Las Vegas re-branded itself sometime in my early adult life as a 21-plus paradise of debauchery and excess — punctuated by one of the all-time great PR campaign slogans, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
I’ve been to Sin City many times and love it very much, but in my estimation 48 hours is about the perfect amount of time to be there.
Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders, by contrast, had been in Vegas for the better part of two weeks when I talked to him Monday night. The occasion for the extended stay was a positive — it meant the Summer League Wolves, who started play July 5, had kept playing all the way to the championship game, where they fell Monday to Memphis — but the coach sounded like he had a bit of a basketball hangover.
“I was there the entire time (for Summer League) and three days of free agency in Los Angeles before that,” said Saunders, who spent the time evaluating players and meeting with new assistant coaches while one of those assistants, Pablo Prigioni, ran the Summer League team. “I’m ready to go home. So ready.”
What he brings back to Target Center remains to be seen, but this much is certain: A lot of things the Summer Wolves did in going 6-1 can be construed as the seeds of what Saunders and the rest of the Timberwolves’ brain trust would like to see extended to the full NBA squad this fall and winter.
In other words, contrary to that catchy slogan, Saunders doesn’t want what happened in Vegas to stay in Vegas.
Specifically, the things Saunders talked about Monday fit into these five categories.
*Philosophy: Since Gersson Rosas took over as President two months ago, and even back a little further to when Saunders was named interim head coach in January, the Wolves have talked about playing with pace, having interchangeable parts that create a “position-less” feel on the court and other such modern NBA things. The seven games in Las Vegas were the first demonstration of the alignment of those goals in action.
“You do take positives out of it. You can find things both as a coach and as a player about yourself. I think as coaches we find things about players as well,” said Saunders, who had a similar experience when leading the Summer Wolves to a runner-up finish when he was an assistant coach in 2016. “You want to win and compete because we’re competitors and we’re in pro sports, but it’s one of those things where you learn what your philosophy can be what works. Summer league is a real opportunity.”
*Offensive efficiency: On offense, there are multiple facets to that philosophical change. But the most striking one in Las Vegas was shot selection. Through four games, the Wolves were attempting more than 80 percent of their field goals either from three-point range or at the rim. Last year, that figure was 60 percent. Continue that pace, and it’s one more high-value shot out of every five than they had last season.
“Our staff has grown and grown and now we’re at a full staff,” Saunders said. “We have had a number of meetings in terms of how we want to play offensively and defensively – about our identity and our shot values. Taking the correct point value shots, based on points per possession. We spent a lot of time with that and worked a lot with our offensive concepts. … Our shot charts were where we want to be. More free throws, layups, three point shots. I feel that was a positive.”
I asked Saunders whether that’s something he thinks the Wolves can bring back from Vegas — particularly to some of the high-usage players on the current roster like Andrew Wiggins who have not been models of efficient shot-taking in the past.
“It’ll be a work in progress, but I feel like the way we’ve been working to educating our guys is something we can carry over,” he said. “We’re seeing how these guys learned, and so like I said Summer League philosophically you want to use those the experiences.”
*Defensive identity: Monday was not the Summer Wolves’ best game on that end of the court, as they allowed 95 points in the shortened 40 minutes of action. But overall in the seven games there were some intriguing signs on that end of the court as well.
“Defensively we were able to try a bunch of things with switching situations — more than we’ve done in the past,” Saunders said.
Indeed, the young and athletic roster the Wolves figure to field in the regular season should be suited to switches.
*Individual improvement: It’s easy to fall in love with individual summer performances against somewhat loose defenses and less structure, so this is the spot that probably needs the most caution.
With 2019 draft picks Jarrett Culver (precaution) and Jaylen Nowell (minor injury) not appearing at all in Sin City, the only safe bets from the Summer League roster to have a regular role with the Wolves in 2019 are Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, draft picks in 2018.
Sure, it’s fun to marvel at Canyon Barry’s underhand granny-style free throws (he’s the son of Hall of Famer Rick, who mastered the art, and Canyon is pretty close to perfect himself) or wonder if ex-Gopher Jordan Murphy can parlay those seven games into a pro career. But for a lot of these guys, Summer League is somewhere between a pipe dream and an extended tryout.
However, I am not going to be the one to dump cold water on your love of one specific player: 19-year-old undrafted free agent Naz Reid. The 6-10 LSU product had just eight points (and 10 rebounds) on 3 of 13 shooting in the championship game loss, but overall he did a lot of impressive things in Las Vegas. Saunders, it should be noted, is not going to douse that fire much, either.
“Specifically we learned how talented (Reid) is. He has a great feel for the game. The fact that he’s a big guy but handles like a guard, that fits into modern NBA. He’s 19 and his upside is tremendous,” Saunders said. “We learned what he can do and what he needs to work on, things he needs to focus on.”
Reid is on a two-way contract, meaning he can spend a maximum of 45 days with the Wolves and will otherwise get seasoning with their G League team in Iowa. But he seems like a very worthy developmental project.
*Togetherness: Social media was peppered with images of all sorts of Wolves players in Vegas — not just the Summer League guys. That was a departure from years past, and it allowed guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins to get in extensive practices with Culver and others, even though they weren’t playing in games.
“There were guys in and out in past years as well, but it did feel like there was more of a presence this summer,” Saunders said. “We worked out every day these guys were out here. Being able to get Karl, Andrew, Jarrett working out together, we got them feeling comfortable with decisions and shots.”