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Zach LaVine is the Timberwolves’ X-Factor

Zach LaVine is the Minnesota Timberwolves’ X-Factor going forward, writes Michael Scotto.

Michael Scotto

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The Minnesota Timberwolves hope a rising young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine can lead the organization to a height the Kevin Garnett era never reached – a championship.

In the midst of Minnesota’s 28th season, the franchise has only made eight playoff appearances (seven of which have been first-round exits).

In 2004, Minnesota advanced to the Western Conference Finals led by Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Since then, the Timberwolves have failed to qualify for the playoffs for the past 12 seasons.

Minnesota was one of the trendy picks to make the Western Conference playoffs heading into this season thanks to the hiring of coach Tom Thibodeau and the addition of fifth overall pick Kris Dunn, who spoke with Basketball Insiders earlier this season.

“We’ve got to learn,” Thibodeau said after a recent loss to the New York Knicks. “Winning is hard in this league. Winning is hard and it’s a competition. It’s not a show. It’s a competition. If you want to win, you look at the teams that win consistently, they do all the dirty work and they put all the things that are necessary into winning and that’s what we need to learn and certain points of the game like a home run shot is not what we need.”

Thibodeau knows a thing or two about winning, as he amassed a 255-139 (.629) record in five seasons as the Chicago Bulls’ coach. Under Thibodeau’s tutelage, Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in league history while Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng developed into All-Stars.

Thibodeau’s coaching career has come full circle as head coach of the Timberwolves since he began his coaching career as a 32-year-old assistant with the Timberwolves in 1989. Subsequent assistant coaching stints for Thibodeau included the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics before he earned the head coaching position with the Bulls.

After a month on the job under Thibodeau, LaVine described what it’s like playing for the vaunted defensive savant.

“He’s actually really cool,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “He’s on you; he wants the best for you and the team. And as a young player, that’s what you want. You want somebody that’s going to be straightforward and knowing that you did something wrong so you can fix it and do it better next time. He’s very defensive-oriented and for me, I’ve always been good on the ball, but off the ball has been my weak point and he’s helped me a lot already this year. I feel like it will get better and better.”

For Thibodeau, these types of defensive tips LaVine mentioned are part of a long learning process to instill winning habits in his young team.

“For us, the focus is on improvement, just keep growing,” Thibodeau said. “As long as we’re doing the right things and obviously, I’m closer being there every day, I see how they are in the meetings, how they practice and how they prepare. As long as we’re doing the right things, we’ll continue to improve. So that’s our challenge. Right now we’re pretty close, but there has to be a consistency. I think they’re understanding. When you have young guys, it’s understanding also what goes into winning, how hard it is to win in this league and how hard you have to play all of the time. Not some of the time, all of the time. This is a hard league. We have high character, good work ethic, and I think we will improve.”

While Towns, Wiggins and LaVine have all spent the first month soaking up wisdom from their coach, Thibodeau has also learned more about his trio.

“I think the big thing is that we have great versatility and obviously what Zach, Wiggins and Karl have done, I think they’ve gotten a lot better,” Thibodeau said. “The challenge for them also is not only playing well themselves but bringing the best out of everybody on the team. I think when we’re at our best, we’re very connected both offensively and defensively.”

Towns has become more aggressive this season, averaging three more attempts per game while becoming increasingly consistent beyond the arc at 38 percent. Wiggins, who never shot above 31 percent from downtown, is currently shooting 38 percent.

In his first season as a full-time starter, LaVine has made an early case for the league’s Most Improved Player award and is showing flashes of All-Star potential while averaging 20 points per game. LaVine is shooting a career-best 46 percent overall (including 53 percent on all two-point field goals) and he’s become automatic at the foul line shooting 89 percent. At 21 years old, LaVine’s 37.2 minutes per game ranks fourth in the league.

“Us three young players, as long as we continue to put the work in, we’ve got a very high ceiling,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “The sky is the limit. We’ve just got to put it together even this season. It’s a very long season, you can always turn things around. As you can see, two or three quarters we’re great and top in the league in a lot of different stats, and playing very well with 10-15 point leads, but one quarter can change the game. If you get that together, that’s the part that we need.”

If Minnesota’s young core can eventually grasp Thibodeau’s defensive concepts fully with their length, speed and freakish athleticism, they have the potential to be a defensive powerhouse. All the tools are there, but early this season has been about reading the instructional manual and figuring everything out.

Towns, Wiggins and LaVine have proven to be an elite offensive trio. The only other trios with all three players averaging 20 points per game are Golden State’s trio of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Cleveland’s trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Cleveland’s trio is in its prime. Golden State’s trio is entering its prime. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s trio is merely scratching the surface of how good they can be.

While Wiggins and Towns came into the league with extraordinary expectations as former No. 1 overall picks, LaVine has drawn a buzz from fans around the league for his gravity-defying dunks at All-Star Weekend for the past two seasons. However, as LaVine comes into his own as a full-time starter and continues to display his full arsenal over time, he believes he can participate in more than a Slam Dunk Contest. LaVine’s goal is to participate in the main event and become an All-Star down the road.

“Looking up at the legends and stars of the game, I’ve been to All-Star Weekend two times already, and you want to be at the Sunday night game,” LaVine said. “It’s a big thing. We watch it, and it’s a big accomplishment. I think I’ll get there soon.”

While Towns and Wiggins are the more heralded components of Minnesota’s trio, LaVine has equally enticing All-Star upside and has the chance to play a pivotal role in delivering the franchise’s first championship with Thibodeau at the helm one day down the road.

“You have your own goals and whenever I step on the court I think of myself, that’s the confidence you have to have, that you have to be the best player on the floor and that’s the confidence I have,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “If I continue to do what I have to do off the court, putting my hard work in, I can see myself being one of the better players in the NBA.”

While the trio may be young pups now, imagine what the next decade could look like as they evolve into wolves in their prime?

Michael Scotto is a Senior NBA Writer for Basketball Insiders in his sixth season covering the league. He also works for The Associated Press focusing on Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks game coverage.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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