Can Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid handle life as a guard?

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NBC Sports

Can Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid handle life as a guard?

Karl-Anthony Towns held the ball while Rudy Gobert, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, guarded him tightly. The pair of 7-footers weren’t wrestling in the paint like traditional centers would. On this late November night, they were 25 feet away from the basket, and Towns was stuck.

Enter Jeff Teague, the Timberwolves’ nominal point guard. He shuffled over to Towns and instead of asking for the ball, the 6-foot-3 ball-handler set a screen -- that’s right, set a screen -- for the 7-foot center. That misdirection prompted another. Using the pick would have meant Towns had to dribble to his right in the direction of his dominant hand. Instead, Towns juked right-to-left, dribbled hard past the arc with his opposite hand and abruptly shifted into reverse for a stepback 3-pointer, displaying the quick footwork of a ballerina set in fast-forward.

“Karl is the modern-day NBA big,” said Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas on the latest Habershow podcast. “He was one of the major reasons, if not the major reason why I took this job.”

Towns is currently taking more 3-pointers and making a higher percentage of those shots than Stephen Curry did in his 2014-15 MVP season. But it’s not just the shooting that jumps off the page. Watch the NBA on any given night and you’ll witness seven-footers like Towns running pick-and-rolls, shooting 3-pointers and zipping around the floor like they’re six-footers. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose towering dimensions appear to be designed in an NBA laboratory, has pounded out more dribbles this season than Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, per NBA.com player tracking data. LeBron James is the size of Karl Malone and leads the NBA in assists. Luka Doncic, behind James on the assist leaderboard, stands 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, roughly the same as Xavier McDaniel -- only heavier.

Other skilled giants like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis often play outside-in, not inside-out. It’s clear that the guardification of NBA bigs has taken over the sport. What’s not clear is whether their enormous bodies can handle it.

* * *

Athletes around the world are bigger, faster and stronger than previous generations. Last month, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya ran a sub-2-hour marathon, clocking in four minutes faster than the world record set a decade ago. The average weight of NFL offensive linemen in the 1970s was 249 pounds compared to today’s weigh-in of 315 pounds. In 1999, Tim Isaac became the first man to bench press over 800 pounds (802 to be exact). Today, that record is 1,102 pounds, belonging to a man named Tiny Meeker.

Oddly enough, the NBA hasn’t gotten appreciably bigger or taller, on average. The average NBA player, according to Basketball Reference tracking, is actually an inch shorter and seven pounds lighter than they were in 2010-11. But NBA players have gotten markedly more athletic, allowing giants to move like hummingbirds. 

In the eyes of Dr. Marcus Elliott, the load management conversation has skipped over this critical piece of the puzzle. The founder of P3 Peak Performance labs in Santa Barbara, Calif., Elliot and his sports science team are at the core of a global movement trying to keep professional athletes healthy. What Elliott sees from his vantage point is a fundamental shift in how NBA players are moving.

“The game has just gotten so much faster and more athletic,” Elliott says. “You can’t do apples to apples to the NBA 20 years ago.”

Elliott isn’t basing his opinion on anecdotal evidence. Over the past decade, the P3 staff has assessed the biomechanics of hundreds of NBA players -- 58 percent of the players on opening-night rosters, P3 says -- and one trend keeps popping up. 

“All of the athletes are improving their athleticism, but the rate that our bigs are improving is much faster than the guards and perimeter players,” Elliott says.

As part of the biomechanical assessments that P3 delivers to its NBA clientele, P3 leads off with an “Athleticism” score that measures an athlete’s ability to move vertically and laterally. Recently, P3 crunched the numbers and analyzed how these scores have changed over time for two groups: “bigs” and guards/wings. Before 2016, the average “big” received an Athleticism score of 62. Since 2016, however, the average big’s Athleticism score jumped to 69, an increase of seven points. Over the same window, guards and wings have improved their Athleticism score by just three points, less than half that of their towering teammates.

“A decade ago, if we had a 7-foot guy come in that had decent skills, that’s an NBA player,” says Elliott. “Now, if we have a 7-foot guy who comes in and he’s not athletic, we don’t know if we have an NBA player.”

