Timberwolves rookies realize playing time must be earned
By Dave Campbell
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Timberwolves used the draft to add a pair of players possessing the skills they want for the wing positions.
Even if Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop prove they are capable right away of a place in the rotation, though, there is a question about how much they will actually play as rookies. This is, after all, the team run by Tom Thibodeau, who is as likely to prefer experience over potential as any head coach in the NBA.
“Practices are important. Playing time is based on performance. You earn that,” Thibodeau said. “That’s not just something that is given to you.”
Okogie and Bates-Diop, during their introduction at a news conference Tuesday, sounded like they understand the climb they face. All five starters for the Wolves last season averaged 33 minutes per game or more and ranked among the top 36 most-used players in the league, with Jimmy Butler third and Andrew Wiggins ninth.
“Everybody wants to play a lot as a rookie, but that comes with trust and learning the system and being productive out there,” said Bates-Diop, the Big Ten Player of the Year award winner at Ohio State last season who dropped into Minnesota’s lap with the 48th overall pick in the second round after most projections pegged him much higher on the board.
Okogie, who was selected 20th overall out of Georgia Tech, also expressed a willingness to accept the no-nonsense, tough-love supervision that comes with playing for Thibodeau.
“I’m definitely comfortable with it,” Okogie said. “I’ve never really had a coach who wasn’t hard on me.”
Both players will go through an adjustment phase with their offensive game, beginning with the longer 3-point shot. Bates-Diop led the Big Ten in scoring (19.8 points per game) and Okogie was fourth in the ACC (17.9 points per game), though, so they’re not coming to the league without any shooting prowess. They’re not one-and-done prospects, either. Okogie will be 20 before the season starts, and Bates-Diop will turn 23 in January, just two months after Wolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
What will help them the most toward working their way onto the court is the athleticism, tenacity and versatility they’ve exhibited while playing defense. That’s at the top of reasons Thibodeau and the front office targeted these two, enamored by a high leap and a long reach that makes switching from a 6-foot-4 classic shooting guard to a 6-foot-10 stretch power forward doable. Bates-Diop and Okogie were two of the four non-post players with a “wingspan” of 7 feet or more at the NBA scouting combine last month.
“You can kind of be in two places at once,” Okogie said.
The other factor in their favor? The roster. Butler and Wiggins don’t currently have any backups in place, with Jamal Crawford’s decision to opt out of his contract and become a free agent. There’s nobody else who played on the wing last season who is under contract entering the start of free agency this weekend.
So just how important is it for a rookie to play right away?
“I think it’s important,” Okogie said. “Is it the most important thing? Probably not. But if I was given a chance to produce and to help this team win nothing would give me more joy than that. So hopefully it happens, and I’ll work and do everything in my power to make it happen.”