him out. The Hawks selected Payne 15th overall but didn’t have many minutes for the rookie, and on Feb. 10 the Wolves traded a protected future first-round pick for him. After that trade, head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said, “We’ve liked (Payne) for a while and look forward to seeing him grow with us in a Wolves uniform.”
He averaged 7.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 24.8 minutes in 29 games as a rookie with Minnesota. Payne also made just 1 of 8 3-point attempts. In addition to clearly having improved his outside shooting, Payne showed a more polished offensive game in Las Vegas as a second-year player and should compete for minutes in a crowded Wolves frontcourt.
Most surprising player: Zach LaVine
The sky-gliding second-year combo guard only played in the first two games in Vegas but he made his presence known both times. In the opener against the Lakers, he scored 24 points (on 7 of 17 shooting) with six rebounds and three assists. He was 4 of 8 from 3-point range, an impressive display for the 20-year-old who said he’d made a concerted effort to shoot better from distance. The next night, he scored 20 points but was just 5 of 20 from the field, including 1 of 4 on 3-pointers. He also grabbed nine rebounds.
While his 22.0-point average — and the 37 shots in two games required to get it — is likely not reproducible in the regular season, LaVine was more aggressive driving to the basket and looked stronger finishing at it, which is important for the lithe player known mostly for dunking acrobatics.
He averaged 10.1 points, 3.6 assists and 2.8 rebounds in 24.7 minutes per game last year, earning All-Rookie Second Team honors and winning the slam dunk contest. After a couple of high-octane summer-league scoring performances, LaVine could become an instant-offense sixth man for Minnesota this season.
The real thing: Lorenzo Brown
Brown may not have the high-profile name recognition or high-ceiling game potential of some of his younger Wolves teammates, but the 24-year-old point guard may have solidified his spot as a dependable backup who can run the offense and hit open shots.
Brown shot 52.1 percent from the field (30.8 on 3-pointers) and averaged 14.2 points in five games. He distributed well, dishing out 3.2 assists, and took care of the ball, turning it over just 2.4 times per game — well below the turnover averages of LaVine (3.5) and Jones (3.3).
After hitting only 21.4 percent of his 3s last year, Brown made 30.8 percent in Las Vegas (4 of 13), where he showed more confidence in taking outside shots, which will force defenses to respect that part of his game. Though he has a non-guaranteed minimum salary next year, Brown showed the Wolves exactly what he brings to a team in terms of consistency and stability.
Summer fling: Othyus Jeffers
Jeffers started four games for the Wolves and averaged nearly 10 points and five rebounds, shooting over 50 percent in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately for the 29-year-old swingman, it probably isn’t enough to get him to Minnesota. The journeyman veteran has played for five NBA teams since 2008 and, while he is a highly decorated D-Leaguer (2014 MVP, among other honors), his solid but unspectacular game is running out of time to make a top-tier impression.
Jeffers, who’s played outside the U.S. in Italy and the Philippines, finished summer league averaging 9.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 26.8 minutes in five games, shooting 52.6 percent from the field.
Best flash of potential: Karl-Anthony Towns
For a young player that was a top pick, who’s balancing big talent and high expectations, you want to see at least one game where they put it all together and show a glimpse of what they can do.
For Towns, that was the fourth game against the Trail Blazers, when he finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in 36 minutes. He added two assists and two steals and only committed two personal fouls. The athletic big man hit 7 of 9 shots, showing off post moves and midrange jumpers, and also made all six of his free throws. It was a complete performance that Wolves fans hope he can replicate often in his rookie season.
The next game, though, he showed the inconsistency inherent in being a 19-year-old, struggling with foul trouble — he’d get seven in 25 minutes — and finishing with nine points (on 2 of 8 shooting) and four rebounds.
Towns was the Wolves’ only player to start each of the five games. He averaged 12.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.8 blocks and 6.2 fouls in 31.2 minutes.
While Towns had his breakout game, fellow rookie Jones did not. Starting three games and appearing in four, the usually steady Jones bordered on subdued. He finished summer-league play with averages of 7.8 points, 2.0 assists and 3.3 turnovers in 24.2 minutes. Against the Bulls in Game 2, he had 14 points and three assists.
And with that, we conclude making much ado of the summer-league nothing.
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