Elliott remembers when Andre Drummond came into P3’s lab several years ago and shocked the staff with his other-worldly metrics. They analyzed his movements in every direction and his scores were remarkably consistent with NBA athletes who weighed 100 pounds lighter than him. He was, in essence, a big who moved like a guard.

“Drummond was a unicorn, but there are a lot more of these unicorns now,” Elliott says. “They’re not really unicorns anymore.”

Before Drummond, it was Derrick Favors, who at one point ranked near the top of P3’s leaderboards in just about every category.

“Pretty athletic big that we got in 10 years ago,” Elliott says of Favors. “These guys stood out. Now, it’s status quo. We expect them to be athletic and move laterally and be overall big movers. They were the exception 10 years ago.”

Now, it’s the rule.

* * *

What is driving the athletic surge in tall players? Elliott points to two factors: the increasingly global nature of the NBA and sheer economics that have incentivized players to pay closer attention to training.

As the NBA sets up academies in India and Africa, the selection pool of NBA athletes is ever-expanding. The league’s international bridges were evident when Antetokounmpo and Doncic trained together this offseason at P3’s sports science lab. Antetokounmpo, or “The Greek Freak,” is the son of Nigerian immigrants and a native of Athens. Doncic, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-7 point guard from Slovenia and the son of a professional basketball player who was born in a small town on the Solvenian-Italian border with a knack for churning out pro soccer players. If not for the international explosion of the sport, it’s entirely possible this season’s two MVP frontrunners could have put the ball to their foot rather than in their hand.

With international exposure of the league growing and TV deals in China, Europe and North America leading to a salary cap boom, NBA players are richer than ever. The average NBA player makes $7.7 million compared to $2.9 million in 2000, while the top NBA salary is Stephen Curry’s $40.2 million compared against Shaquille O’Neal’s $17.1 million in 1999-00. The increased wages make the NBA an even more desirable goal for the best athletes in the world, while also giving the ones that do make it more resources to sharpen their athleticism. The record income then trickles to secondary trainers, nutritionists and chefs, whose primary jobs are to keep players in top shape. 

“The overall selection pool has gotten so much bigger and the incentive to have a career is so much bigger,” Elliott says.

That career is also more demanding on the body. After hovering around 90 possessions per game for much of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, league-wide pace this season exceeded 100 possessions per game for the first time since 1988-89. The rise of the 3-pointer and emphasis on pick-and-roll defense has required bigs to be more perimeter-oriented. 

“When we started assessing NBA players back in 2009, if you asked most NBA bigs, what they wanted to improve, 10 out of 10 would say their vertical jump,” Elliott says. “The majority of bigs we get in now say they want their lateral movement to improve.”

That mobility comes at a cost. To Elliott, the constant chatter about load management and minutes restrictions overlooks a key point: what’s happening in those minutes. Players are objectively covering more ground in today’s NBA than in years past. Last season, players collectively ran 3,139 more miles than they did in 2013-14 despite the season length and game regulation time being held constant.

But Elliott thinks that only scratches the surface.

“That’s a pretty big change,” Elliott says, “but I really think where you’re going to really see the load of these guys is these ballistic accelerations, both negative and positive,” Elliott says. “How fast they stop, how fast they change direction, how fast they go. It’s these super high intensity stop-and-go’s that are really destructive.”

* * *

As a leader in the space, Elliott has grown tired of the complaints about load management. He jokes that it’s become a dirty phrase now. 

The NBA’s most influential media voice, Charles Barkley, hates it. Michael Jordan reportedly told his Hornets players they’re paid to play 82 games. When asked if rookie R.J. Barrett was being overworked, New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale said “we gotta get off this load management crap” and referenced Latrell Sprewell averaging 42 minutes per game one season (Sprewell averaged 43.1 in 1993-94).

To Elliott, the focus on minutes misses the point. 

“There’s this constant back and forth about ‘when we played …’ ‘when we played,’” Elliot says. “I don’t think that people have given enough attention to how different the game is compared to when they played 20 years ago. These athletes are so much more ballistic and across the board more athletic. These are amazing systems driving super, super hard.”

