If you are a fan or follower of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA, then you know how pathetic the 2014-15 season was. Sure, you can point out the number of games that key players missed throughout the season, with only rookie Andrew Wiggins earning his entire 82-game paycheck. Kevin Martin missed 43 games, Shabazz Muhammad had 44 DNPs, Nikola Pekovic sat out 51 times and Ricky Rubio played less games than a NCAA team does. Point? With all the losses, opportunity opened up for some relatively unknown players to show their worth and climb the minutes ladder.
With most of their roster starting off the season relatively healthy, minus Pekovic, the chance to impress interim coach Sam Mitchell for early season minutes will come during the preseason schedule. While the Wolves threw non-guaranteed contracts towards former McNeese St. big man / Puerto Rican pro Kleon Penn and Wichita State / Idaho Stampede guard / sibling of Andrew, Nick Wiggins, those two are a long shot to make the opening day roster.
Outside of the obvious (Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, etc.), the most intriguing player to watch right now on the Timberwolves roster is the mostly unknown 27-year-old rookie, Serbian forward Nemanja Bjelica. A hybrid forward, Bjelica plays a typical Euro game with a few pump fakes here and there, the assist that leads to the assist, a transition game and the ability to shoot with range.
Flip Saunders stated that Kevin Garnett would be part of the starting lineup, but with Sam Mitchell taking over as interim head coach, maybe there will be a change at some point. With Adreian Payne as the only other power forward standing in his way at the moment, an impressive preseason from Bjelica could launch the 6’10” forward into the starting five.
Yes, it may only be an unofficial game, but when you look at the mixed bag of stats from the Wolves’ 122-99 Oct. 7 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a line that consisted of 11 points (4-5 FG, 1-1 3FG, 1-1 FT), five boards, two dimes and a stolen cookie, it’s hard to think the Minnesota offense wouldn’t benefit from another multi-threat player on the floor.
Oct. 10 saw the Wolves in action against the Chicago Bulls, a night in which Bjelica once again posted a solid stat line of 11 points (3-4 FG, 1-1 3FG, 4-4 FT) nine rebounds, one assist and two steals in 17 minutes. Again, take what you want from it being preseason and all, but perhaps we see Bjelica as a consistent member of the starting five sooner than later:
Gorgui Dieng is another player who could only benefit from an impressive preseason. Entering his third year, Dieng took full advantage of a depleted frontcourt last season, seeing his minutes jump from 13 per game to 30 a night. The increased time on the floor naturally led to a bump in his point production, doubling his 4.8 rookie-year effort to a shade under 10 per game last season. He also cleaned just over eight rebounds off the glass and swatted nearly two shots a game.
Just as Bjelica did, Dieng provided the Wolves with a solid stat line last Wednesday evening with 18 points, four rebounds and three assists in 27 minutes. Dieng’s stat line against the Bulls wasn’t nearly as impressive as his first game, however, a solid 13-point, three-rebound effort did nothing to hurt his chances of moving up the playing time ladder. If he can be an opportunistic offensive player while offering up solid rebounding and rim protection, that’ll be exactly what the doctor ordered for Minnesota:
One player who has a lot to earn during the exhibition season is third-year point guard Lorenzo Brown. Originally drafted by Minnesota with a late second-round pick in 2013, Brown bounced between the Timberwolves, Philadelphia and the D-League before returning to the Twin Cities late last season.
While the Wolves have a lot of depth at the point-guard spot with Ricky Rubio, Andre Miller and Tyus Jones (plus Zach LaVine able to slide over from the 2), injuries have plagued the team the last few seasons. Nobody ever wants to wish ill will on anyone, but taking advantage of opportunity is what sports is often about.
Brown came off the bench for 15 minutes and put up seven points and an assist against the Thunder, and then he had eight points and two helpers in 23 minutes as a starter against Chicago. He’ll need to step up his game for the remainder of the preseason slate if he wants a roster spot, and considering the Wolves already have 15 fully guaranteed contracts before Brown, it’ll be tough:
It should be fun to watch this young team develop, and these players have good opportunities to show what they have in preseason.