Plenty of new faces means competition for returning Wolves subs
SEP 05, 2013 5:14p ET
MINNEAPOLIS -- Anyone still trying to suck the last iota of positivity from the Timberwolves' ugly 2012-13 rendition need look no further than the team's upcoming training camp.
Several new faces will show up. So will some necessary and now-healthy returners. But because Flip Saunders' offseason roster overhaul was one of addition more than transaction, a few rarely mentioned reserves are back in the fold, too.
Only this time, their résumés are considerably thicker. That's what happens to a bench during an injury-rocked season.
"We've done a lot of things, and people have talked about what we've added," Saunders, the Timberwolves' president of basketball operations, told KFAN 100.3 last week. "But there hasn't been a whole lot of talk about Derrick Williams, about Alexey Shved, about ( Dante) Cunningham … You're looking at those guys now being guys that come off the bench for you or also starting, so I think it shows you that we've improved our depth."
Those three aforementioned survivors of a busy summer shakeup join J.J. Barea and Chris Johnson as the returners to whom few are paying much attention with the start of the season less than two months away. Assuming Minnesota remains healthy, each faces a steep climb back to the workload forced upon him a year ago.
But that doesn't mean the five of them can't chip in.
The question is, will they?
"(Coach Rick Adelman) feels that it's going to be a very competitive camp," Saunders said. "There's competition at every spot."
What to do with Derrick?
It's the ominous inquiry that's followed Williams around since the Timberwolves drafted him second overall in 2011, immediately saddling him with a stigma he has yet to live up to.
The answer won't come much easier in the final guaranteed year of his rookie contract.
In the wake of Kevin Love's injuries that cost him 64 games last season, Williams received a bevy of action at the power forward spot. Yet even in starting 56 games and averaging 24.6 minutes per contest, he never exhibited the characteristics of a night-in, night-out contributor.
The same thing happened his rookie season, when Adelman experimented with Williams at both forward spots. The team then instructed him to gain weight last offseason, a step that Saunders said was detrimental to his ability to match up defensively.
Williams has since dropped a few pounds, Saunders said, and will contend for time at both the three and four spots.
For how long remains up in the air.
Love is expected back fully healthy, and Minnesota has two proven small forwards in re-signed Chase Budinger and free-agent addition Corey Brewer. The Timberwolves drafted another in Shabazz Muhammad, though his spot on the depth chart remains to be seen.
The 6-foot-8 Williams best fits right now as a backup for Love and a potential wing curveball when Adelman decides to go big -- not exactly top-five draft pick material. For that reason, Williams has been mentioned in trade talks all offseason.
Unless he proves invaluable in whatever niche he's able to find, such rumblings are likely to persist.
Making the point
Barring a trade, Barea and Shved look like the frontrunners to spell Ricky Rubio at point guard this season.
Barea was quietly consistent last year, averaging 23. 1 minutes, 11.3 points and four assists. Once Rubio returned from a torn ACL, Barea and Luke Ridnour emerged as his most formidable backups.
Barea's name was floated as possible trade bait this offseason, but Ridnour ended up being the castoff in the sign-and-trade that brought in shooting guard Kevin Martin.
There is still talk of a potential Barea trade, possibly to Dallas, where he played a pivotal role in the Mavericks' 2011 Finals run. The 29-year-old, seven-year veteran from Puerto Rico said he'd welcome a return to Texas but also that he's happy in Minnesota.
He is under contract with the Timberwolves through the 2014-15 season.
While Barea brings a wealth of experience back to the Twin Cities, he'll have to contend with a younger, raw Russian looking to make his mark.
Shved's first year out of European professional hoops was about as hands-on and physically draining as possible. Rather than take a backseat and learn by observing Rubio, the rookie was asked to fill in early on then play alongside him at shooting guard later into last year.
He could still check in at both guard positions this season, but Saunders said he views Shved as more of a one. It's the spot Shved's currently manning for the Russian national team at Eurobasket, and he boasts Saunders-endorsed passing and ballhandling skills combined with a lanky 6-6 frame that aids him defensively.
Shved admits he may not have been ready as a rookie for the NBA grind, especially the one that comes with averaging an unexpectedly-high 23.9 minutes per game. Rubio missed 25 games, and the failed Brandon Roy project created a shooting-guard hole Shved tried to help fill.
With a full season under his belt and Rubio back in full health, Shved can grow at a more manageable pace this season. Unless, of course, he blows past Barea and takes over primary No. 2 point man duties.
Saunders may consider continuing to use Shved as a flex, too; behind Martin, Minnesota is rather thin in terms of a true shooting guard.
The Timberwolves' primary frontcourt rotation appears set: Nikola Pekovic at center in front of Ronny Turiaf and Gorgui Dieng, Love at power forward with Williams and Cunningham behind him.
With Love sidelined, Cunningham saw a lot of time last season, his first in Minnesota after being traded from Memphis. His 8.7 points and 3.3 rebounds in 25.1 minutes per game -- the most of any of the Timberwolves' five major holdovers -- were enough for them to exercise the team option on his contract for the upcoming season.
He's more of a traditional four than Love or Williams, who are capable of stretching the floor and hitting 3-pointers. In 80 games last season, Cunningham attempted six 3s and didn't make any of them.
The mix doesn't leave much room for Johnson.
He played in just 30 games (9.5-minute average) last season and went to the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this year hoping to exhibit his bulkier, stronger frame. After adding 15 pounds of muscle, the 6-11 big man performed well with 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per contest.
But that was against smaller, slower posts than he'll see in the real-deal NBA this year.
Minnesota owes Cunningham and Johnson $2.2 million and less than $347,000 this season, so tucking them deeper in the rotation isn't exactly poor use of investments. Unless either produces an out-of-this-world preseason showing this October, that's likely where they'll end up.
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