The pace-and-space era of the NBA is putting increased demands on the bigger athletes. To Elliott, taller players face more injury risk simply because their bodies haven’t been optimized for movement patterns. A 7-footer can get by at younger levels simply by being tall, rather than being an efficient mover. But once they get in the NBA, those movement patterns can catch up to them.

“I still think that NBA athletes are a ways away from being optimized,” Elliott says. “We don’t get many athletes that have as much slack in their system as NBA athletes do. That’s one of the reasons that the game is going to get that much more powerful and more ballistic. NBA players have more slack in their physical development in almost all the professional athletes that we assess.”

Elliott says that track athletes that come through P3 are at 99 percent of where they could be athletically, leaving only 1 percent of space to improve, or “slack” as he calls it. Each percentage point can be the difference between college and Olympian grade. “They don’t make it out of high school at 90 percent.”

NBA players, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as mechanically optimized, settling in at typically 80 percent in his view. “It’s still a skill-dominant sport,” Elliot says.

The slack can be costly. Elliott recently presented new research at Harvard Medical School that studied the biomechanics of 481 NBA subjects and used granular kinetic data to predict whether a player would have a significant knee injury (ACL, MCL and meniscus) that would require surgery in the next year. The P3 machine-learning algorithm was able to predict 70 percent of those major knee injuries simply by looking at how a player moves.

“The load being placed on them is so close to what they’ll be able to manage,” Elliott says, “If they have a screw loose, something probably breaks.”

Elliot wouldn’t reveal the names of his NBA subjects in the study. But it’s safe to say that high-profile knee injuries in recent years to DeMarcus Cousins (torn ACL), Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL) and Zion Williamson (torn meniscus) were likely due, in part, to some underlying breakdown in the kinetic chain -- whether it was how aligned joints were when the player landed or the balance of force between right-to-left and left-to-right. Simply put, injuries are not 100 percent a product of bad luck.

“Doesn’t matter what size your engine is, if your brakes and suspension are crap, you’re toast,” says P3’s director of biomechanics, Eric Leidersdorf, who has the build of a high school soccer player. “You can have an engine like mine or an engine like Zion Williamson’s, it won’t matter at that point.”

For years, Elliott has wanted to get LeBron James in his P3 facility, just to witness the kinematic system that’s allowed James to perform at this level for so long. Now officially listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, James is the ultimate guard in a big’s body. In his age-35 season, James is averaging a career-high 11 assists per game while averaging 25.6 points and 7.4 rebounds. His durability is the stuff of legend, never missing more than 10 games in any stretch of his career until last season when he suffered a groin injury on Christmas. (James was playing on by far the fastest team of his career, pace-wise). 

But more important than genetics, James famously invests seven figures per year on body optimization strategies and personally employs a staff that includes a professional biomechanist, multiple chefs and masseuses. He regularly uses cryotherapy, hyberbaric chambers and NormaTec recovery sleeves to stay healthy.

It’s a lesson that Elliott hopes will inspire other premiere athletes to take extra care of their bodies, especially the bigs that have progressed largely because of their size.

“The speed of the game and the load on these players, something has to give,” Elliott says. “It’s a game that’s so hard on these players’ systems, playing 82 games at this speed that it’s played now, it’s so hard on these guys’ systems. When mechanics are messed up, they’re not going to survive.”

Elliott doesn’t see the NBA slowing down anytime soon. When asked what kind of impact those ramped-up velocities will have on the largest of human bodies, Elliott isn’t so sure.

 “I don’t know long-term,” Elliot says, “what it’s going to do.”

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

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

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NBC Sports

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

James Harden is doing some crazy stuff this season. The former Sixth Man of the Year is nearly averaging an unfathomable 40 points per game. He just scored 60 points in a little more than 30 minutes of game action and hasn’t scored fewer than 25 points in a game since opening night. Defenses are now trying to trap him before halfcourt.

Is he the best scorer of this generation? Probably. Three straight scoring titles would cement that status.

