Summer League Wolves: What I Want to See in Vegas
The Timberwolves Summer League officially tips off on August 9th against the San Antonio Spurs. After a few months off we finally get to watch some sort of high level basketball played by some of the guys who will be on the Wolves roster next season. For the hardcore degenerate Wolves fans like myself, August 9th will basically be Christmas. Even though the games count for very little, there are still some things I would like to see during these games from some of the guys under contract with the Wolves. Let’s check it out!
Who Is On The Roster?
The Timberwolves finally released the long awaited 2021 Summer League Roster on August 4th. 5 days prior to their opening game in Las Vegas. Check out the roster announcement from Wolves PR here!
Headlining the list are current Timberwolves veterans Jaylen Nowell and Jaden McDaniels. Then the recently acquired 2nd year big man Nathan Knight joins the club, along with undrafted free agent rookies McKinley Wright IV (Two Way contract) and Isaiah Miller (Exhibit 10 contract). There is even a Culver on the team! Not Jarrett… his OLDER brother JJ who played at NAIA school Wayland Baptist in college. JJ is famous for scoring 100 points in an NAIA game in 2019.
Notable names missing from the roster are Jarrett Culver, Naz Reid, Leandro Bolmaro, and Anthony Edwards. Culver (Jarrett) may not yet be healthy after offseason surgery, so that is more likely the reason that he is not included instead of an impending trade. Naz Reid is most likely graduated from Summer League play after dominating the tournament in his 2019 Summer League debut and very clearly improving and showing that he belongs in the league during his 2 professional seasons. Bolmaro went straight from playing in his team’s Euroleague playoffs to the Liga ACB playoffs to the Olympics, so it is likely that he could use a break prior to training camp beginning in September. Also, I do not believe he has officially signed his rookie contract as of the roster announcement. Finally, Anthony Edwards was never really expected to be on the team. There is not likely much for him to prove against borderline NBA players, and it would be best to protect him from injury to hit training camp at 100%.
What Do We Want To See From Key Players?
The Minnesota Timberwolves are currently without a backup point guard. Ricky Rubio was traded, Jordan McLaughlin has yet to resign, and the 2 undrafted free agent guards are completely unproven. With the shooting guard position currently crowded, Jaylen Nowell’s real opportunity for rotation minutes is to prove he is a viable NBA point guard. Fans liked what they saw from Jaylen mostly as a shooting guard in the 20–21 regular season for the most part. He had some breakout games, showed he can make difficult shots, and was OK defensively. Promising for a 21 year old? Sure. But would it be enough to warrant minutes over Anthony Edwards and Malik Beasley as a two-guard? Probably not. In Summer League, we will need to see Jaylen seize control of a true point guard role. We know he can get his own buckets, but can he organize an offense, setup his teammates in advantageous positions, and defend the point of attack adequately? That is what we will need to see to believe. Summer League should offer the perfect opportunity to put all of his focus into leading a team. If he can do that, The Wolves (and fans) can feel a whole lot better about entering training camp with Nowell right behind D’Angelo Russell on the depth chart.
The headliner. The guy we are all excited watch as he gets turned loose in an exhibition environment. Jaden was allowed to dribble on an NBA court just barely more than I was last season, but the few times he was able to create his own shot showed some flashes of his true abilities as a pure scorer. In high school he was one of the nation’s top ranked recruits as a long lanky scorer who could get his shot off from anywhere. In an NBA offense, Jaden was relegated to the corner on most possessions. That should completely change in Summer League. SL head coach Joseph Blair has already said as much stating “we want to let him loose” in regards to the plan with McDaniels in Summer League. That likely means allowing Jaden to run high pick and rolls, isolate when he gets a big man on him, and take little guys down to the post. In an environment where the key for young NBA players is to focus on development, there is no better place to allow Jaden to explore his game against NBA-caliber-ish competition. If Jaden excels in this environment and becomes the team’s top scorer it could provide him and the coaching staff with more confidence to expand his game heading into the 21–22 NBA season. If things do not click for him in this high usage offensive role, that is perfectly fine as Jaden has already carved out a very useful 3&D role in the league. If I had to bet, I would say the Summer League is about to get torn up by Jaden McDaniels.
