Four fringe Wolves players battle for final roster spot
OCT 18, 2013 5:00a ET
A.J. Price, Othyus Jeffers, Robbie Hummel and Lorenzo Brown essentially have at most two practices and Sunday's exhibition clash in Montreal -- if each is fortunate enough to see the floor -- to state their claims for making the Timberwolves' 15-man roster.
After that, they're officially on the chopping block.
"I don't think it's anything specific" the team is looking for, coach Rick Adelman said. "We just look at all the players that we have and see where are they gonna fit in?"
After the preseason game against Boston, Minnesota will likely begin making cuts. It has until 4 p.m. Oct. 28 to shave the roster from its current population of 18, and Adelman would like to have decisions made by next week.
Right now, one spot is open. That could double should the Timberwolves decide to eat center Chris Johnson's $916,099 contract and release him; the big man has yet to play in four preseason games.
The front office also has its eyes peeled for potential trades or free-agent pickups.
"It's not just this group," Adelman said. "It's what else is going on around the league and how else can we improve our team."
But at least one training camp invitee is bound to stick around.
Each brings something a little different to the table. To varying degrees, each has traversed some amount of adversity on his way to the cusp of a guaranteed contract.
It's been evident in their play all preseason, Adelman said, as they've scrapped alongside the rest of the second-unit players and frequently bullied the starters.
"I think they know how special it is and what an opportunity they have, and take advantage of it and don't be complacent in what you're doing," Adelman said. " They don't back down from anybody."
Said Price: "It makes us appreciate it much more, just to have the opportunity to be here."
The voice of experience
Indeed, if Price's four-year NBA career has taught him anything, it's the value of appreciation.
"It's gonna make you fight that much harder," Price said, "because you know nothing is guaranteed."
Before the Indiana Pacers drafted him and brought him off the bench at point guard, Price missed two seasons of collegiate ball at Connecticut. An intracranial brain hemorrhage cost him the 2004-05 campaign, and he was suspended the following year for his involvement in stealing laptops on campus.
He switched back from self-incrimination to poor fortune at the end of the 2007-08 season, tearing his ACL in an NCAA tournament game.
But Price bounced back his junior year to lead the Huskies in scoring on the way to the 2009 Final Four.
The Pacers took him 52nd overall in that summer's draft. He played sparingly behind Earl Watson, T.J. Ford and Darren Collison joining the Washington Wizards as a free agent last season.
"From Day 1, being a 52nd pick, I've been fighting to make a team roster since Day 1," Price said, "so it's nothing new to me. I know what it takes."
It paid off last year, as Price averaged 22.4 minutes -- seven more than any of his three previous seasons -- and contributed 7.7 points and 3.6 assists per game while backing up John Wall.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound point man followed newly-hired general manager Milt Newton from Washington to Minneapolis and now appears the frontrunner to survive the impending round of cuts. In two preseason games where he's played more than two minutes, he's scored a combined 24 points and handed out five assists.
"He's been in the league, and he knows how to play," Adelman said.
But in addition to picking up Adelman's offense quickly and showing off a knack for attacking the basket, Price has taken it upon himself to mentor his fellow fringe players and the greener contingent on a young Timberwolves roster.
"I try to bring teams together, camaraderie, things like that," Price said. "I try to have a good relationship with anybody on the team."
A man of conviction
Jeffers first turned Timberwolves heads with his high-energy defense and slashing ability at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this past July. They were enough to earn him a training camp invite and a shot at his first full-season, guaranteed deal.
The ensuing battles are nothing compared to some of the life experiences that have shaped the friendly, hard-working shooting guard's persona.
Growing up in a violence-ridden neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, two of Jeffers' brothers were shot and killed before he turned 18. Jeffers himself was shot in the leg while defending his sister and niece during a domestic dispute involving his sister's boyfriend.
He was back playing basketball within a month.
"I always play with conviction," Jeffers said.
It's what has the 28-year-old, undrafted free agent still going after cups of Joe with the Jazz, Spurs and Wizards. A solid 16-game showing for then-coach Flip Saunders -- now Minnesota's president of basketball operations -- in 2010-11 had Jeffers in line for a guaranteed deal the following season, but the lockout and a summer ACL tear prevented it from happening.
This could be one of Jeffers' last shots.
