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As we near the start of NBA training camps in October, we're seeing more and more stories about teammates new and old coming together for informal pre-camp workouts in the hopes of developing a bit of chemistry and camaraderie in advance of the proper opening of the league's preseason activities. In cases like eight members of the Indiana Pacers coming together in Los Angeles last month, such workouts can leave fans beaming at the knowledge that their team is serious about hitting the ground running. In cases like Portland Trail Blazers guard Elliot Williams suffering a torn left Achilles tendon during a voluntary team workout on Tuesday, they can leave fans sick over the preemptive puncturing of preseason expectations. (And, in the case of Blazers fans, again cursing the heavens and wondering what they could have possibly done to so displease the Lower Leg Gods.)
One of the more positive pre-preseason stories comes out of the Twin Cities, where former Lower Leg God-victim Brandon Roy is preparing to return to the NBA as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Whether or not Roy ever officially "retired" after his repeated knee injuries led the Blazers to waive him using the amnesty clause in the league's collective bargaining agreement is ultimately a moot point — this still amounts to the 28-year-old guard mounting a full-fledged comeback, and the early returns sound promising. From Jerry Zgoda at the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
"I want to make an impact right away," [Roy] said after working out with new teammates Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger and free agent Anthony Tolliver at Target Center. "I feel great. This is the best I've felt in a long time. I'm able to work on my game and get better. The last couple years in Portland, I was just doing my best to maintain. The biggest thing I'm excited about is I'm in the gym. I'm working hard and coach has to tell me to stop playing instead of me saying, 'OK, that's enough.'''
That last line is important — it's good to hear that the Wolves' coaches are setting limits and boundaries for Roy in these workouts, because as my colleague Eric Freeman wrote earlier this summer, Roy's expectations for himself — which include starting at shooting guard and playing "at a high level" — could prove detrimental for the Wolves as a whole if not properly managed and shaped.
I mean, it's understandable that a three-time All-Star demands a lot from himself, but neither Roy nor the Minnesota brass can pretend that he has any cartilage in his knees and he didn't miss more than a season and a half over the course of the last three years. Reality must be faced and respected, you know? While the Wolves can't ask or expect (and probably shouldn't want) Roy to show less confidence in himself, one can hope that showing from the outset that they're willing and able to put some restrictions on his activities will translate into a reasoned, measured approach to his role definition and minutes distribution come the regular season.
Perhaps more important than the Wolves governing Roy's workouts, though, is the fact that Roy's been not only receptive to the team's thinking, but diligent in following the plan they've laid out. From Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press:
Roy has been working primarily with [assistant coach Shawn] Respert and David Adelman, as well as the strength and conditioning staff to get ready, and the coaches see Roy's approach as a breath of fresh air for a team that had too many young players who didn't know what it takes to be successful in the NBA.
''We know we had a situation here last season where it was really difficult for guys to be self-starters,'' Respert said.
You might remember that, after a surprisingly strong start behind an MVP-worthy turn from All-Star power forward Kevin Love, the emergence of Pekovic as a legitimate low-post scoring threat and the arrival of playmaking point guard Ricky Rubio, the Timberwolves all but fell apart in the second half of the 2011-12 season after injuries sidelined all three of those integral players, plus point guard Luke Ridnour. But you might not remember just how bad things got — they lost 13 of their final 14 games and 21 of their final 26, as a team without two of its top talents and organizing principles played lackluster ball through season's end.
The loose, uninspired play led veteran point guard J.J. Barea to lay into his teammates following a bad loss to the Golden State Warriors, saying that the team had "a lot of guys that don't care." He didn't name specific players, but an offseason reshaping that included saying goodbye to several talented players whose dedication and professionalism have come under questioning at times (Michael Beasley, Darko Milicic and Anthony Randolph) probably offers some idea. At the time of Barea's comments, I wrote that while a public air-out might not have been the most tactful approach to take, the points he was "making — that professionalism must be demanded even in a lost-cause season and that effort can't be dependent on the standings — really matter for a young team that is figuring out how to be good."
With Love, Rubio, Pekovic and [Derrick Williams] at the core, the talent's there for Minnesota to be a playoff contender; with [coach Rick] Adelman on the bench, so's the know-how. Commitment to the cause could be the final piece of that puzzle, and there are worse places to start developing that than with teammates holding one another accountable.
Hearing Respert praise Roy for being "spectacular so far as the mentality, his toughness, his willingness to do what we ask him to do and still find that little bit of room to do a little bit more," it's easy to see where his addition — as well as the import of hardworking multipositional grown-up Andrei Kirilenko, back from a successful stint in Russia — fits into that framework. Even after moving away from mercurial players like Beasley, Milicic and Randolph, there's still plenty of youth on the Minnesota roster; eight current Wolves have three years of NBA experience or less.
The Wolves didn't give Roy a $10.5 million contract to be some sort of glorified role model; they expect him to contribute on the court and help offer some long-absent punch at the off-guard spot. But while we often place too much emphasis on "veteran leadership" provided in by older players who can no longer cut the mustard, Roy's willingness to buy into the Wolves staff's plan and the example it offers to the team's burgeoning bumper crop of young talent — if it continues — could wind up making him one of Minnesota's more meaningful players even if he never again even sniffs his All-Star peak.
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