Airbnb keeping Jarrett Culver NBA-ready during quarantine

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NBC Sports

Airbnb keeping Jarrett Culver NBA-ready during quarantine

Uh-oh. It’s Tuesday. 

Adulthood had rudely interrupted Jarrett Culver’s FaceTime call with a friend. The 21-year-old Minnesota Timberwolves rookie had been sitting on the front porch of his new AirBnb rental home in Eden Prairie, Minn., when he saw the garbage truck roll through the neighborhood. 

Conditioned to the trappings of apartment life with trash chutes on every floor, he and his two older brothers and housemates, J.J., 22, and Trey, 23, hadn’t thought to take out the garbage. Jarrett put down his phone and began hollering to his brothers: “They’re here! They’re here!” The three brothers scrambled to collect the trash bins and roll them down the driveway.

“They got trash day out here,” Culver told NBC Sports over the phone. “We forgot.”

Culver is getting used to being the man of the house. Of his three brothers, he’s the youngest, but he’s also the one that made it to the league, which gives him some authority. Also, he gave them access to something just about every professional athlete would like right now: an in-home basketball court.

Amid a pandemic in which NBA practice facilities, arenas and local gyms have all been shut down, even the elite of the elite haven’t had access to that luxury. The NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, hasn’t shot a basketball in nearly two months. Stephen Curry, a two-time MVP himself, was forced to build an outdoor hoop with his bare hands. But an actual in-house gym, safe from the elements and the outside world? Beyond rare. At best, an NBA roster might feature one or two veteran players equipped with a home gym.

Now, Jarrett is one of them -- if only temporarily. After being stuck in his downtown Minneapolis apartment by himself for just two days following the NBA’s March 11 shutdown, Jarrett couldn’t take it anymore. He decided to rent a house on AirBnB -- most importantly, one with an indoor basketball court. Do they even have those, he wondered. Jarrett called up his agent Chris Emens and Minnesota Timberwolves VP of basketball operations Gersson Rosas to put in his request.

“I was going crazy the first two days without shooting a basketball,” Culver said. “I was just bugging everybody, like, ‘I want to have a basketball court. I need to have a basketball court. I need to shoot.’”

This would prove easier said than done. The AirBnB rental market has tanked amid concerns over coronavirus exposure. For Culver’s family and the Timberwolves, that was the first order of business: Was it safe? Secondly, even if the AirBnB rental was safe and available, would they be open to a month-to-month rental? Who would live there?

“As an organization, we’ve always been about being player-focused and family-oriented,” Rosas said. “We wanted to find a solution for Jarrett and his family.”

The Timberwolves and Culver’s camp put together a mini-task force to fulfill his childhood dream of having an in-home court -- so long as it passed the Wolves’ strict guidelines. 

* * *

Robby Sikka, the Timberwolves’ VP of Basketball Performance and Technology and formerly the associate director of data analytics at the Mayo Clinic, is a man in high demand these days. Sikka is consulting with the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health and even the White House during the coronavirus crisis over best practices. He’s also running a committee to oversee the return of Minnesota’s pro sports teams, working alongside the governor and state department of health.

Sikka also needed to focus on more granular things, like making sure Jarrett and the rest of his teammates had the right cleaning supplies and delivery hygiene. In Jarrett’s case, the rookie wanted an in-home basketball court and to be with his family. How could he safely check both boxes? Sikka, a physician who for years also ran a sports injury and player health database, was at the heart of answering those questions.
 
Sikka, along with Rosas and Culver’s representatives, worked together to solve the problem. They were joined by Rachel Saunders, manager of team services and sister of head coach Ryan Saunders. For the past six years, Rachel has helped facilitate the relocation, moving and travel for NBA players and their families. This is her wheelhouse.

The task force’s first rule was absolutely no hand-to-hand transactions. Next, the house had to be furnished in order to reduce the need for in-home visits. It also had to be empty for weeks prior to ensure safety from the virus. Furthermore, Culver and his brothers would have to go under strict lockdown for two weeks inside the home rather than quarantine separately, which, in the team’s eyes, was best to ensure compliance. The company of his siblings was critical to manage Jarrett’s stress levels.

“If you are going to quarantine, you’re going to quarantine with your brothers,” Sikka said. “The mental health aspect of it is really, really critical.”

As it turns out, living in Minnesota gave Culver a leg up. While living in a colder climate could be seen as a disadvantage for some NBA players, Minneapolis has an abundance of residential indoor sport courts.

