A few hours before the Timberwolves’ game at Golden State last Monday, assistant coach Pablo Prigioni was stretching on the floor when Josh Okogie walked over.
Okogie, in a kidding manner, was inquiring why Prigioni was bending his body into a pretzel.
Without missing a beat and with his body still contorted, Prigioni clapped back that it was so he could beat Okogie “when we play 3-on-3 — got to stay in shape.”
Prigioni is not that far removed from his playing days, an unusual career spent mostly in Europe but also as a late-blooming rookie in the NBA at age 35. So as an assistant coach and the Wolves’ de facto “offensive coordinator,” as Ryan Saunders has termed it, Prigioni, now 42, can often demonstrate what he’s preaching, surprising some players when they first meet him.
“It’s hard for people to realize that because you see him and you’re like, ‘No way,’ ” said guard Shabazz Napier, who played under Prigioni when both were with Monday’s opponent, Brooklyn, last season.
Prigioni has been entrusted by President Gersson Rosas and Saunders with revamping the Wolves offense to a space-and-pace, three-point hoisting machine after plucking him from the Nets last offseason. The strategy has produced mixed results. The Wolves rank fifth in the NBA in pace and fourth in three-point attempts but 29th in percentage. Their offensive rating is 22nd, but it’s a system the franchise is committed to for the long haul.
It helps to have a teacher in Prigioni who played the style he coaches, and he wasn’t doing it that long ago.
Path to the NBA
Prigioni was born in Argentina, and he was never one to make big leaps in his career. He had a slow and steady path to the Argentine national team, with whom he won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics. He earned a reputation as one of the best guards in Europe playing in Spain and the Eurloeague.
“It was my progression as a player,” Prigioni said. “It was slower when I was young, but I was consistent through the years. Every year I played better, then a little bit better.”
But the chance to join the NBA never appeared until his 30s. Prigioni thought stylistically he was a better fit for Europe, so scouts never bothered checking on him.
But as he got older, NBA interest in him picked up and at the urging of fellow countrymen Manu Ginóbili and Luis Scola he made the jump, first signing with the Knicks in 2012, and he became the oldest rookie in the NBA.
“I said I’m too old,” Prigioni said. “I don’t know how I can chase those young guys? Offensively I will figure it out, but I won’t be able defensively to keep people in front. That was my concern.
“But it looks like I figured it out.”
He went on to play 305 games, averaging 6.5 points. Coaching the Knicks his rookie year was Mike Woodson, who had served on Mike D’Antoni’s staff. D’Antoni, now in Houston, is one of the forerunners of fast-paced, high-value shot offenses. That’s what Prigioni ran as the point guard in New York, which was different from his more controlling style in Europe.
Prigioni also played for Houston for 24 games in 2014-15. That’s where he crossed paths with Rosas, although the two knew each other from Basketball Without Borders.
“I had been playing everywhere,” Prigioni said. “The last thing was the NBA. That chance allowed me to taste pretty much everything in basketball, in the world. … Playing those four years here gave me another perspective of the game.”
It gave him a taste of what he would eventually be teaching.
“Basically I was running this system the last four years of my career,” Prigioni said.
The .5 mentality
One of the tenets of the Wolves offense Prigioni teaches is the “.5 mentality.” It means once you get the ball, you have only 0.5 seconds to decide what you’re going to do with it.
“It applies to big men, wings, everybody,” said forward Treveon Graham, who also worked with Prigioni in Brooklyn. “Once you get the ball, you should already know what you’re doing with it.”
Added Saunders: “You got to make a decision within 0.5 seconds — put the ball on the floor, move it, shoot it, basically not holding the basketball.”
That is the crux of the Wolves offense: quick decisions and fast pace both in transition and half-court offense that lead to high-value shots. It has been part of Prigioni’s job to communicate the offense and make it relatable to the players. His playing experience helps with that.
“You don’t want to say, ‘Hey, I want to play like this because I like it,’ ” Prigioni said. “The players are smart. You have to give them a reason why.”
He has earned high marks from players who have worked with him. Warriors guard and former Net D’Angelo Russell said one reason he considered joining the Wolves was because they had hired Prigioni.
“Pablo has a gifted mind when it comes to basketball IQ when it comes to passing and dominating control of the game,” Russell said. “I think we could relate. He wasn’t an athletic player, but he found a way to just kind of dominate the game from passing. … I miss that guy, man. He made things easy for me.”
His energy is infectious, players said.
“He takes Red Bull out there or something,” Wolves guard Jeff Teague said. “He’s always up and at it, running around. He can run all day, doesn’t get tired. … He’s crazy.”
But, Teague said, crazy in a good way.
“Pablo is a cool dude,” Teague said. “He’s unapologetic. He’s real. He’s just cool, man. Tells it like it is. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and that’s what you appreciate about him.”
Prigioni came to Minnesota in part because he wanted to be able to settle down with his family, which includes wife Racquel and two children. When he was in Brooklyn, they were living in Spain.
“It wasn’t a perfect fit for the family, living in Brooklyn … ” Prigioni said, though he added it was an “honor” working for the Nets. “I told my wife: You can’t imagine how much it means for me to come home to see you guys. It was a long year after every game, practice, just going to the apartment, just empty with nobody there.”
Now his family has moved in to a home in Plymouth where other Wolves assistants live, and he would like to stick around awhile if he can.
“It’s kind of how the Argentinian people are,” Prigioni said. “We really feel where we work.”
And Prigioni feels he can make it work in Minnesota, even if it takes some time.