His calling card is defense, something scoring-centric Minnesota certainly requires. He's also the only true two-guard behind Kevin Martin on the roster currently, though shooting guards and small forwards are virtually interchangeable in Adelman's schemes.
"He's really a good defender," Adelman said of Jeffers. "He's very aggressive, very physical, really goes out and plays people hard. That's what we knew about him. Flip had had him in Washington, and that's what he said about him. He's proven it here."
Jeffers' best preseason action came last week inside Sioux Falls, S.D.'s Pentagon against Milwaukee. In 25 minutes, 28 seconds, he led Minnesota to victory with 13 points and nabbed six rebounds.
His grit, he says, comes from summer league pickup games in Chicago, where basketball is a way of life and one-way effort is abhorred.
"My niche in the NBA is being a defender," Jeffers said. "This team is blessed. It has a lot of great scorers and a lot of people that can put that ball in the hole. Not that they can't do it, they just not known as defenders. I feel what I bring to the table is someone that understands that and wants to do it."
There have been times when Hummel could barely stand.
First, the athletic forward tore the ACL in his right knee in the midst of a stellar career at Purdue. Twice.
Then, at the outset of his first professional season, he underwent meniscus surgery in the same knee. That wasn't nearly as detrimental; he was a full-go by December and wound up averaging 10.1 points and 7.2 rebounds while playing in Spain last year.
The 2012 second-round draft pick, though, can certainly sympathize with the likes of Chase Budinger (currently out after meniscus surgery) and the rest of his new Timberwolves teammates who missed a good chunk of time due to injury last year.
"After the fact that I've hurt my knee so many times, I never want to see anybody get hurt," Hummel said. "I can definitely feel for them. Unfortunately, it's part of the game, and it happens."
And when it does, doors open.
In Hummel's current case, there's one cracked ajar. Budinger's absence has given him more repetitions at small forward, and that means more chances to make Adelman think twice about sending him to the Iowa Energy of the D-League or Europe again.
Hummel's first hurdle, though, has been to prove he can stay healthy. He got along well at summer league, notching 8.6 points and a team-high 5.8 rebounds per game, and that's been purported to carry over into preseason practices.
"The only thing you can think about that's negative about him is the fact he's had the knee surgeries," Adelman said. "They said that at the very start if he hadn't torn his knee up in college, he probably would've been a lottery pick. He's that type.
"He's moving fine. There's no problem there at all."
Like Jeffers, Hummel shone the brightest against the Bucks in South Dakota, albeit on an inefficient shooting night. He scored points but missed 7 of 10 field goals.
It's a challenge to work Hummel into a wing rotation that includes veterans Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and, the Timberwolves hope soon, Budinger. It remains a position of need, likely one Saunders is looking at via a trade or free agency.
Unless Hummel does enough to convince him and Adelman otherwise.
Unless Adelman has some sort of wild card up his sleeve, Brown is on the outside looking in for a year-long NBA deal to start his pro career. Having produced minimally in two preseason appearances, he's likely destined for the D-League or a season overseas to work on his game.
But, like Hummel, just earning his first training camp gig after being drafted in the second round this summer resounds as an encouraging feat.
"I'm still learning," said Brown, a 6-5, 189 point guard. "I'm a rookie, and I have a long ways to go in my career. It's just helping right now."
Minnesota already has plenty of options at the one spot with Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved, J.J. Barea and perhaps Price. Brown did receive a shot at both Toronto and against Milwaukee but came away with three assists and six points on 2-of-10 shooting spread across 30 minutes.
Rather than hang his head or butt it against those ahead of him on the depth chart, Brown says he's taken to learning from them.
Price and he frequently eat lunch together and talk shop. Barea points out good places to dribble or pass the ball, even while he's defending Brown in scrimmages.
"Everyone is pretty cool," Brown said. "No one has a bad attitude. No one's stuck up. That's the good part about this team, when you have guys like that that can help you and help you adjust to things like that."
Brown's long frame for a point guard is an advantage. But both he and Adelman agree that averaging 8.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists aren't quite enough to place him on par with the likes of Rubio and Barea.
"It's a lot more difficult with these guys, because they're a lot more experienced and they know a lot more on the defensive end," Brown said. "They make good stops. … (Summer league) was probably the best feeling I had since I've been here probably."
Said Adelman: "He's got a lot of versatility. He's a big guard. I think he needs experience.
"He plays very hard. All four of those guys that we've been talking about have all had their moments."
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