July 19, 2024

Rob Dillingham, Terrence Shannon Jr. come to Minnesota where there are ‘roles to be earned’

Rob Dillingham and Terrence Shannon Jr. could not hide the looks in their eyes as they toured their new basketball home in Minnesota this week. The realization of a dream come true started to resonate with two players who took winding roads to get to the NBA.

For Dillingham, it was high school at home in Charlotte, N.C. then out in California at the ill-fated Donda Academy, finishing up at Overtime Elite, a basketball factory in Atlanta, before one season in college at Kentucky.

For Shannon, it was high school in Chicago before reclassifying and spending one more season at IMG Academy in Florida to get more exposure on the recruiting circuit. He started his college career at Texas Tech and finished at Illinois, a five-year journey that will make him a 24-year-old rookie next season.

Now here they are, the newest additions to a Minnesota Timberwolves team that plans on competing for a championship next season. The wide-eyed looks on their faces served as a reminder of how new this is to them, and of the adjustments that will have to be made by them and the Timberwolves as they get settled.

“The Timberwolves are one of the best teams in the NBA, so I wouldn’t think I would go to a contender right off the rip,” Dillingham said Wednesday in his introductory news conference. “Me seeing I was going to the Timberwolves was just a blessing, and I was just happy that I got to learn from so many vets on the team and so many players that’s done it.”

Typically, when rookies come to a team that was just in the conference finals and has no plans for slowing down, they could expect to do a lot of sitting, watching and learning in their first season. Given how free agency has played out for the Timberwolves, Dillingham and Shannon may need to do a lot more a lot sooner.

Kyle Anderson has agreed to terms with the Golden State Warriors. Monte Morris is headed to Phoenix. Those are two veteran members of the second unit who need to be replaced. Morris played only sparingly after being acquired in a trade with the Detroit Pistons near the deadline last winter, but that always felt more like an issue of him trying to work his way back from an injury and then finding a role for himself on a tight-knit, successful team than an indictment on his talent. Having him as an option on the bench was comforting for coach Chris Finch, even if he didn’t go to him much at all in the playoffs.

Without Morris or Jordan McLaughlin, who remains a free agent, Dillingham is the only point guard on the roster behind 36-year-old starter Mike Conley. Dillingham is 19 years old and weighed in at 164 pounds at the NBA Draft Combine, but the dynamic nature of his game has the Wolves believing he can be ready to contribute right off the bat. That’s why the Wolves spent a 2031 unprotected first-round pick and a 2030 pick swap to get the No. 8 pick from San Antonio to get Dillingham.

“I don’t think you make a move as aggressive as this and sit on him,” president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said on draft night.

Finch would also use Anderson at the point, leaning into his instincts and intelligence to run the offense for stretches of games. His combination of basketball IQ and toughness made him one of Finch’s favorite players, so much so that the coach was always willing to look past Anderson’s considerable shooting struggles last season and poor fit at small forward. In Finch’s eyes, Anderson’s defensive versatility and playmaking more than compensated for his shortcomings.

The Timberwolves expected to lose Anderson on the open market. With their luxury tax bill soaring into next season, they did not believe they could afford to keep Anderson, who turns 31 in September and shot 23 percent from 3-point range last season, on a deal close to the three-year, $27 million contract the Warriors offered. So the Wolves facilitated a sign-and-trade to get him to Golden State, getting a second-round pick swap and some cash in return.

His loss, while anticipated, will mean some adjustments for Finch and the Wolves. Anderson played almost 23 minutes per game and was deployed at power forward, small forward and point guard. Even when Slo Mo was not playing well, Finch stayed with him. Now the coach will need to find new lineup combinations and will almost assuredly need to rely more on inexperienced players to show they have what it takes.

Connelly then added veteran Joe Ingles on Wednesday on a minimum deal, per team sources, to help take some of the initiating duties Anderson shouldered with the second unit. Ingles is a much better shooter than Anderson but not at the same level on defense. He has played with Conley and Rudy Gobert in Utah, so the transition should be seamless. But Ingles will turn 37 in October, and it would be unreasonable to expect the same minutes load for him that Anderson had.

