NBA Summer League is a great time to overreact to the performance of young players. While it’s valuable experience for young and fringe-NBA players, it’s hard to read too much into performance one way or the other.
With that said, that doesn’t make for a very good column so we are going to react….
We know that player development is crucial for the Timberwolves going forward. Tom Thibodeau acquired an extra draft pick last summer that enabled the team to retain a first-round pick despite their own conveying to Atlanta. While the jury may be out on last year’s draft choice, Justin Patton, the team needs to get an idea of where they are now.
Given the Wolves’ cap situation, there won’t be many opportunities to take on extra salary or take part in another free agency spending spree. Free agency in itself can be dicey as the top talent goes quickly, leaving the left out teams to bid against one another for the best remaining players. That can mean paying a little extra for a team nestled comfortably against the luxury tax line.
This is where player development comes in. If you draft well and retain these players, you can often times have them affordably under team control for a number of years. Not that there’s anything wrong with free agency but it can be easier to build for the future through the draft than free agency.
Right now, the Wolves’ most recent draft picks — Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop — are showing what they can do in the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas. Both players play at positions of need and possess skills of need.
Considering the competition is largely somewhere between college and G-League, it’s hard to read too much into what we see. Many of the players will play in a foreign league or not at all next season. While that makes it difficult, we can still examine what we’ve seen and what may carry over to their rookie seasons.
Stats: 11.0 points – 5.3 rebounds – 2.3 assists – 30 percent field goal percentage – 2.3 blocks per game – 2.0 steals per game
It’s easy to see why the Wolves were enamored with Okogie’s potential after seeing him in action. He’s got the length to be disruptive offensively and a fearlessness to his offensive game. He may not be a great shooter yet but he’s willing.
The most appealing thing about Okogie, right now, is his ability to smother opponents on the ball and come away with a steal or block. Those instincts are invaluable because players either have them or they don’t. Some of these steals come on reckless dribbles and he won’t see that a ton in the NBA but it’s hard to fault him for being opportunistic.
I would always caution people not to conflate being a good defensive playmaker in summer league with being a good NBA defender. Those are two different animals and the latter may not happen immediately.
On the other hand, watch Okogie here against the Nuggets. He gets his shot blocked several times and struggles to find the bottom of the rim on 3-pointers. His shot isn’t the smoothest and seems like he tends to think too often before firing. That hesitance could explain some of his missed open 3-pointers. When he’s shooting with confidence, as he was at times versus Brooklyn, the shot looks better and tends to go in more often.
The thing is, the Wolves aren’t looking for Okogie to be a star. He could make a lot of money and have a long career in this league if he can defend and develop a 3-pointer. Plus, he can set up other players very well. Okogie has said he admires Jimmy Butler and it shows with his playing style. Okogie needs to continue to be a pest on the defensive end and work on becoming more decisive offensively and not settling for long 2-pointers when he’s capable of getting to the rim.
Stats: 15.0 points per game – 8.3 rebounds per game – 38 percent shooting – 1,8 blocks per game – 1.3 steals per game
Bates-Diop is an intriguing prospect. The Big 10 Player of the Year slid all the way to the middle of the second round and while there’s probably a reason, it’s easy to see why some are wondering what happened. Sometimes there’s a reason and other times teams get hung up on foolish things and overthink their decision. Time will tell for certain but Bates-Diop is often to a promising start despite his inefficiency.
Seeing Bates-Diop’s 24-point, 11-rebound performance against the Raptors left Wolves fans salivating. He could spot up, he could play some inside, and he handled the ball in the pick ‘n’ roll well– key criteria for players in today’s NBA. The 6’7” forward even moved well in transition and was alright in one-on-one situations.
When a shot looks as good as Bates-Diop’s, you almost throw the efficiency out of the window. Maybe it’s a comfort and adjustment issue causing the misses but his shot could become that of a wing who can spot up and drain corner treys all night long.
In his 9-point, 7-rebound performance against Denver, you can see why he might miss some shots. At times, his shot looks beautiful. Other times, not so good. If the coaching staff can work with him to form consistent shooting mechanics, he can easily improve. Another thing to pay attention to is his shot blocking instincts. Those seem to be for real.
You may recall the name Amile Jefferson. Jefferson spent all last season on the Timberwolves’ roster on a two-way contract. Despite not playing a second for the team, his contract was converted from a two-way deal to a regular contract. You’d assume this means that the team saw enough in him to warrant this type of move.
Jefferson has arguably been the Wolves’ most productive player in summer league. He’s averaging 9.5 points and a summer league-leading 13.5 rebounds per game on 47 percent shooting in 28 minutes per game. This guy can play.
It’s understandable for a playoff team not to want to play young or inexperienced players too often. I get that. What I don’t understand is that Taj Gibson played a career high in minutes despite his objections to playing more than 28-30 minutes. With Justin Patton missing time due to injury and Gorgui Dieng struggling, you would have thought that a player like Jefferson would have come in handy when Tom Thibodeau was cutting down to an 8-man rotation in December.
With Patton likely to return at some point, along with Bates-Diop and returning frontcourt players, it seems that Jefferson is auditioning for another team. At 6’8″ and 216 pounds, he has the size to play in the league. What the Wolves may not have recognized in Jefferson another team likely will.