Wessel: Wolves roster breakdown shows rebuilding finally may be over
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What a difference a year makes for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
There is no metric that measures excitement level for a sports franchise, but I'm willing to bet money there hasn't been this much fervor for an NBA team that won 17 games the prior season.
Longsuffering fans have every right to be excited. This is the first time in years you can look at the roster and predict the vicious cycle of rebuilding and re-rebuilding might finally be over, and the Wolves can finally take a step towards once again being a respectable NBA franchise.
Here's a closer look at all 16 players on the roster, their roles and the storylines heading into the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
Kevin Love, forward, fourth season
This is a big year for Love and he knows it. Entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, Love showed up to training camp 25 pounds lighter and with a new, more muscular physique after an extended offseason working with his trainer, lifting weights and doing yoga.
Contract years are crucial for every NBA player looking to cash in, but the stakes are particularly high for Love.
The 23-year-old out of UCLA made a leap in his third season that nobody -- including Love himself -- could have predicted. He led the NBA and set a franchise record with 15.2 rebounds per game, averaged a career-high 20.2 points, became the team's first All-Star since Kevin Garnett, had the league's first 30-point 30-reound game since 1982 and topped it all off with winning the league's Most Improved Player award.
A glance at the resume would lead one to assume Love is worth a max contract. But whispers from those in the know suggest that Love is a great complementary piece to a championship puzzle, but not the straw that stirs the drink.
Critics say Love cannot create his own shot and a lot of his gaudy statistics are more a product of the lousy team Love played for than his own game-changing ability. For as good of a season as he had statistically, the Wolves won just 17 games.
The pieces are there for Love to take the next step. He is slimmed down and motivated to be a leader after a summer in which he says he did a lot of growing up. He is no longer shackled by a head coach he never really saw eye-to-eye with and is under the tutelage of legendary coach Rick Adelman. He is no longer the focal point of the franchise that added high-profile rookies Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio.
It's all there for Love. He will become a restricted free agent after the season if an extension isn't signed by mid-January. At that point, the Wolves can match any offer he receives from another team. Or Love can accept a qualifying offer to play one more season for the Wolves before becoming an unrestricted free agent after the 2012-13 season, allowing the Oregon native to sign wherever he wants.
Love has expressed his love for the Twin Cities. David Kahn, the Wolves' president of basketball operations, has stated his intention to lock up Love for the long haul. Love has hinted he feels he's worth a max contract, so it will come down to whether owner Glen Taylor wants to unload his pockets for another power forward named Kevin, especially when this one is less of a sure thing than Garnett was.
No matter how the chips fall, it will be one of the more intriguing storylines happening at 1600 First Avenue this winter.
Ricky Rubio, point guard, rookie
He is here. That should be enough to satisfy Wolves fans during his rookie season. It's unfortunate that isn't how things work in the Twitter era.
Fans have simply waited too long and built up too high of expectations for the YouTube wunderkind to simply be happy he is in Wolves uniform after two years of waiting, speculation and doom-and-gloom coming from national columnists that maintained he would never play in the Twin Cities.
That's not to say Rubio can't live up to the hype. He has passed every test he has faced in training camp and has won over the admiration of his coaches, teammates and media members alike. He is a confident kid, especially when you factor in that he is a stranger in a strange land.
But it is early. He hasn't even played in a preseason game yet and there is good reason to believe he will wear down during a 66-game season that has the Wolves playing three nights in a row, road trips as long as seven-games and upwards of five games a week. Rubio himself said he expressed some disbelief when he loaded the team's schedule on is iPad and saw the back-to-back-to-backs. After two seasons of a 34-game regular season with FC Barcelona, it will be a lot for him to handle.
Rubio will likely be starting out of the gate and will have plenty of opportunities to play -- even with the addition of J.J. Barea to the roster. Growing pains are inevitable for any rookie and a certainty for a case as unique as Rubio's. Fans must temper their sky-high expectations and let the floppy-haired Spaniard take his lumps under Adelman, who is no stranger to coaching young point guards.