But is he the best scorer ever? Well, that gets a little more complicated. We could simply list the best scoring seasons by points per game and leave it at that. But as you’ll see below, that would be short-sighted.

Why? Let’s start at the basics.

Harden is currently averaging 39.5 points per game. If it holds, that would rank third all-time on the scoring leaderboard for a season. The only name above him? Wilt Chamberlain, who of course sees your 40 points per game and raises you 50.

Case closed. Chamberlain is the best scorer ever, with the best scoring season ever, right? 

Not so fast. Let’s zoom out and look at the top 20 scoring seasons in NBA history. 

Notice anything odd? Hint: Look at the season column. Yeah, that’s a lot of of the 1960s. Eleven of the top 20 scoring seasons of all time came within an eight-year span. What’s up with that? 

Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Rick Barry were incredible scorers, to be sure. But it has to be mentioned that they played in an era where teams regularly took over 100 shots per game. In an eight-team league playing at a crazy-fast pace, and in which Chamberlain was one of three 7-footers playing in the league, the NBA was ripe for an outlier season. 

Though we didn’t have a complete picture in the box score (turnovers didn’t become an official stat until 1973-74), we can get a pretty good idea of how “fast” the league was in that season by using Basketball Reference’s best estimates. We find that Chamberlain’s team, the Philadelphia Warriors, played a whopping 131.1 possessions per game, the fastest of the eight teams. The slowest team, the Chicago Packers, played at 122.9 possessions per game. Even taken as a ballpark figure, that’s a Formula 1 race car compared to the speed of the modern era.

If you thought today’s pace-and-space era was fast, the back-and-forth NBA of the 1960’s leaves them in the dust. The fastest team this season, according to Basketball Reference tracking, is the Washington Wizards and they churn out 105.2 possessions per game. To put it in perspective, the slowest team in 1961-62 played almost 18 additional possessions per game than today’s fastest team.

That’s almost an entire quarter’s worth of extra hoops in which to rack up points. You might be asking yourself, “Well, what what happens when we take that same top 20 and adjust for pace?” 

Good question! I tweaked the per-game numbers by normalizing it to a 100-possession environment. Players that played on a slow team (below 100 possessions per game) will get a boost and players that played on a fast team (above 100 possessions) will have their numbers fall back down to Earth a bit. 

After making this adjustment, we get an entirely new leaderboard. Lakers fans, you might want to sit down for this one.

Holy, Kobe Bean Bryant! After adjusting for pace, Bryant’s 2005-06 campaign floats to the top of the list, up from his previous spot of 11th-best. It’s one thing to average 35.4 points per game, but it’s another to do it while playing at a snail’s pace. In Phil Jackson’s return to the Staples Center bench after a one-year hiatus, the Lakers barely cleared 90 possessions per game, over 40 fewer possessions per game than Chamberlain’s record-holding ‘61-62 campaign.

A comparison between Bryant’s 81-point game and Chamberlain’s 100-point game -- the two highest-scoring individual performances in NBA history -- further illustrates the difference in eras and playing styles. In Chamberlain’s infamous 100-point outing, the Warriors fired up 118 field goal attempts, which is 30 more scoring opportunities than the Lakers had when Bryant went for 81. (Chamberlain’s Warriors scored 169 points in that game, which was only the sixth-highest scoring game in NBA history at the time. Again: Pace.)

Bryant has always been considered one of the best scorers of all-time, but he happened to rule during the NBA’s Deadball Era, in which point totals slumped across the board. The 2004 Lakers scored 68 points in an entire Finals game for crying out loud. Under the terms of our exercise, Bryant would average an extra 4.4 points per game simply by adjusting to a pace of 100 possessions per game. 

And Harden? He’s still near the top of the list. His current season is docked 1.8 points per game because the Houston Rockets have stepped on the accelerator this season with Russell Westbrook on board. The Rockets’ pace, according to Basketball Reference tracking, sits at 104.9 this season, up from 97.9 last season with Chris Paul running the point. By this measure, Harden’s season is almost a mirror image of last season’s scoring campaign.