“That’s the thing about Minnesota,” Timberwolves head coach and Minneapolis native Ryan Saunders said. “Indoor courts are in a lot of these new builds.”

The first choice was Kevin Garnett’s old 10,673-square-foot estate on a 16-acre lot along Lake Minnetonka, which he sold back in 2010. The Timberwolves knew he had an indoor court. So did Randy Moss’ former home, which could also double as a community sports complex. The home of the former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver comes complete with a batting cage, multiple pools and both indoor and outdoor courts (Moss was also a two-time West Virginia Player of the Year in basketball).

Unfortunately for Culver, Garnett’s former digs weren't on the market. Moss’ old home was empty, but the monthly rent on short notice was out of Culver’s price range. Plan A quickly turned into Plan G. Eventually, they landed on a house for sale in Eden Prairie, just 12 miles south of the Timberwolves’ arena, which featured an enclosed half-court basketball gym that now adorns two Minnesota Timberwolves logos.

This week, Culver shot two instructional workout videos inside the gym, one for Jr. NBA and another in partnership with Degree on his Instagram Live. For his dribble instruction, Jarrett showed the youth audience how to do a Dribble Over The Line Drill. The problem? The indoor court had no lines on it. So Culver improvised with an 11-foot light bulb changer rod he found in his new rental.

Culver’s brother shot the video, another benefit of having family close at this time. At 21 years old, Culver has no children to care for and lived alone in his downtown apartment. A native of Lubbock, Texas, Culver went on to star at nearby Lubbock's Texas Tech and had never been away from home for this long. Culver briefly considered a move back to Texas to be with his parents and grandmother, but he eventually decided it was best to stay in-market in Minnesota where the team could provide more direct services and more importantly, to minimize exposure to his older family members. 

“I didn’t want to be around mom, dad and grandma during this time because we didn’t know anything yet (about the disease),” Jarrett said. “We just wanted to be safe.”

The solution to Culver’s solitude was bringing his older brothers to him. And, as luck would have it, Culver’s brothers were in need of somewhere to workout. J.J. Culver is planning to turn pro after scoring 100 points in an NAIA game for Wayland Baptist in December as a senior. Trey Culver, a national champion in the high jump at Texas Tech is training for the Tokyo Olympics, now scheduled to take place in 2021. Growing up, the three brothers were inseparable, but in the lockdown, they needed each other more than ever. 

“We know it’s a special time for us that we’ll probably never get again because we’ll be so busy,” Jarrett said. “But we’ve been enjoying every moment.”

* * *

Finding Jarrett an in-home gym was only a piece of the puzzle. Keeping him occupied was another. During the season, Jarrett and his teammates are creatures of habit with daily schedules mapped out and routines strictly adhered to. During the lockdown, that structure was stripped away overnight.

Like nearly every other company in the United States and around the world, the Timberwolves quickly filled that void with Zoom meetings. Virtual training sessions with the team’s strength coaches and athletic trainers are held daily. Every Wednesday, the team hosts a Zoom guest speaker call, with appearances from Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, Disney executive chairman Bob Iger, motivational speaker Inky Johnson, ABC host Robin Roberts, best-selling author John Gordan, NBC analyst and Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dungy and hip-hop preacher Eric Thomas.

On Fridays the Timberwolves initially held a weekly book club, but that all changed when the “The Last Dance'' began airing on ESPN. Now, the book club call has morphed into a weekly discussion of “The Last Dance” with players, coaches and front office staff, generating kernels of team-building wisdom and providing a forum for players to discuss the culture of champions. 

What do we need to become that team? What’s the difference between championship Bulls and us? What made Michael special? Who would you guard on that team?

“Having the youngest team in the NBA is a blessing because a lot of these guys are used to school and used to learning,” Sikka said. “You see what it takes to be a successful organization.”

For the Culver brothers, watching “The Last Dance” and discussing it with the team has been something of a weekly two-hour post-graduate course in pursuing greatness.

“It’s been super-motivating,” Culver said. 

Culver and his brothers also take part in the Timberwolves’ weekly Sunday Chapel service, which has had a profound impact on the team during a difficult time, especially after the recent death of Karl-Anthony Towns’ mother, Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, due to the complications from the COVID-19. 

“Chapel on Sundays has been great with the team,” Culver said. “Seeing some of the guys in Chapel and some of the coaches, it has meant a lot.”

