There were four players Timberwolves associate head coach David Vanterpool brought up recently when discussing his seven seasons as an assistant in Portland.
Two — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — were obvious. Vanterpool is one of the reasons they became two of the premier scorers in the NBA.
Only those with a League Pass subscription or memory for college hoops might know the other two — Pat Connaughton and Tim Frazier.
Frazier, undrafted out of Penn State in 2014, has played for six different teams in six seasons, the latest Detroit. Connaughton was a second-round pick in 2015 out of Notre Dame whose future appeared brighter in baseball than basketball. Now he’s in the rotation for title-contending Milwaukee. Vanterpool has pride in developing their careers in Portland.
Why? He sees a bit of himself in them.
“I’ve been able to have a chance to work with and influence those guys,” said Vanterpool, 46. “Pointing to Dame and CJ is easy, because of how Dame and CJ are now, but I point to Pat and Tim because I relate more to that struggle.”
Vanterpool didn’t have a glamorous career, playing in 22 NBA games while bouncing around Italy, Russia and China, among other places. But that “struggle” molded him into an effective coach, one the Wolves are relying on to help develop their defense and mold players such as Andrew Wiggins.
“The majority of the league is closer to me than LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant,” Vanterpool said. “Some guys may be in the league for eight to 10 years. Those same guys could be in the league for two or three. That’s how close that range is. It’s really fragile.
“It’s given me a broader understanding of the league, the players in it, the things they go through, the mentality they may have and what could be helpful for them.”
Talent and struggle
When Connaughton arrived in Portland, he didn’t want to tread on the space of veterans such as Lillard and McCollum, so he was shy about joining their workouts. Vanterpool insisted he join.
“He had created that culture in Portland,” Connaughton said. “As a rookie, first-year guy walking in, I want to do extra work, but I’m not going to impose on their basket. He threw me right in the mix from Day One. Ironically enough, fast forward to my third year, we’re still doing the same thing.”
Connaughton remembers a trip in Minnesota, when he and Lillard were going through a shooting slump. Vanterpool organized and ran an extra workout session in the Wolves facilities, then all ran to a team dinner sweating in their workout clothes.
“D.V. is a perfect example of a coach that’s willing to help your talent grow if you have more work ethic than talent,” Connaughton said. “That in my opinion is what keeps guys in the league.”
Added Wolves guard Shabazz Napier: “It’s always great to have somebody else in the gym with you. He’s a gym rat as much as anybody else is.”
That builds relationships that extend beyond the court. Frazier said he’s on a group text with Vanterpool and others from his Portland days.
“You’re able to talk to him and communicate on the basketball standpoint, and he’s personable. I was able to talk about stuff outside of the court,” Frazier said. “We could grab a bite to eat, talk about stuff in basketball as well as stuff that’s going on in the world. He was huge as far as being able to communicate with and talk about life.”
Players say they want to work with Vanterpool and for him; he relates to the struggling NBA player because he was on the fringes himself. His work with Lillard and McCollum showed what it takes to help elite-level talent — when skill meets the work ethic of those who need that to survive in the league.
“When you have guys that are ultra-talented, that are willing to bring themselves closer toward that struggle, then they can meet their ultimate potential and be those elite-level players because they have the talent to go with it,” Vanterpool said. “It’s helped me in just the overall picture understanding how it actually feels to do certain things within the crux of a practice or crux of a season.”
Building the defense
Wolves President Gersson Rosas interviewed Vanterpool for the head coaching job before choosing to keep Ryan Saunders in that role, but Vanterpool still chose to come as associate head coach, a bump in title and pay.
“They made a decision as to who they felt the person they needed for a position in the organization, and I wasn’t that person at that moment,” said Vanterpool, a Maryland native. “When a new opportunity presented itself, I just looked at it as that — completely separate from that other situation and opportunity.”
The Wolves’ pitch was a full-court press that included overtures from owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, and CEO Ethan Casson.
“The attitude they had when it came to me and what they were interested in building is very enticing,” Vanterpool said.
The Wolves made Vanterpool their de facto “defensive coordinator,” and while it’s been a bumpy ride this season, they have seen some improvement of late, boasting the top defensive efficiency in the league over the past 11 games.
Connaughton said Vanterpool was instrumental in helping him in the “rearview contest,” affecting a shot when you’re behind the shooter. That’s something Vanterpool has worked on with Wiggins.
“He’s one of the coaches that stay on you, keep you accountable,” Wiggins said. “Most importantly, he pushes you. This year, this whole season, he’s been very hands-on coaching on the court.”
To Vanterpool, a team needs physical effort as a building block of a successful defense, but mental effort is a little more important.
“The mental effort to understand, first of all, our own principles, it’s not a whole lot … but once we understand that, then we can get to the next step,” Vanterpool said. “Now I can get a little bit deeper into the opponent and what it is they’re trying to accomplish. So now it’s, OK, they make a call. They want to do this and how I can relay information to my teammates because we know what we want to create.
“All these guys are super athletes. They can run around. But without direction, without understanding principles that you have in place and without starting to understand the opponent even better? Then you’re just running around.”
Back to relationships
Vanterpool can spout Xs and Os, but those relationships he builds with players take some time to develop. Even in times of frustration, players get the idea Vanterpool cares for them.
“He tells it straight,” Napier said. “On top of that, he just shows a lot of love to you, whether you’re doing the right things or doing the wrong thing. He’s almost like a father figure to a lot of guys. … He cares a lot, and he didn’t mind if it showed on his sleeve.”
Added Wiggins: “He’s intense at times. But he’s a player’s coach, too … he can relate to you.”
Both McCollum and Lillard posted heartfelt messages on social media when Vanterpool left for the Wolves. Connaughton and Frazier still stay in touch. Connaughton said he spent 20 minutes chopping it up with Vanterpool before a preseason game in October. Napier, with teammate and former Blazer Jake Layman, cherishes getting to work with Vanterpool in this chapter of his career.
Vanterpool said he has tried to cultivate an atmosphere in Minnesota similar to Portland, where players want to come to work.
“These guys are also people that live real lives, have the same trials and tribulations others have,” Vanterpool said. “This is their getaway and escape from that, and if you have an environment that is not conducive to your joy, it’s a little tough. It makes it tough to get better.”
His success in Portland didn’t immediately happen. The league wasn’t paying attention, he said, when Lillard, McCollum, Connaughton, Frazier and the others were hard at work, perfecting their crafts. That’s similar to what’s happening with the Wolves.
“We just continued doing what we were doing,” Vanterpool said.
Now to just get similar results.