Wolves: It had to be asked

  • Article by: Jerry Zgoda
  • Star Tribune
  • September 29, 2007 - 9:46 PM

If this were football, Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman said he would have stripped athletic tape bearing surnames across his players' helmets for Saturday's season-opening practice. Instead, he persevered without a player program to help him guide a completely remade team for the first time. "Today, I went without calling anybody the wrong name," he said. More than half the faces are new and the questions about a franchise steered on a different heading are many after July's massive Kevin Garnett trade and Friday night's deal that sent Trenton Hassell to Dallas for Greg Buckner. Here are 10 of them as the Wolves arrive in Turkey today following an overnight trans-Atlantic flight for 10 days of training camp and games overseas.

1 Q Who's going to lead this team?

A The most obvious candidate is 13-year NBA veteran Juwan Howard, but he's the reluctant Timberwolf who said he will guide this team by committee with veterans Theo Ratliff and Mark Madsen for as long as he is in Minnesota.

The most willing candidate? Randy Foye, the second-year guard who will often have responsibility on his shoulders and the ball in his hands now that the team has traded Mike James and bought out Troy Hudson.

"I would say me," Foye said when asked to name the Wolves' leader. "I just know from my situation growing up, I'm just a natural born leader. I never was a follower in anything. If somebody said, 'Let's go do this,' and if it didn't feel right, I wouldn't do it, even if it was my best friend. And it's my position, too, because I'm the one getting all the information from Coach Witt and delivering it to the players. That's a leader, too."

2Q Is Foye an NBA point guard and, if so, is he a guy who can lead the Wolves and make his teammates better?

A Foye will play point guard, but might not always be the point guard. Capiche? "I envision Randy to be more than just a point guard," said Wolves coach Randy Wittman, whose other options at that position are Sebastian Telfair and Marko Jaric. "I'm not going to label him as a point guard. He has the capability to do that, but I think he's got the ability to be more than that. It'd be remiss for me to just keep him at that. I can see playing him off the ball and bringing somebody in to run the point so Randy can run the floor, come off screens and not have to run the show every minute he's on the floor."

3 Q Fourth-year forward Al Jefferson, the centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett trade from the Wolves' perspective, made a massive leap forward last season, doubling the previous year by averaging 16 points and 11 rebounds. What must he do this season to again bound ahead?

A The guy who loves contact underneath with his back to the basket -- and who vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale said plays the kind of "smash-mouth" basketball he prefers -- spent the summer developing his face-up game away from the hoop.

"That's the next step to his game," Wittman said. "If he's going to emerge and really take off, he's going to have to be able to do that. If he establishes himself down low, a lot of teams are going to put their centers on him. If that happens, he's got to be able to go to the high post, put it down one time and get to the rim. I envision a lot of teams putting their centers on him, and I don't want him to get too banged up down there."

4 Q How much, how soon can the team expect from first-round draft pick Corey Brewer, winner of consecutive NCAA championships at Florida?

A Given his history, probably more than you might think from a rookie. He's long, lean and active. His ability to consistently make a midrange jump shot is a question, but both Wittman and McHale are hopeful he will help the Wolves improve two areas where they were deficient last season: offensive rebounding and reaching the free-throw line.

"He's got the talent to improve the things we need to improve upon," Wittman said. "He can defend. He's going to be able to play a lot of different positions. He runs like a deer. He can score in different ways. He's not a shooter. He can put the ball on the floor and get to the hole, and that's something we need."

5 Q How many Timberwolves will it take to replace Garnett's averages of 22.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals last season?

A "Five," Foye said. "All five of us on the floor."

Perhaps not that many, but also maybe not that far off.

"Everybody asks how do you make up for KG's rebounding and scoring," Wittman said. "We're not going to have one guys average 25, 12 and five. If we do, I'll be real happy. You'll have combinations now of guys needing to do more."

6 Q Summer-workout observers suggest forward Gerald Green might be the team's most explosive player. What must he do to fulfill the promise of that athleticism?

A At 6-8 and a mere 200 pounds, the 21-year-old third-year player who came directly out of a Houston high school must grow big ears.

"I just think it's a matter of him learning the game," Wittman said. "He's got all the athleticism. He can shoot the ball. Now we as coaches have to teach him to play the game and learn the difference between a good shot and a bad shot. There isn't any reason he shouldn't be a hell of a defender. He's got great size, speed, the jumping ability. My main objective is teaching him to play the game the right way. It's not a pickup game where you just come out and play. There's a method to the madness."

7 Q Is second-year forward Craig Smith really odd?

A Kevin McHale says as much. "In our league, the best guys are the ones who are physically odd somehow," he said. "And Craig is one of those guys. He's a matchup nightmare. He's just got that quickness to go by longer guys and he can overpower smaller guys. He's unique. Craig can be a really, really good player in our league for a long time."

Smith's promising play last season reversed the franchise's rich history of second-round draft pick busts, and he impressed in summer-league play after arriving stronger and 15 pounds lighter. He might be sidelined for all the team's upcoming 10-day European trip because of a sprained ankle sustained last week.

So is he really odd? "Yeah, I'm kind of odd," said Smith, a 6-7, 250-pound forward. "I consider myself a mutant."

8 Q Can Theo Ratliff, a two-time NBA shot-block leader recovering at age 34 from season-ending back surgery eight months ago, still play?

A Nobody knows. Ratliff, who played two games with Boston last season before his January surgery and said he has been working out fully all summer, declared himself healthy on Friday. If he is, he would give the Wolves in limited minutes something the franchise has never had: a true shot blocker.

"I definitely bring that to the table," Ratliff said. "I will defend the basket."

Whatever he can give the Wolves is secondary to this important fact: His contract, which will pay him $11.6 million, expires after this season.

9 Q What can be expected from Rashad McCants, the team's 2005 first-round draft pick, after two absolutely inconclusive seasons that offered microfracture knee surgery?

A Much more than last season, when he missed the first 44 games while recovering from that knee surgery, but perhaps not as much as before the injury. He looks strong and lean and, according to Wittman, is noticeably improved from even his uneven summer-league play and ready to run in what the coach promises will be rapid basketball. "He has that quickness back," McHale said. "He just doesn't have that last bit of bounce. I don't know if you ever get that back. I mean, he had that kind of crazy bounce to him before."

10 Q Who gets Kevin Garnett's locker?

A Garnett assumed Jefferson's locker in Boston, so the young fellow felt it only right that he take Garnett's Target Center space.

Asked if he worried assuming Garnett's place in the locker room might invite further comparisons to the future Hall of Famer, Jefferson said: "I'm not really concerned about comparisons. I'm my own player. I think it's an honor to be compared to Kevin Garnett. He's one of the best players in the league. To be traded for him was an honor, too. I'm Al Jefferson, and he's Kevin Garnett. I know I have some big shoes to fill because of the things he has done. It's a big challenge for me, but I like a big challenge."

Jerry Zgoda •

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