Michael Beasley, forward, fourth season
Much like his good friend and teammate Love, talented-but-troubled Beasley is entering a crucial year. That's about where the similarities in their situations end.
The former No. 2 overall pick is coming off a humbling season that saw him end up in Minnesota after Pat Riley and the Miami Heat essentially gave him to the Wolves for free after the Heat assembled their super-team by signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
Beasley averaged a career-high 19.2 points per game but needed a lot of shots to get there and finished No. 76 in Player Efficiency. His season was slowed by a nagging ankle injury that often led to Beasley playing at a lot less than 100 percent.
The real trouble for Beasley came over the summer, when he had another run-in with marijuana. He was cited for possession when a Minnetonka police office pulled over Beasley for speeding and found pot in his car.
Beasley claimed the weed wasn't his, but in all honesty, it doesn't really matter. Whether the weed was his, his buddy's or magically appeared in the center console on its own, the fact is this is just the latest example of Beasley still acting like a teenager when he has promised so many times to start acting like a man and realizing the God-given potential he has as a basketball player.
Even Kahn -- who had been Beasley's biggest cheerleader to this point -- appeared to be out of patience with Beasley after going to bat for him so many times, once landing himself a $50,000 fine for comments made on 1500 ESPN.
When asked at his season-opening press conference what Beasley's role would be on this team, Kahn simply said that would be for Michael to decide.
Beasley's contract is up after this season and he expressed desire during media day to sign long-term in Minnesota. That might be wishful thinking on his part.
Beasley deserves a chance to right the ship under Adelman and he will get one. But his leash isn't exactly long. Further hurting his situation is how expendable he became when the team selected Derrick Williams with the second overall pick in June's NBA Draft.
Everybody asked so far says Beasley and Williams can be complementary players and aren't necessarily competing with one another for court time. But this is training camp. And Beasley and Williams are a long ways from throwing each other alley-oops in games.
It will also be intriguing to watch how the shoot-first Beasley fairs in Adelman's pass-first offense. Beasley is likely to be the starter opening night but his spot -- like everybody else's -- isn't guaranteed. He will have to earn everything he get, especially with Williams right behind him, and will need to prove himself not only to be a starter on this team, but worth keeping around in the future.
Derrick Williams, forward, rookie
The Wolves used their highest draft pick in franchise history to take the consensus No. 2 player in the draft in Williams. The 6-foot-8, 241-pound forward played two seasons at the University of Arizona, where he averaged 17.8 points on 58.6% shooting and 7.8 rebounds in 69 games.
Williams is a player whose position is still being sorted out in training camp. He can play both forward positions, and his speed and ability to put the ball on the floor will be utilized to create mismatches.
He and Beasley will likely be battling out for the starting position at small forward to start the season, but both could end up on the court together when Love is moved to center and Beasley or Williams can play their more natural power forward position.
Basically, it is a good problem to have. Williams is an athletic specimen and Adelman is a smart enough coach to get him in places to have the talented rookie to succeed.
Adelman mentioned Wednesday that he thought Williams could have showed up to training camp in better shape. But what he may temporarily lack in condition, he makes up for in confidence.
Williams is a confident cat who has high expectations for himself and his teammates. He said he fully expects himself and Rubio to be competing with each other for NBA Rookie of the Year.
Williams said his goal is start opening night on Dec. 26 against Oklahoma City. That doesn't seem likely just yet, although a lot can change during the preseason home-and-home with Milwaukee that begins on Saturday night at Target Center.
Adelman has spoken about wanting to bring the rookies on slowly, develop their confidence and not put them in situations where they will be in over their heads. Rubio is likely to start. Williams is likely to start on the bench. But it is clear from everyone inside the organization who has seen him play that Williams will be a key part of the team and, if things turn out, a franchise player down the line.