More importantly, even through this new lens, Harden’s ‘19-20 scoring binge is still not superior to Chamberlain’s monster '61-62 season, but the gap is smaller. Once we put the era’s pace into context, Harden and Chamberlain are less than one point per game apart. If Harden’s season average surges to 40.3 points per game, that would put him on par with Chamberlain in adjusted points per game. (He’d need to finish at 40.6 and 40.8 raw points per game to catch Jordan and Bryant, respectively).

Is Harden having one of the best scoring seasons ever? Most definitely. It’s right up there with the legendary scorers in NBA history. If he starts regularly putting up 42 points a night in this environment, he’d have the best scoring season ever in my book -- better than Wilt’s 50.4 season -- but it’s hard to see Harden pulling that off. Then again, no one saw a Sixth Man of the Year averaging nearly 40 points per game, either.

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

How the remodeled Wolves are unlocking Andrew Wiggins

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NBC Sports

How the remodeled Wolves are unlocking Andrew Wiggins

Standing at midcourt just in front of Gregg Popovich, Minnesota head coach Ryan Saunders shouts “33!” at Minnesota guard Andrew Wiggins. It appears to be a mundane late third-quarter possession against the San Antonio Spurs in early November, but what transpires next is a peek under the hood of the youthful and remodeled Minnesota Timberwolves.

It begins with Saunders, who, at 33 years old, is the NBA’s youngest coach. Saunders was just 10 years old when the guy a few feet to his right, Popovich, took over coaching duties in San Antonio in 1996. Despite the obvious symmetry, the “33!” play-call was not a reference to Saunders’ age, but rather an idea that encapsulates everything that’s different in Minnesota these days.

Saunders has been hell-bent on getting his team to maximize efficiency wherever they can. Part of that plan is to regularly execute two-for-ones -- a nerdy efficiency ploy at the end of quarters that has been a long been a favorite of the analytics crowd. The goal: take a quick shot with roughly 33 seconds left on the game clock to ensure the Wolves get the ball back for a second shot before the quarter ends. Even if they’re not great looks, two bites of the apple is better than one, the numbers say.

The situation against San Antonio is ripe for a two-for-one, but only if Wiggins listens. After collecting a rebound with 45 seconds left in the quarter, Wiggins could have tuned out his coach, dribbled around and forced a mid-range jumper with 22 seconds left on the clock, gifting the Spurs with the last shot of the quarter. But on this particular possession, Wiggins breezes past halfcourt, drives hard into the teeth of the Spurs’ defense, unleashes a dizzying spin move and dishes to the cutting Jake Layman for a wide-open dunk. 

The clock reads 34.3 seconds, just shy of the “33” target. Nearly perfect. A few moments later, Jeff Teague snares the ball away from the Spurs with 12 seconds left. The Wolves slow it down for the last shot. Wiggins calls for the ball, gets it, orchestrates a high pick-and-roll and pulls up for a deep 3-pointer. Swish. 

The bench breaks out in joyous hysteria. Minnesota assistant coach and former NBA player Pablo Prigioni gives a Tiger Woods-esque fist pump. Jordan Bell gets down on one knee and mockingly stares down the Spurs. Karl-Anthony Towns promptly introduces the world to KATDance.

And Saunders? “I almost wept tears of joy,” Saunders jokes now, looking back.

That stretch was one of many signals that the Wolves, one of the youngest teams in the league, are buying in to Saunders’ new approach. And that includes the most inefficient high-volume shooter in the league last season, Andrew Wiggins.

* * * 

Gersson Rosas isn’t naive. Despite deploying two former No. 1 overall picks in Wiggins and Towns, Rosas understands that turning the Wolves into a championship contender won’t happen overnight. This will take time. Hired away from the Houston Rockets this summer to oversee basketball operations, Rosas set out to find a head coach for the future, or what he labels as “his partner” in Minnesota.

After taking over for Tom Thibodeau last January as interim head coach, Saunders became the early favorite. The son of a local icon, the late Flip Saunders, Ryan Saunders was a purebred Minnesotan with deep roots in the Twin Cities. But Rosas felt Saunders was a coaching prodigy when the two met almost a decade ago when Saunders was an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards fresh out of college. Saunders had helped develop an iPad app called Gametime Concepts that tracked pick-and-roll efficiencies in real-time on the bench -- unheard of in the NBA world. The two kept in touch over the years and became close, regularly grabbing lunch on days when the Wolves and Rockets played each other.

