Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders gave another update on Karl-Anthony Towns’ (knee and illness) status at Tuesday’s practice.
Towns’ availability for Tuesday’s practice was still unknown around 10:30 a.m., but Saunders believed Towns was feeling better compared to Monday when he was absent from the Wolves’ shootaround and game due to an illness.
Towns may still be getting over the last of his flu bug, but his return is imminent and requires some preparation from his coaches and teammates.
Wolves center Noah Vonleh is one player who may see his playing time impacted once Towns returns. With Towns out, Gorgui Dieng has filled in as the Wolves’ starting center, and Vonleh and Naz Reid have seen more court time. Vonleh is averaging 12.4 minutes per game on the season, but his minutes were bumped up to 14.1 minutes per game with Towns out of the lineup. That’s not a dramatic change, but when you’re a young player like Vonleh who’s still trying to make a name for himself in the league, every second of opportunity matters.
Vonleh is aware of his reality and contends there is only one way to deal with it.
“You just have to put the work in when you’re not playing,” Vonleh said. “You’ve just got to pay attention to detail, keep working on your craft, stay mentally locked in however players do it. For me, it’s just watching film, being ready for when guys get in foul trouble or somebody gets hurt and goes down.”
Vonleh has been in the NBA for six seasons, but Saunders is still impressed with his maturity given he’s only 24 years old.
“Even if he’s not very old in age, he’s a guy who does the right things,” Saunders said of Vonleh. “I’ve said it a number of times, but sometimes just because a guy isn’t in the rotation isn’t because that guy is not doing the right things or that guy isn’t playing well. Sometimes it’s because there may be guys who are playing better or are fitting better with certain guys. There are a lot of things that factor in.
“Noah has never taken that personally, but I acknowledge that it is a hard thing for him. I can’t say enough positive things about his approach.”
Saunders also expects and welcomes some frustration from his players — as long as it doesn’t impact the team’s performance.
“I always tell players, ‘You have a right to be upset with me because that’s part of this job,’” Saunders said. “We have such a great group of guys that you wish you could play everybody, but unfortunately, you can’t. I think there’s something wrong with you as a competitor if you’re not upset that you’re not playing or not getting the minutes you feel you’re working for. But we can’t let that affect the team, and Noah does a really good job of lifting the team and not being down about things like that.”
As for guards whose playing time won’t be as impacted once the Wolves’ star center returns, Saunders expects them to continue to play aggressively even when their leading scorer is healthy. Especially rookie Jarrett Culver.
“That’s on everybody involved,” Saunders said. “We’ll continue to have conversations with Jarrett. Expectations are what you want in professional sports. When you play well, more expectations come — as a team and as an individual. (Culver) has played well, so we expect Jarrett to stay aggressive, and he expects himself to stay aggressive. They’re big pieces of our future, so both of those guys staying aggressive at the same time is something we obviously need.”
If Culver can maintain his improved confidence and continue to impact the game in multiple ways once Towns returns, the duo will be a tremendous asset for the Wolves’ future.
Taking Care Of A Toe Sprain
Jake Layman has missed the Wolves’ last 25 games due to a toe sprain but could be seen on the Wolves’ practice courts during Tuesday’s media availability. Layman was out of his walking boot, working on his shooting form. He was not jumping on his release but put pressure on his feet while practicing his layup takeoff form.
Saunders said he didn’t want to use the word “progressing” to describe Layman’s status but that the Wolves forward is doing more each day.
“The injury he has, it’s a painful one,” Saunders said. “There’s so much stopping and going in basketball, but him being out of the boot, doing some court work is obviously a positive sign for us.”
Saunders explained that the constant movement required in basketball requires players to handle toe sprains cautiously.
“In basketball, when you’re playing on a hard surface and there’s so much stopping and going, a sprained toe may not sound like it’s a painful injury, but that’s something that you really need to be cautious with,” Saunders said. “What we do is we support our players, too, and we want to make sure they’re healthy before coming back. I can speak to Jake, Karl, anybody who’s been injured, but those two especially, they’re doing everything they can to get back. We just know how important they are to us moving forward that we want to make sure to take the right steps with that, too.”
Defensive Breakdowns Explained By Napier
I think I gain a little bit of insight every time I hear Shabazz Napier speak. Napier is a brilliant player who, in my opinion, would have a successful coaching career if he chose to pursue one later on in life.
On Tuesday, Napier explained why he believes the Wolves’ defense featured more breakdowns in their recent losses to Houston and Oklahoma City. For Napier, it all begins with shot selection.
“A lot of it comes from poor shots on the offensive side,” Napier said. “Take a poor shot, and they’re running in transition or they get opportunities to have guys scramble on the defensive side of the ball.”
Forcing the Wolves to “scramble” on the defensive end is how teams get mismatches like 6-foot-1 Napier defending 6-foot-10 Danilo Gallinari, for instance.
“We’ve got to do a better job of taking the right shot, and defensively, that’s where we’ve got to hang our hat on,” Napier said. “The coaches can only do so much. It’s about the players. I’ve always felt like the coaches put you on the stage and then it’s our turn to perform, and if you’re not performing well, then you’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror and take responsibility for that.”
That doesn’t mean shutting stars down, Napier knows that’s unrealistic. Rather, he wants his and his teammates’ defensive presence to be felt on every possession.
“Defensively, when we do get into situations, we have to understand that NBA teams are going to score,” Napier said. “You’ve just got to make it tough for them. I’m not going to stop Chris Paul 10 times out of 10. I’ve just got to make him aware that I’m there 10 times out of 10, and if he makes eight of those shots, then he makes eight of those shots. I think we have to get back to that.”