Sam Mitchell was hired by Flip Saunders in June 2014 to be an assistant coach for the Timberwolves, and at the time there was no reason to believe Mitchell would be cast into the head coaching position just over a year later.
Mitchell said at the time of his hiring: “If it wasn’t Flip, I probably wouldn’t be doing it. My relationship with Flip, the respect I have for Flip, the things I’ve learned from Flip, it’s all of that. I’m coming back to a place that, with Flip and Glen Taylor here, it was a no-brainer for me.
“They’re two people I played for, two people I have a relationship with and two people who care about me. They want to see the best for me. When you have a relationship with people like that, it’s a lot easier.”
Things became much harder for Mitchell when Saunders died from cancer so unexpectedly on Oct. 25. When the Wolves needed someone to fill the head coaching position, they turned to Mitchell, the 2006-07 NBA Coach of the Year with the Toronto Raptors.
The Wolves have shown improvement over the past few weeks, going into the All-Star break at 17-37 before losing their first game back at Memphis on Friday night. There remains a lot of hope for the second half of the season.
One of the recent lineup developments has been the play of Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng together in the frontcourt. Dieng spent the bulk of the season coming off the bench to replace veteran Kevin Garnett, who has been injured and hasn’t played the past 11 games.
In the nine games before the All-Star break, Dieng averaged 16.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 34.6 minutes per game, after averaging 8.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 23.8 minutes in the season’s first 46 games.
“They’ve given us a physical presence,” Mitchell said. “Not only are they tall, but they’re athletic and fast and quick and they’re hungry. Both of those guys, we lose rebounds every night because those guys are fighting for it, but they’re giving us a defensive presence. If you get past Karl, you’ve got G to contend with and vice versa.
“Those guys really like each other and play well together and they’re becoming best buds. You know the combination of them scoring inside and out makes it tough for teams to defend us going forward.”
When it comes to Towns, Mitchell said that every game seems to highlight a new aspect to the rookie’s game.
“You can say that every night for Karl,” he said. “He scores the ball, rebounds, shoots the three, he’s even leading the break sometimes off the rebound with the dribble.”
Does Mitchell ever worry Towns is doing too much?
“Sometimes I worry, but you know what? Let these kids grow, let them develop, and let me see what they can and can’t do before you start to rein them in,” he said. “One thing I don’t want to do as a coach is, why rein someone in until you fully know what their talent level is?
“We’re still finding out different things that Karl can do. Unless he starts looking completely crazy, you know, I give him a lot of leeway. Everything he has done thus far has shown me he can do it.”
Youngsters in the backcourt
In the backcourt, Mitchell has been experimenting with having Zach LaVine start at shooting guard while Andrew Wiggins starts at small forward.
Mitchell talked about Wiggins adjusting to defenses keying on him defensively.
“I think as he gets more accustomed to seeing double teams and seeing the way he has to play, he’s starting to make plays,” Mitchell said. “It really helps to have Zach LaVine out there and Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui — those guys can shoot the ball well enough to give him a little more space.”
While Mitchell was critical of LaVine early, he doesn’t hesitate to talk about the 20-year-old’s growth. LaVine shined over All-Star weekend in Toronto, as he was named the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge and repeated as slam dunk champion.
“Zach is very talented and the thing [Saunders] saw when he drafted him was that talent,” he said. “The thing we have been working on with Zach this last year and this year is learning how to play NBA basketball. I’ve moved him around to a couple of positions between point guard and 2-guard and I like when he and Ricky [Rubio] are out there together because it gives me two ball handlers, two guys who can make plays for their teammates.
“Zach, when he is shooting the ball well and playing within himself, he is an unbelievable talent. We feel very comfortable with Zach and Andrew and Karl going forward as a nucleus, and when you add Gorgui and Shabazz [Muhammad]and Nemanja [Bjelica], we really feel like the future is going to be bright. We just have to add the right pieces going forward and draft right.”
There’s no question that the Wolves have a bright future and that Mitchell, Saunders pick for head assistant, should be the man to lead them going forward.
• Rumors are that ex-Vikings owner Red McCombs would like to purchase the Oakland Raiders and then move the team to San Antonio. However, McCombs figures to get a lot of opposition from Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans. One stumbling block is that San Antonio’s Alamodome was built in 1993 and the league would want a new stadium built.
• Former Wild star Marian Gaborik was having a successful season with the first-place Los Angeles Kings, with 22 points in 54 games, but the oft-injured star will apparently miss the rest of the regular season because of a knee injury.
• Gophers basketball recruit Eric Curry out of Little Rock, Ark., a 6-8 forward that 247 Sports has ranked as a four-star recruit and the 110th-best player in the nation, will miss the rest of this season for Southwest Christian Academy because of a hip injury. Meanwhile, Amir Coffey, the Hopkins standout, is currently ranked No. 32 in the country by ESPN.com and the final Gophers recruit, Michael Hurt, out of Rochester John Marshall, is ranked as the second-best prospect in the state by ESPN, but is not ranked nationally.
• Only six NBA forwards and centers have shot 50 percent from the field, 35 percent from three-point range and 85 percent at the free-throw line. Going into Saturday Karl-Anthony Towns was shooting 53.8 percent from the field, 36.5 percent from three and 85.3 percent from the free-throw line.
• Mortenson Construction, the builders of the new Vikings stadium, had to turn down building a stadium in Atlanta for the Falcons because they wanted to do a top job on the new U.S. Bank Stadium. But Mortenson is building a baseball stadium for the Atlanta Braves.