“I consider Gers one of my best friends,” Saunders says. “We go way back.”

Still, Rosas wasn’t going to hand Saunders the job. Rosas brought in several candidates for the head-coaching job and interviewed Saunders like he was just another hopeful. Saunders had to earn the job the old-fashioned way. 

“We had some really great candidates,” Rosas says now. “But at the end of the day, Ryan was an ideal partner. Not just in terms of the person and the character he is, but the approach and philosophy. I give Ryan a ton of credit. He knows these guys better than most and that’s a huge advantage. To search for a partner to execute this vision, that’s a built-in advantage.”

Both Rosas and Saunders knew that helping Wiggins fulfill his potential would be key to the Wolves’ success and Saunders’ relationship with Wiggins was at the center of it all. The two have been close ever since their professional lives merged in 2014, when the Wolves traded for Wiggins and Saunders joined his father on Minnesota’s bench. When Saunders married his wife Hayley in 2017, he made sure Wiggins was there. When Saunders found out he and Hayley were expecting their first child due this past June, Wiggins was one of the first calls he made. When Saunders won his first game last season, Wiggins made sure he was the first to dap up the interim coach -- that is, after the team mauled Saunders with hugs, cheers and bottled water in the postgame locker room.

Basketball joy has been hard to come by for Wiggins. Since signing a $147 million max contract in 2017, Wiggins has been something of a punching bag in NBA circles. The Kansas Jayhawk had developed a sticky reputation of the bad-team, good-stats guy. When ESPN left Wiggins off their annual top-100 list in October, Wiggins fired back, saying “There’s not 100 players better than me, so it doesn’t matter what people think. My job is to come out here and hoop, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Unlocking Wiggins was going to take some tough love, but Saunders wasn’t going to do it alone.

* * * 

The turning point came in a Bahamian piano bar back in August. During the Wolves’ three-day getaway to the BahaMar resort on the island of Nassau in the Bahamas, Saunders and Rosas wanted a heart-to-heart chat with the 24-year-old Wiggins. This was going to be a big season for Wiggins, whose salary and productivity had been heading in opposite directions. But with a new front office and a handpicked coaching staff, this was seen as a new chapter for Wiggins.

Wiggins agreed and told them to meet him at the aptly-named Jazz Bar, a karaoke bar on the resort premises. As tunes from the 80s and 90s poured through the speakers, Rosas and Saunders shared a bottle of wine with Wiggins, talking about life and family and the future. 

Wiggins could sense that Rosas was a family man when Rosas’ 3-year-old twins crashed his introductory press conference in May and climbed into Rosas’ lap on stage. But it was a summer afternoon workout at the Minnesota practice facility that really stuck with Wiggins. While Wiggins got his shots up, Wiggins’ girlfriend, Mychal Johnson, and their 1-year-old daughter made an impromptu visit to the facility to watch the workout alongside Rosas. At one point, Wiggins looked over and saw Rosas lifting up his daughter into his arms.

“He held my daughter like his own,” Wiggins told The Athletic in June. “He said he’s a big family guy, and so am I, and I feel like that goes a long way right there.”

Back in the Bahamas lounge, the three fathers connected about what they saw in themselves and what they wanted to be.

“It wasn’t always rah-rah feel-good stuff,” Rosas says. “It was at times a hard conversation. He let us know that he wanted to be successful and not only that, he wanted to be successful here.”

Says Rosas: “If I wanted to find a player at his age, with his physical tools, with his talent and upside, I couldn’t find somebody like that on the trade market or free agent market. You can’t help but invest in that and see what you have.”

