The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

By the time you read this, you’ll probably know if the Minnesota Timberwolves succeeded in their first-round NBA playoff series against Memphis. The armchair analysts were in rare form, praising the Wolves after Game 1 when they jumped out to an early lead and, with few bumps along the road, prevailed in a solid 130-117 victory.

But as frequently happens in a basketball playoff series, there was a role reversal three nights later. The Grizzlies took control of the game early and never let up, rolling to a 124-96 triumph. As this column was being written, the best-of-seven series was tied 1-1 with the next two games—and potentially three of the next four—set for Target Center.

 

   

No matter how things end up, the first game brought a revelation to the folks who paid little attention to the Wolves during the long winter. Even guys who don’t have much interest in professional basketball are likely aware of the team’s main man in the middle—center Karl-Anthony Towns. The big fellow has been around these parts since being named the team’s top draft pick in 2015. There have been way too many nights when Towns has had an excellent night scoring points and grabbing rebounds, but his teammates didn’t do likewise and the Wolves went down in defeat. (The overall regular-season record during Towns’ tenure is 231-315, a grim .423 winning percentage.)

But things are different this year with the play of guard Anthony Edwards who, appropriately enough, wears No. 1 on his jersey. The team won 46 regular-season games—its best showing in 18 years. Towns had another solid season, leading the team with 24.6 points per game. Meanwhile, Edwards averaged 21.3 points and gave the team a 1-2 punch not seen in these parts for a long time.

That’s impressive on its own. When you consider that Edwards is just 20 years old, the average age for a college sophomore or junior, it’s even more remarkable. Edwards’ first season last year was solid enough—a 19.3 average and membership on the NBA All-Rookie team. But when your team only wins 23 games and finishes last in your conference, those deeds are quickly forgotten.

 

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“My guys can’t do a twisting dunk like Edwards can,” Woldeslassie said. “He has speed, size and athleticism that’s unusual for a guy who’s 6-foot-4. But there are things he does on the court that our guys can relate to.”

So what does a guy who coaches 20-year-olds for a living think of Edwards? Abe Woldeslassie, who guided Macalester College’s men’s basketball team to its best season in many years, went off-court to make an Edwards comparison. “There are 20-year-olds here who we consider very good piano players,” he said. “Then there’s the 20-year-old prodigy in Europe who plays at an entirely different level.”

Same age. Same passion. Different result. 

Woldeslassie ventured back to the basketball court. “My guys can’t do a twisting dunk like Edwards can,” he said. “He has speed, size and athleticism that’s unusual for a guy who’s 6-foot-4. But there are things he does on the court that our guys can relate to.”

Most notably, Woldeslassie pointed to things that don’t show up on a scoresheet. “He’s very mature out there,” he said. “When something goes wrong, it doesn’t seem to bother him. He doesn’t snap back at referees. He just goes about his business.”

Woldeslassie likes his guys to emulate Edwards in that regard—sticking to what they can control and not getting distracted by hostile crowds or what they consider a bad call by an official. 

That was even on display in the Wolves’ dismal Game 2. The game went south on the team early. Minnesota’s shooting, most notably from three-point range, was off. Edwards struggled like the rest of his mates, finishing just 7-for-16 from the floor. His 20 points ended up leading the team’s offensive output, and perhaps more important, he stayed on the floor to play a team-high 33:53 minutes— six more than anybody else.

The latter number is the sort of thing that gets the attention of John Tauer, who has the task of elevating the University of Saint Thomas men’s basketball team into a competitive Division I program. “The mindset of a champion is something you can learn from,” Tauer said. “Young players are going to make mistakes, but good shooters have the confidence to keep going—even when things aren’t going well.”

Tauer is recruiting at a different level than Woldeslassie. As a result, he’s talking to kids who’ve already run into some Edwards-type players in the past. “We’ll have guys who played against guys in the NBA when they were playing AAU ball,” he said. The hope is they’ve learned from those experiences and can bring that maturity to the court for the Tommies.

A fellow who watched Edwards’ first playoff game with appreciation is Saint Thomas Academy boys’ basketball coach Khalid El-Amin. He went from being Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball at Minneapolis North to an excellent college career at Connecticut to joining the roster of the Chicago Bulls. He played 50 games for the Bulls during the 2000-2001 season and was invited to the Schick Rookie Challenge as part of the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, where he lit up the place with an 18-point effort.

However, fame and fortune at the NBA level can be fleeting. El-Amin found himself in the Continental Basketball Association for the next two seasons. He moved overseas for a productive 15-year run, retiring at age 38 in 2017.

El-Amin noted Edwards has one thing that’s important to a player at any level. “It’s confidence,” he said. “He’s young and fearless.” The latter word sometimes causes young players to be reckless and take ill-advised shots. But the will to win—to do anything to get your team going when a game is going off the rails—is something that coaches like El-Amin, Woldeslassie and Tauer all want to instill in their players.

So while fans who’ve been late to the bandwagon will be jumping on to watch the Timberwolves’ playoff run—no matter how short or long it goes—the local coaches will be taking notes to transfer to their players when they take the court next fall. They’ll impress on their players that, while athletic skill is a prerequisite to success, one also must be mature enough on the court to shake off inevitable misfortunes. If a 20-year-old going up against guys older than him can do it, so should a fellow going up against guys his own age and ability.

Highland courses surviving spring weather

Much has been made of high schools struggling to get games in during this spring’s topsy-turvy weather. But what about public golf courses, which have only a six-month window to make money in Minnesota?

John Shimpach, the golf pro at Highland National, said the spring weather has made it a hit-or-miss operation at his 9- and 18-hole facilities. “We can’t allow carts yet,” he said. “The ground is too wet. We’ve had days when we couldn’t play at all and then we’ve had days when the courses were booked all day.”

Fortunately, the wacky weather hasn’t done much damage to the playing surfaces. “The greens are fine,” Shimpach said. “We had no winter damage. The key is you put them to bed properly in the fall.”

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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