The opportunity is there for Josh Minott, who played only 187 minutes all of last season, to use his athleticism and energy to crack the rotation for the first time. Naz Reid’s role could expand. Leonard Miller could use his size and physical gifts to get a chance, though he profiles as more of a power forward than a wing.

That is where Shannon comes in. He was picked 27th in a draft that was considered short on high-end talent, so expectations have to be tempered. But he is 6 foot 6, 225 pounds and plays a physical brand of basketball that helped him go to the free-throw line 8.6 times per game last season. He turns 24 later this month, making him older than five players on the Wolves roster right now and more physically mature than many rookies who come into the league.

“I’m coming to a winning team with real experience,” Shannon said. “I’m looking to help them win a championship. Just coming in and impacting whatever way I can.”

Jaden McDaniels is the starter at the three, but right now, Shannon and Minott are the only two behind him. Shannon scored 23.0 points per game for the Illini last season, and the Wolves believe he can help inject more pace into their mediocre offense. They also like his potential on defense, where his frame and quickness should allow him to guard multiple positions and switch as needed.

Finch said this summer and into training camp will be spent defining roles for all of their young players. He believes that is the best way to get the most out of them. If they show they are capable of handling the smaller roles, the responsibility will grow.

“It’s great to have young players playing a lot of minutes, giving them a lot of opportunities. But sometimes, they can maybe bite off a little more than they can chew,” Finch said. “So I think in our situation, with the opportunities that we have, it’s certainly there for them. There’s roles to be had, roles to be earned.”

Both first-year players do have weaknesses that will need to be refined. Listed at 6-1 with a 6-3 wing span, Dillingham is small in a league that is skewing more toward size. While Connelly loves Dillingham’s unselfishness on the ball, there will be a learning curve at the game’s most demanding position.

“I think his trademark explosiveness levels off as a leaper when dealing with bumps,” The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie wrote in his 2024 NBA Draft Guide. “While he’s better at handling contact while driving, he still struggles to maintain his balance in the air, which causes him to lose some of his touch. While his decision-making improved significantly this season, his choices in traffic and in the paint still leave a bit to be desired.”

Vecenie wrote that Shannon will have to show he can shoot off the catch in the NBA after hitting just 34.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot chances last season. He was also bigger than many of the defenders he faced in college. That size and strength disparity won’t be there with the Wolves.

Connelly and Finch have made player development one of the organization’s top priorities. The coaching staff has helped Anthony Edwards, Reid and McDaniels improve greatly in their time in Minnesota. Dillingham and Shannon are their next assignments, and having veterans such as Conley and Gobert only help establish a productive environment for young players.

“We have the right amount of energy every single day when guys come in, it’s a great place to learn,” Finch said. “That’s aided by incredible vets. Not just what they can teach the players on the floor and learning how to be a pro, but how you prepare, schedule your routine, how you eat, sleep, how you get your mind right to play or not play and handle all the successes and failures that come in between those things.

The Wolves still have one open roster spot to fill. They can only offer a veteran’s minimum contract to players such as Gary Trent Jr., Lonnie Walker IV, Doug McDermott or Malik Beasley, all of whom would help address needs. Whether any of those players, who have all had success in the league, would take a minimum contract to come to Minnesota remains to be seen.

The biggest priority for Minnesota coming off the loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals was to get more dynamic and explosive on offense. That fits with what Dillingham and Shannon do best. Their first chance to make an impression will be just over a week away in the Las Vegas Summer League, and they can’t wait to get started.

“It don’t even feel real, honestly,” Dillingham said. “I feel like it won’t feel real until we start actually playing with the guys and doing everything with the guys every day … Once we start hoopin’, it will feel real.”

(Top photo of Rob Dillingham and Adam Silver: Brad Penner / USA Today)