Rosas and Saunders wanted to reach Wiggins on a personal level, but also empower him and his teammates with a world-class support staff. That investment required infrastructure with an eye toward efficiency, so Rosas hired former Rockets colleague Sachin Gupta as executive VP of basketball operations. An MIT graduate, the architect of the ESPN Trade Machine and later, Sam Hinkie’s co-pilot running the Philadelphia 76ers, Gupta is renowned in NBA circles for being an ideas man. To upgrade the player health department, Rosas added Robby Sikka, a well-respected injury guru from the Mayo Clinic, as VP of basketball performance and technology. Under Rosas’ leadership, the Wolves even revamped their nutrition program, partnering with James Beard Award-winning chef Gavin Kaysen and Food Network star Andrew Zimmern, both culinary icons in the Twin Cities.

“We’ve reformatted the organization,” Rosas says. “On the court and off the court. How we treat our players. How we accommodate our players. How we invest in our players.”

Those investments are paying early returns.

* * * 

Saunders decided to run an experiment during training camp. With the season around the corner, Saunders is on the hunt for what he calls “the little things,” the small areas of the game where the Wolves can leverage their youthful energy and fresh intel.

“Take care of the little things,” Saunders says over the phone, “and they’ll become big things.”

On this day, Saunders is particularly interested in the direction of the ball after a missed corner 3.

Popularized by Popovich and the Spurs, corner 3s are a hallmark of the analytics movement because of their floor-spacing value and the fact that they go in more than your average 3-pointer. While 3-point attempts have doubled since 1996-97, corner 3s have tripled in frequency, from 2.4 per game to 7.3, per NBA.com tracking. To Saunders, and the Wolves’ new front office, this presented something of an opportunity.

In the offseason, Gupta and Minnesota’s analytics team noticed they could generally predict where misses from certain areas of the court would fall off the rim. The landing spot of corner 3s, in particular, were easier to forecast. If the Wolves could get to those rebound locations before the opponent -- Saunders now calls them “hot spots” -- could they find an edge, however small it might be? 

Possibly, but Saunders needed to see it to believe it. At practice in camp, Gupta, Rosas and Saunders stood shoulder-to-shoulder about eight feet from the rim. They asked one of their wing players to shoot 3s from the corner. The rest of the roster eagerly watched from the sidelines, waiting to watch the magician’s act.

The first miss hit Saunders in the chest. Promising. The next one, again, directly to the hot spot. The players yelped in anticipation. The next three shots -- boom, boom, boom -- bounced off the rim and fell into the trio’s hands. The gym was floored. And more importantly, sold.

“The players thought it was rigged,” Rosas says. “First day we put it in, it was like, bang, bang, bang, bang. And all of us were looking at each other like, man, this thing works.”

After pulling a rabbit out of his hat, Saunders engineered a plan to have a designated weak-side defender crash the hot spot as soon as a corner 3-pointer was launched. The results so far have been astonishing. Minnesota has rebounded 90.7 percent of opponent corner 3s, which is the single-best mark in the pbpstats.com statistical database dating back to the 2000-01 season. 

On the other side of the floor, the Wolves are reaping the benefits of these hot spots. Minnesota has the third-highest offensive rebound rate on its own corner 3s entering play Thursday, with one player in particular showing a keen eye for these hot spots. 

The team’s leader in corner 3 rebounds? That would be Wiggins. His corner 3 rebound rate has tripled since last season, grabbing 34 percent of the available boards compared to just 12 percent last season. It represents another small but meaningful change.

* * * 

Back in San Antonio in early November, Saunders is practically giddy over what he’s just seen. It isn’t just that Wiggins followed Saunders’ instructions and played for the two-for-one. It was the choice he made that showed just how far Wiggins has come.

When Rosas was hired this summer, one of his first on-court priorities was to clean up the Wolves’ shot selection. For the past decade, Rosas was the Houston Rockets’ No. 2 in command behind Daryl Morey. The Rockets pioneered a league-wide movement in shot selection, commonly dubbed “MoreyBall,” where teams emphasize 3-pointers, free throws and shots at the rim and de-emphasize the less efficient shots in the mid-range.

The Wolves had lagged far behind the rest of the league in this area. At the time of Thibodeau’s departure in January 2019, the Wolves had taken the seventh-most mid-range jumpers per game in the league and the eight-fewest 3-pointers despite hitting both shots at an almost identical rate (36.6 percent on long 2s and 35.6 percent on 3s). By simply stepping inside the line, the Wolves were giving away free points.

