Guard Wayne Ellington, player development coach Shawn Respert and the Minnesota Timberwolves started their summer caravan Monday with a stop at the Washington Education Services Building in Brainerd, the first leg of their three-city journey throughout the state.
Ellington and Respert entertained elementary and middle school age students with a shooting clinic and autograph session. Both are selling hope for the upcoming season and that’s easier after the promise the Wolves showed in 2011-2012 before injuries decimated their roster.
“We are getting better as players and as a team and when you continue to do that I think the fans start to gravitate to you and you do less explaining of yourself because they are seeing it on the floor,” Ellington said. “The hard work is paying off and we are looking forward to the upcoming season. Some of the fans were asking about the playoffs, and I said absolutely we are working hard to make the playoffs.”
Ellington is coming off a season where he started four games and averaged 6.1 points per game. The former North Carolina Tar heel gives the Wolves some scoring punch at the guard position coming off the bench.
His first two seasons have been tough, but he believes the Wolves are close to giving Minnesota fans the payoff for sticking with the team.
“The fans have been great and it is definitely a basketball state,” Ellington said. “They want to see us do well. My first two years were tough, but last year was a lot better in terms of winning. I think we are headed on the right path and the fans were great with some sold-out games last year. It’s looking good.”
The NBA Finals start Tuesday night with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat facing off. The matchup can provide some hope for the Wolves as they played well against both teams during the season.
In the first week of the 2011-12 campaign, the Wolves lost to the Thunder 104-100 on opening night, then lost to the Heat 103-101 later in the week. Then, in a rematch at Oklahoma City later in the season, the Wolves lost 149-140 in a thrilling game in which they took the Thunder to overtime in a game in which Kevin Love scored 51 points.
In the last matchup of the season, the Wolves fell to the Thunder 115-110 with the injured Love on the bench.
Ellington has been watching the playoffs intently and is looking to get a handle on the way the game is stepped up come playoff time.
“We are players but we are also fans of the game,” he said. “We are watching the intensity closely. Going into my third year, I still haven’t been in the playoffs and I am looking forward to getting there and how things pick up, and seeing how much more demanding it is. I’m just trying to pick up small details and learn as much as I can.”
Timberwolves fans have given a lot of credit to head coach Rick Adelman and his staff for the improved play last season. Respert is one of the coaches that does a lot of behind the scenes work.
The former Michigan State star played four years in the NBA in the late 1990s before playing another four years in the European League. One of Respert’s areas of focus is in the technique of shooting, and it is something he enjoys working on with young players, including the youngsters at Washington on Monday.
One of his core principles is to perfect your shots that are close to the basket so that you can develop an outside game.
“If you can nail down those high-percentage shots that are close to the rim, it gives you the space to shoot the threes because people are so desperate to guard the rim and the paint, they will give up the three, which now becomes a threat,” Respert said.
Love is a key example of this as he entered the league as a rebounder and an inside scorer, but developed his outside game to win the 2012 three-point contest at the All-Star game in Orlando.
“He showed that he could shoot in the paint and finish off rebounds and eventually that made people stay in the paint and guard him,” Respert said of Love. “He shot three-pointers in high school but the big thing with Kevin is building up his leg strength, which improves his balance. It also comes with a lot of repetition where you start close to the rim and then move farther out, and it requires a lot more energy.”
As the NBA Finals start, Respert encouraged young basketball fans to watch Kevin Durant and his shooting style. Durant is a scorer who is fundamentally sound.
“Watch him and see how much he is in balance and doesn’t fade away,” Respert said. “He is going to get his shot off before his defender can get a hand him. The last key is the more shots you make in your practice sessions, the more confident you become.”