Teammates predict a resounding repeat victory for Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine at next weekend’s All-Star slam dunk contest in Toronto, but they are skeptical about rookie Karl-Anthony Towns’ chances in the skills challenge.
The NBA has modified that event this year by inviting big men Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green and Anthony Davis to compete against the little guys in a timed obstacle course that requires a series of passes, free throws, layups and agility drills.
Does Towns stand a chance?
“No, guards are quicker,” said Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who has been invited but has never participated in the event. “That’s how it is.”
But Towns considers himself something of a guard in a 7-footer’s body, thanks to the way his father, a former college player and longtime high school coach, taught him the fundamentals all his life.
“I’ve got guard skills, so I should just be fine,” Towns said. “I think it’s definitely a cool addition. They didn’t pick just any bigs. They picked bigs they thought could do a great job in the competition. I’m just going to go out there, have fun and compete.”
Asked if the NBA will make changes in the competition to give the big men their chance, Towns said: “I have no idea. Believe me, I would have started practicing. I have no idea what the course is going to look like. I’ll probably just wing it.”
Second-year forward Adreian Payne was in uniform Saturday, his third game back from a D League assignment. He was sent to play for the Erie (Pa.) Bayhawks into next week’s NBA All-Star break but was recalled Monday after averaging 26.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in three games there because big men Kevin Garnett and Nikola Pekovic are out injured.
He awoke at 4 a.m. Monday morning and flew cross-country to California, joining the team in Los Angeles for games Tuesday and Wednesday. He played and had two points, one rebound, one assist and one turnover in 6½ minutes against the Lakers the first night, didn’t play against the Clippers the second when Sam Mitchell called upon Damjan Rudez for minutes instead of Payne or Nemanja Bjelica. He sat again in Saturday night's 112-105 victory over the Bulls.
“It just felt good to be able to go out and play, really,” Payne said. “They just told me I was going down there to get better, so I just went and played, tried to get better. It felt good…It’s good to play. Hopefully I get to play up here.”
Saturday was the first time Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg had coached an NBA game at Target Center. It set off a bit of reminiscing for Hoiberg, who played here for two years until a heart condition — and surgery — ended his playing days. He also spent several seasons in the Wolves front office before leaving to coach Iowa State, his alma mater.
“My life was saved here,” he said of team physician Dr. Sheldon Burns sending him to the Mayo Clinic to have his heart looked at.
“And we had one of our best years, making it to the Western Conference finals,” Hoiberg said of the 2003-04 season. “I truly believe if Sam Cassell had stayed healthy and not forced me to play point guard [as he did vs. the Lakers in the conference finals] we would have won a championship that year.’’
Hoiberg also talked about how much Flip Saunders helped him, both as a player and later when Hoiberg coached the Cyclones.
“He’s one of the best I ever played for,” Hoiberg said. “He was a guy I would call and lean on and ask advice being a new coach in the business. He’ll always be missed.”
Staff writer Kent Youngblood contributed to this report.