“How do we communicate that effectively to the players?” Rosas says now. “We don’t want to be telling our players, ‘Don’t do that.’ The negatives are not a big part of our vocabulary.”

So they turned to stickers. Rather than tell players about point values, they showed them. Literally. The Wolves placed stickers throughout their practice court showing the expected point values of certain shots on the court, encased in a rectangle. For high value shots, they filled the box with green. For low value shots, they filled it with red. It was a simple way to visualize their value proposition.

“It’s not that we don’t want to shoot long 2s,” Rosas says. “But we believe in high value shots. We have to shoot the right shots.”

The stickers are strategically placed. Two straddle the 3-point line on the wing. Just outside the line, a green box says “1.3” showing the expected point value. Just inside the line, a red box reads “0.9.” (The stickers could be seen in the viral video of Towns and three other Wolves players synchronized Eurostepping off the floor in the middle of a pick-and-roll action).

So far, the stickers are having their intended effect. The Wolves have seen the largest increase in 3-point attempts compared to last season compared to other teams across the league. Only Rosas’ former team, the Rockets, have taken more 3-pointers than Minnesota this season.

Of course, the shots haven’t been falling. The team is shooting just 31.3 percent on 3s, the third-lowest figure in the NBA. But Saunders has preached persistence, and the message has stuck with Wiggins. After shooting 0-for-4 and 0-for-3 from deep in the first two games of the season, Wiggins has doubled down on 3-pointers since, taking no fewer than five in each game, converting at a 36-percent clip.

“It’s building the foundation,” Rosas says. “I’m a big believer, and Ryan’s a big believer, that the results are going to come.”

* * * 

Skeptics may claim that we’ve seen this from Wiggins before. In 2016-17, he averaged 27.4 points per game over the team’s first 11 games under Thibodeau. It proved to be little more than small-sample-size theater, buttressed by an early 47-point outing rather than consistency.

It got worse last season when Wiggins ranked 40th among 40 players in effective field goal percentage (minimum 15 attempts per game). But there are signs that Wiggins has fundamentally changed his game, thanks in part, at least, to Saunders’ commitment to the little things. With a healthier shot profile, Wiggins now ranks 15th among 42 players on the effective field goal percentage leaderboard, just behind James Harden.

Wiggins’ growth can also be seen outside of the scoring column. Before missing the last four games, Wiggins had registered five straight games with at least five assists per game. Before this season, his longest such streak lasted two games -- when he was a rookie. More importantly, while Wiggins’ assist rate is up, his turnovers are down, and his defense, long a sticking point around the league, is finally showing consistent results. Entering play Wednesday, Wiggins had strung together eight consecutive games with a blocked shot, something he hadn’t done until Saunders took over coaching duties. The Wolves have also held opponents to just 106 points per 100 possessions with Wiggins and Towns on the floor, compared to an ugly 111.2 points per 100 possessions last season, per NBA.com.

“We’re not saying it, we’re doing it,” Rosas repeats. “Actions over words.” 

Rosas downplays the team’s 8-7 start and says he’s more interested in the culture change, the process behind the scenes. He loves what he’s seeing from Towns (“His competitive fire and his competitive nature is coming through”) and Wiggins and the supporting cast of energetic youngsters like Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver. But the longtime Rockets executive continues to emphasize the long-term vision. 

“I was fortunate to be around Houston when Hakeem Olajuwon was winning championships, but that doesn’t happen until he’s 33 (years old),” Rosas says. “James Harden wins an MVP at 29. You’re talking about a couple of players in Karl and Andrew who are 24. Their best basketball is far ahead of them.”

Rosas pauses. He’d like to talk more about the process, not the win-loss record. To the Wolves, Wiggins is scratching the surface, one hot spot at a time.

“We’re in the very early stages,” Rosas says. “Kind of like a startup. Here in Minnesota, we have to be creative. If we want to be a successful organization, we have to glean advantages wherever we can.”

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