In between the workouts and the Zoom meetings, Culver and his brothers do their best to get out of the house and clear their heads. Springtime has finally come around the country, with temperatures in Minnesota reaching highs of 75 degrees. The locals are opening up their pools. Instead of strolling through downtown Minneapolis’ famous 11-mile Skyway system of interconnected enclosed pedestrian walkways, the Culver brothers go for long walks outside in between workouts and discuss their lives ahead.

They play hours of Uno and see who can cook the best meal.

“We just make up games sometimes just to have competition,” Culver said. “It’s competitive like it was when we were younger. At the end of the day, we all want to see each other succeed. We all push each other for greatness.”

* * *

For the first month of the lockdown, Sikka and the front office arranged for daily meal deliveries sent directly to all of their players around the country. Lately, the team has collaborated with KZ ProVisioning (named after James Beard award-winning Gavin Keyson and celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern) to provide grocery boxes from the local Hy-Vee grocery chain and include recipes for players to work on their cooking skills. Now, Culver cooks every night with his brothers, which is a first for them, like most 20-something postgrads. His lasagna is a house staple, thanks to tips from his mother Regina and his grandmother.

Culver has also used the time to strengthen his bond with Addie Zimmerman, a nine-year-old girl from South Dakota who is battling cystic fibrosis. The two became fast friends after Addie’s father, a Texas Tech grad, put the two of them in touch via letter. Inspired by her fight, Jarrett has traded texts and workout videos with Addie, challenging each other with shooting and dribbling drills through the last several weeks. When Culver streamed a hour-long workout video on Instagram, Addie joined in from her Bismarck home.

On Tuesday, Addie made a Zoom presentation to her classmates with her teacher and school principal on the call as part of a class-wide project. The goal was to spotlight someone that has made an impact on your life. Addie chose Culver and made a Powerpoint that featured his life story, complete with a highlight reel of his best dunks.

When it was time for the class Q&A session following her presentation, Addie answered every question as if she had known Culver her entire life, full of rich detail and unbridled enthusiasm. Little did Addie know that Culver was watching the whole time. With the help of her teacher, Culver and his brother Trey joined the call under a pseudonym. When Culver finally revealed the surprise, Addie could barely get any words out.

“I’m just thankful to have her as a friend,” Jarrett said of Addie. “The impact I make on her life, but mostly the impact on my life has been great.”

* * *

The quarantine hasn’t been easy, but Culver’s tried to take the adversity and turn it into an opportunity of growth on and off the court. He works out three times a day, sometimes as much as four if he and his brothers can turn off “Fortnite,” a house mainstay that helps them unwind.

And while other NBA players are flicking a ball in the air on their couches, the former No. 6 overall pick sets up his MacBook on a chair in the gym and does shooting drills with Timberwolves assistant coaches Kevin Hanson and Pablo Prigioni watching via Zoom, sharpening his jump-shot mechanics. Before the season was put on hiatus, Culver was shooting just 29.9 percent from downtown despite shooting 34.1 percent from deep at Texas Tech.

“It’s always been a point of emphasis, especially with a young player like Jarrett, really trying to break down his shot,” Saunders said.”We like that Jarrett being able to get to a gym. Our staff has done a great job working with all our guys, making the best of the situations.”

That includes adding weight to his 6-foot-6, 195-pound frame.

As part of the team’s strength and conditioning program, Jarrett is doing daily weigh-ins. He’s added more muscle during these two months than he has in his entire life, in no small part to the extra motivation and spotting from his brothers.

“Just trying to have a consistent schedule,” Jarrett said. “Lift, shooting workout, work out again at night.

Most of the Timberwolves players received Tonal home gym machines to stay in shape while on lockdown. The sci-fi-looking mirror machine uses electromagnets to create resistance and resemble something out of HBO’s “Westworld” more than your standard wall of free weights. Unfortunately for Culver, he can’t use Tonal machines in a rental home. 

Instead, the Wolves sent him resistance bands and a Peloton bike. Culver’s brothers also chipped in with some old-fashioned family workouts. After shooting drills inside, the brothers will go outside for a game of “7.” They lower the outdoor hoop and play a game to seven points -- with a catch. Dunks and layups are the only way to score.

“They used to beat me up on me all the time and now I’m the biggest brother so you know I rough ‘em up, too,” Jarrett says, laughing. “To make up for all the times they did when I was younger.”