J.J. Barea, point guard, sixth season
The newest Wolf's contract was finally announced on Wednesday, and Kahn laid out three main reasons why his odd point guard obsession led to the team bringing in the former Dallas Maverick and reigning NBA champion.
Kahn first referenced Barea's leadership skills. The Wolves were the youngest team in the league and are without a commanding voice in the locker room and the court. Luke Ridnour is quiet and reserved, Darko Milicic is passive and has a language barrier, and Brad Miller is injured and riding out the twilight years of his career.
That leaves Barea to pick up where he left off with the Mavericks. The 27-year-old averaged career highs in minutes (20.6) and points (9.6) a season ago and started in three playoff games. Barea really popped up on the NBA radar in the Finals when the Miami Heat had to put LeBron James on the speedy guard.
Barea was also brought in to provide depth at the point guard position. At first glance, it appeared the Wolves were set with Rubio, Ridnour and rookie Malcolm Lee, who was given a three-year guaranteed contract -- a rarity for a second-round pick. But Kahn said he wasn't confident going into a 66-game season with two rookies and Ridnour and wanted to bring in Barea for depth.
Last, Kahn said Baera, Ridnour and Rubio won't simply be splitting the point guard minutes three ways. Adelman has a history in Sacramento and Houston of putting two ball-handlers on the court at the same time and Kahn says that was key in bringing in Barea.
The way it stands now -- and things can obviously change before the season opener -- Rubio will be the starting point guard with Barea and Ridnour backing him up and being brought on the court in situations where they want to go small and play two point guards on the floor together.
The Wolves and Kahn made a big push to land Barea -- he said no other team's offer even came close -- and have singled him out as a player they anticipate being a key cog in this franchise's rebuilding.
How big of a factor his leadership skills turn out to be and if he can play on the court with Rubio are questions that will need answers.
Wesley Johnson, guard, second season
Johnson is another Wolf who fits the familiar pattern of having something to prove. It is as old a cliché as you get in sports, but it's what happens when you have a franchise perpetually stuck in rebuilding mode for the past decade.
Johnson had an up-and-down, but mostly down rookie season in which he rarely justified the Wolves selecting him with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.
But one rookie season under a lame-duck coach on a 17-win team doesn't break a career, and Johnson appears poised for a breakout season under Adelman and in an offense that preaches ball movement, cuts to the basket and creating mismatches.
The knock on Johnson's game last season and coming out of a Syracuse was the 6-foot-7 forward couldn't put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. Johnson did little to dispel those criticisms in 79 games, averaging 9.0 points on 39.7% shooting from the field and 35.6% from 3-point range.
Adelman said he wants to see Johnson driving and cutting to the basket to shed his reputation of simply being a jump shooter. And that works just fine for Johnson, who said he grew tired of simply being a stationary shooter in Kurt Rambis' offense a season ago.
The other big change for Johnson in his sophomore season will be a shift back to the two-guard position because of the influx of forwards and big men on the roster. Johnson split time between the shooting guard and small forward, but Adelman wants to try him out at the two -- and that's just fine for Johnson, who thrived there in college when he was given the freedom to move around and not just be a statue shooter.
Anthony Randolph, forward, fourth season
Randolph is another example of a player without a country, if you will.
At 6-11, he is tall enough to play center, but at (a listed) 225 pounds, he isn't strong enough to handle the pounding. He looks like a guy who wants to be a point guard but is stuck in a center's body.
A long-time crush for Kahn because of how "long and athletic" he is, Randolph was finally acquired in the three-team trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks -- a trade in which the Wolves were essentially just cap facilitators for the popular kids, giving up Corey Brewer and Kosta Koufos and taking on the dead weight of Eddy Curry's contract.
Kahn saw the obvious athletic gifts in Randolph, but it once again never transferred to the court. The Wolves became Randolph's third team in three years after failed stints with the Golden State Warriors and Knicks.