The newest Timberwolf, Nathan Knight, just joined the team in free agency on a Two-Way contract. He likely chose the Wolves because of the hole they have at power forward and a relatively simple path to rotation minutes. Knight played last season, his rookie year, in Atlanta appearing in 33 games and split time between power forward and center. The only listed center on the roster is journeyman John Egbunu, so I would guess that Knight gets the majority of the center minutes in Summer League. As for my expectations for Knight in Summer League, I would expect to see him do exactly what he did on the court for the Hawks last season. That would include rolling hard to the basket on pick and rolls, controlling the interior of the paint defensively, and generally playing harder than everyone else on the court. Oh and I’m sure we will see a dunk like this every now and then! With Jaden McDaniels and Jaylen Nowell shouldering much of the ball handling duties I would assume we see Knight setting plenty of screens for them. If they can develop a bit of P&R chemistry with the big man, they could tear up the Summer League in short order. Knight may see some time in the G League in the 21–22 season, but if his flashes from last season carry over to the Summer League and training camp he could work his way into the Wolves rotation quicker than expected.
McKinley Wright IV
I have to admit my shame as a native Minnesotan… I knew next to nothing about McKinley Wright IV until the weeks leading up to the draft. I will atone for my sins at another time, but for now I am looking forward to watching him in Summer League! Like many Wolves fans, once it became possible that he may not get drafted it felt like the Wolves could have a good chance at nabbing McKinley in UDFA. Along with being the home town team, a sudden need at point guard has arisen and an opening was created for a smart and savvy playmaker with leadership skills. He leaves the University of Colorado after 4 years as the only Pac-12 men’s basketball player to amass a career of 1,800 points, 600 rebounds, and 600 assists. Combine that with terrorizing point of attack defense and tremendous leadership skills and you have a point guard that was a real steal on a Two-Way contract. Before we get too excited, Wright IV is small for the NBA at about 6’0″ and 200lbs. He also was only a career 33% 3pt. shooter in college, thus why he went undrafted. He has a real shot to prove himself in Summer League though as a scorer and a true point guard. He will certainly get the opportunity to play alongside NBA caliber players like Nowell, McDaniels, and Knight so those minutes will be especially telling. Is he able to maximize those guys and amplify their strengths? Or does he have to take a back seat to then when sharing the floor? The answer to those questions may determine his likelihood to stick on the NBA club this coming season.
Finally we reach Isaiah Miller from UNC Greensboro. Miller is a 6’0″ point guard with long arms and rockets for legs who averaged 19 points per game in his senior season. Miller went undrafted and signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Wolves, which is essentially a training camp deal that incentivizes the player to stay with the G League team if he does not make the NBA club. It is likely that the intention is for Miller to go through training camp with the Wolves and then head to the G League where he presumably would receive plenty of playing time. Summer League may not be the best way for Isaiah to showcase his playmaking and scoring skills with a couple of high level ball handlers potentially ahead of him on the depth chart in Jaylen Nowell and McKinley Wright IV. But his on court intensity and explosiveness should still stand out enough to satisfy Wolves fans. We certainly do not expect him to become a Summer League star, but any highlight reel plays on offense or defense will be welcomed.
What Are The Expectations?
As is always the case with exhibition type games, there are no “real” expectations for wins and losses. You are guaranteed a handful of games and if your team wins you get to continue through the Summer League tournament. The important aspect for young teams like the Wolves is watching the players who will make the roster to start the season. Seeing Jaden McDaniels, Jaylen Nowell, and Nathan Knight succeed and clearly prove they are NBA caliber is an expectation that Wolves fans should have. Watching guys that were prioritized in undrafted free agency like McKinley Wright IV and Isaiah Miller show that they belong would be a nice surprise as well! And obviously getting out of all of it with no injuries is priority #1.
It should be fun to watch some semblance of competitive Wolves basketball again, so check out the full schedule here!