For Culver, the Airbnb is a privilege, but it’s also an investment in his career. Only a handful of players have access to a gym in which they could fine-tune their jump shot for the past several weeks. Rather than regress during the layoff, Culver is seeking growth. When the league starts up, whenever that is, he’ll be ready.

“It’s nice that we don’t have to miss a beat with Jarrett or restructure what we’re doing,” Ryan Saunders said. “It’s one of those things, in spite of all the loss and tragedy, it’s great for those three to get closer now.”

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

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NBC Sports

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

The NBA recently released a 113-page health and safety protocol for the 22-team NBA restart.

Will it be enough to keep the players safe in the NBA bubble?

“There are millions and millions of people and thousands of activities that are far riskier than what the NBA is trying to attempt here,” said Nate Duncan on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Duncan, the host of a popular NBA (Dunc’d On Basketball) and COVID (Covid Daily News) podcast, does not anticipate a large spike in positive COVID-19 tests among NBA players.  

“Once we actually get into the bubble, between that point and the end of the season, I think fewer than 16 players will test positive,” Duncan said.

LISTEN TO THE HABERSHOW HERE

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Duncan:

8:10  The NBA's rules for the bubble

17:20  Why Disney staffers don't necessarily need to be tested daily

32:10  The biggest threat to the bubble

42:30 Why the NBA could be in big trouble for next season

46:50  Whether the NBA should finish this season or not

For more from Haberstroh, listen to his conversation with TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott on life inside the NBA bubble

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

With the NBA heading to Orlando next week, there is no shortage of storylines to follow in the leadup to the league’s late-July restart. Everyone will be closely monitoring the coronavirus front. Go ahead and brace yourself for silly asterisk talk. Keep an eye on the lack of home-court advantage. The mental health aspect of spending months in a bubble will be a challenge but maybe also an opportunity

But in my mind, no storyline is more fascinating than the immediate future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans’ explosive young roster, led by teenage phenom Zion Williamson, potential coronavirus complications on the floor and the bench, and a run at the No. 8 seed out West, no team embodies the full spectrum of conflicting emotions heading into the NBA bubble quite like the Pelicans. 

By all indications, all systems remain a go for Williamson. The plan is for him to continue progressing toward playing in Orlando, but, like the rest of the league, the Pelicans are not yet authorized for five-on-five work with their players. How Zion or any other player’s body responds to four months without organized basketball is anyone’s guess. 

Let’s assume Williamson does make the trip. That in itself is great news for the Pelicans, for fans, and, most notably, TV partners. 

It’s not a surprise the league put Williamson and the Pelicans front and center in a 6:30 p.m. ET tip-off against the Utah Jazz on ESPN to kick off the restart. New Orleans was booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV appearances in Williamson’s rookie season -- with good reason. According to ESPN tracking, national TV ratings were 30 percent higher for Williamson’s national TV games than the average nationally televised game. 

Zion-related ticket sales saw a similar boost. In road games that Williamson played, attendance in those visiting arenas soared to 19,022 fans on average, a towering figure that would have ranked No. 1 in road attendance for any team. By comparison, Anthony Davis and the 2018-19 Pelicans ranked just 19th in road attendance.

It’s worth noting that part of the surge in excitement was due to Williamson missing the first three-plus months of the season with a knee injury. However, once Williamson took the court in late January, he more than lived up to the hype. The 19-year-old was a marvel on the boards and showed far better playmaking skills than many expected. No teenager has ever posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) north of 22.0 in the NBA. Not LeBron, not Luka, not Kobe, not AD. 

Zion, entering Orlando play, is at 24.2. This is rarified air among rarified air. 

Now, it’s true that plenty of stud rookies put up monster numbers without corresponding team success (Kyrie Irving’s rookie season comes to mind). And yes, the Pelicans haven’t exactly lit the world on fire this season, but they’re 10-9 in games that Zion plays and 18-27 in games that he doesn’t. If you drill down even further, a superstar-level impact -- not just box score stats -- begins to emerge.

In the 565 minutes that Williamson played this season, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 120 points, which works out to plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. For any player, that’s an incredible figure. Among All-Stars, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Kawhi Leonard have higher on-court ratings. For a teenager, that’s obscene.

Worse yet for the league is the fact that the Pelicans are in prime position to maximize Williamson’s talents both now and in the future. Veterans Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick helped boost Williamson’s on-court numbers this year, while Lonzo Ball and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, both just 22 years old, feature complementary skill sets to Williamson.