Part of Randolph's struggles last season can be blamed on Rambis. It was no secret Rambis and Kahn were not seeing eye-to-eye by the time Randolph was acquired and Rambis never really seemed to give Randolph much of a chance. Nor did Rambis really seem to have any idea where to play Randolph -- coaching like a guy who knew his time was up come season's end.
Adelman and his staff have a much better chance than the previous regime of getting something out of Randolph. Remember, Kahn had pursued Randolph for seemingly forever, but it's not like he had to break the bank to get him. Brewer, while a nice guy and a locker room favorite, wasn't going to be re-signed. If Randolph doesn't pan out, it shouldn't be a knock on Kahn -- he simply took a flyer on a guy who appeared to have untapped potential.
Like Beasley, Randolph is a restricted free agent this season. Two teams have already given up on him and if he wants to have a future in this league, he has to be sure a third team doesn't.
Luke Ridnour, point guard, ninth season
Ridnour's role was turned on its head as soon as reports surfaced the Wolves were close to landing Barea.
He was brought in on a four-year contract from Milwaukee last season with the idea he would bring veteran stability to the point guard position and be a mentor for Jonny Flynn -- now throwing up bricks with Kevin McHale down in Houston -- and Rubio.
Bringing Barea was enough to spark speculation that Ridnour may be expendable and the friendly eight-year veteran denying media requests only threw gasoline on that fire. But Kahn and Adelman both said Ridnour will be in the team's plans going forward, both as a point guard and playing off the ball in a two-point guard set while Rubio runs the show.
Ridnour has yet to comment on his new role and the signing of Barea, so we only have Kahn's word to go on.
Kahn said Ridnour was receptive to the new role once he was assured he won't simply be fighting for point guard minutes with Barea and Rubio and that an offense with two point guards on the floor at the same time is a possibility. But again, these are Kahn's words, not Ridnour's. We won't know exactly how he feels about it until he ends his media silence.
Don't rule out that Kahn could just be blowing smoke. Wolves fans know better than anybody that competent point guard play doesn't grow on trees. Ridnour isn't a starting point guard for a contender but can play quality minutes as a backup. Ridnour could be getting shopped as this is typed, or, even more likely, the Wolves will wait until a point guard inevitably gets hurt in a 66-game season and a team gets desperate for help.
Remember, the Wolves signed Lee to a three-year, guaranteed deal. They clearly have faith in the rookie out of UCLA.
Ridnour is a veteran and a class-act. Even if he isn't happy about his new developments, he will likely play the role of good solider until he either settles into the new situation or the Wolves move him.
Plenty of questions and not a lot of answers -- at least until Ridnour talks and this point guard love triangle gets on the court.
Anthony Tolliver, forward, fourth season
The team's NBPA player rep is back after a busy summer of dealing with the labor strife on behalf of the Wolves.
Grab a basketball cliché out of a hat and it will likely apply to Tolliver. Glue guy, energy guy, spark off the bench, does the little things -- it goes on.
Tolliver will never be a starter in this league but is your consummate worker. He'll give you 20 to 25 minutes off the bench and has enough respect in the locker room to hold the starters accountable. There were instances last season when Tolliver would get on the starters after they sleepwalked to a 20-point deficit in the first quarter.
A journeyman who graduated from Creighton before having cups of coffee with the San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Bobcats, Miami Heat and Portland Trailblazers before carving out a niche with the Warriors and signing with the Wolves last offseason, Tolliver's contract is up after this season, so he'll be playing for his future.
Martell Webster, guard/forward, seventh season
It's looking and more and more like the Wolves got a lemon when they shipped Ryan Gomes and the No. 16 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft to the Trailblazers to acquire Webster.
He played in only 46 games last season after missing extended time because of a back injury he originally suffered while in Portland. There were rumblings that the Blazers knowingly gave the Wolves damaged goods, but nothing ever came of it.
Now the Wolves find themselves right back at square one with Webster, announcing he's out indefinitely after having another surgery on his back in September.
Webster (and his funky fade/Mohawk hairstyle) has been at every practice, but he hasn't had any contact. He just works on his conditioning to the side while his teammates scrimmage.
Webster is the second-highest paid Wolf behind Beasley, according to HoopsHype.com, making $5.25 million for a season that looks like it will be a carbon copy of last -- injuries and underperforming. The Wolves have a team option for next season, but barring a drastic turnaround, it probably won't be picked up.
Darko Milicic, center, ninth season
The ever-polarizing Darko is back for the second season of the four-year contract he signed a year ago.
Fans should know what to expect out of Darko at this stage of his career. At his best, he blocks shots, protects the rim, can rebound a little bit and give you 10-plus points a game.
At his worst, he isn't engaged to the game, gets visibly frustrated on the court and is fearful to shoot the ball while being defended by somebody 6 inches shorter.
Fans like to rip Kahn for the Darko deal, but in all honesty it wasn't a horrible move. Good centers are tough to find in a league that is becoming increasingly more and more driven by point guards.
At between $4 million and $5 million a year for the next three seasons, the Wolves aren't breaking the bank and can occasionally uncover a rare gem -- such as when Darko fell ass-backwards into a career-high 25 points last season against the Warriors.
He will likely be your opening night starter because of his experience and the shortened training camp. However, Adelman has said he wants to see both Love and Randolph play center when they want to go to small and use this team's youth, speed and athleticism to their advantage.
At this point in his career, Darko is what he is: a relatively cheap, veteran center who will never live up to the promise he once had when the Detroit Pistons selected him while Dwyane Wade was still on the board.
Brad Miller, center/forward, 14th season
The old warhorse found his way to the Wolves from Houston in the draft-day trade of Flynn and is now back with Adelman after stints together in Sacramento and Houston.
Miller is recovering from microfracture knee surgery and hasn't taken part in any basketball activities yet. But he's shooting for a mid-January return, according to the Star Tribune.
It's really unknown how much tread Miller has on his tires at the ripe old age of 35 and his greatest contributions to the Wolves may come off the court as a mentor to the young players -- specifically Love.
Love has admitted to being a fan of Miller's game and said earlier this week he has had plenty of conversations with the journeyman who went from being undrafted out of Purdue to being a two-time NBA All-Star.
Anything they get out of Miller will be a bonus. Microfracture surgery is a tough thing for a 25-year-old to come back from, let alone a 35-year-old. But acquiring Miller in the trade wasn't the main objective for the Wolves. The main objective was getting Flynn as far away from their locker room as possible.
Wayne Ellington, guard, third season
The former North Carolina guard averaged 19.2 minutes a game in his second NBA season. The Wolves are very short at shooting guard and could still add one along the way, but for now, Ellington will get a shot to see what he can do in Adelman's offense.
Malcolm Lee, point guard, rookie
The former UCLA guard showed enough in the early days of training camp to land a three-year, guaranteed contract despite being the No. 43 overall pick in last June's NBA Draft.
Second-round picks typically have a hard time landing any kind of contract. Three years fully guaranteed is a rarity.
Kahn said he is impressed with Lee but doesn't want to put too much on his plate too early -- hence, the Barea deal.
Lee will likely learn from the bench and play mop-up minutes at the end of blowouts this season unless something changes with the Ridnour situation, in which case the rookie will be forced to earn his money.
Nikola Pekovic, center, second season
Minutes might be hard to come by for everybody's favorite center form Montenengro. Pekovic will likely continue to spell Darko when Adelman wants a big body in the lineup, but the talk of playing Love and Randolph at the five doesn't bode will for the 25-year old.
Pekovic did show flashes as a rookie last season, playing in 65 games (11 starts) but averaged just 5.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 13.6 minutes.
Bonzi Wells, guard/forward, 11th season
Wells signed a training camp contract that was announced Thursday and is the only player operating without a guaranteed deal. The Wolves have 16 players on their roster and will need to get down to 15 before the season starts.
Translation? Don't rush out and buy a Bonzi Wells jersey.