Knowing what kind of once-in-a-generation talent they had on their hands, the Pelicans didn’t want to overdo it with his minutes early on. But in time Williamson regularly played between 30 and 35 minutes and produced like a top-15 player in the league in those minutes.

It remains to be seen how the Pelicans plan to manage Williamson’s workload in the seeding games. Given his injury history, the long layoff and his immense size, Williamson’s availability will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the restart.

But one has to always wonder if his head coach, Alvin Gentry, will be managing those minutes at all. CDC guidelines state that individuals who are 65 years old or older are high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Gentry, who is 65, remains steadfast in his intentions to be in Orlando with his team at full capacity, telling The Athletic on Tuesday: “I plan on coaching without any restrictions. We’ll see if the league comes up with a different plan.” 

The coaching situation around the league remains fluid, sources say. While the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Referees Association have both announced ratified agreements on a return-to-play, the coaches’ union has not publicized a similar pact. Gentry’s top assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, 67, may also be in occupational limbo due his age. According to Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle, the NBA has told coaches that age alone won’t be sufficient enough of a reason to keep them from going to Orlando. Coaches, along with all staffers, will have their medical records screened by a panel of independent physicians to determine their risk levels.

To give it their best shot at the playoffs, the Pelicans will need all hands on deck. Beyond Williamson and the coaching situation, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pelicans’ restart is their playoff situation. The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings in the standings. Historically, a gap that wide is just about insurmountable.

But the Pelicans have been gifted a unique opportunity to punch their ticket into the postseason. New Orleans can earn a play-in series if they finish as the No. 9 seed and are within four games of the No. 8 seed. Heck, the Pelicans could supplant the Grizzlies in the eighth slot altogether.

Using win-loss records from the 2019-20 season, the Pelicans have the easiest strength of schedule of all the 22 Orlando-bound teams, with an average opponent win percentage of .495.  

They could fumble out the gate, but it will get easier. After two tough games against the Jazz and Clippers, the final six games on the Pelicans’ schedule will be against teams with losing records: Memphis, Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento (again) and Orlando. Even better for Pelicans’ chances, their strength of schedule pales in comparison to Memphis (.603), Portland (.601), San Antonio (.567) and to a lesser extent, Sacramento (.530). 

The path is there. If the Pelicans go 7-1 in the seeding games and the Grizzlies sputter with a 3-5 record or worse, the Pelicans would earn the No. 8 seed (barring a similarly dominant run by Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento).

At first glance, this appears to be an inside job by the NBA to get Williamson into the playoffs, but that’s not what’s happening here. With a brutal front-loaded schedule back in November and December, the Pelicans were supposed to have the easiest remaining strength of schedule down the stretch. The soft slate in Orlando actually maintains the integrity of the team’s original 82-game itinerary.

A lot can change between now and the Pelicans’ July 30 game. Medical staffs around the league remain worried about how players’ bodies will adjust to the new normal and a short ramp-up time. Four months without organized five-on-five basketball is unheard of in these players’ careers. 

And then there are the virus concerns. Three unnamed Pelicans players tested positive with coronavirus this week and there’s no telling how that might impact their health on or off the court. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted that he’s still feeling ill nearly a week after his initial positive test. The self-isolation programs may be completely prudent from an infectious-disease perspective, but it’s undeniably troublesome for a player’s conditioning and readiness to play. It’s unclear at this point if the Pelicans players who tested positive are symptomatic or expected to play without restriction in Orlando.

Raising more questions for New Orleans is the free agency side of things. Favors will be an unrestricted free agency this summ-- uh, fall and will be looking to cash in after a strong age-29 season. Meanwhile, Ingram will be a restricted free agent hoping for a big pay day from New Orleans or elsewhere. If either of those players feel significantly less than 100 percent in Orlando, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sit out to preserve their long-term health and earning potential.

You can say what you want about LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and the rest of the contenders (don’t sleep on Houston or Philly, by the way). But in my book, no team is more compelling over the next month than the Pelicans. If Williamson is playing his full minutes and they’re able to send their complete coaching staff, I’m picking the Pelicans to make the playoffs and face none other than the Lakers in the first round. After the Davis trade a year ago, wouldn’t that be fun? Come to think of it, that matchup might be the most intriguing aspect of it all.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.