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Minnesota has Karl-Anthony Towns locked up. Can it finally build a team around him?


This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

If there was one truism of the modern NBA drilled home in 2019 it was this:

If your team has a superstar player, the clock is always ticking.

Minnesota has its superstar, Karl-Anthony Towns. Already one of the game’s top centers at age 23, he averaged 22.4 points a night on 51.8 percent shooting last season, hit 40 percent from three (taking 4.6 shots a night), plus pulled down 12.4 rebounds a contest. He’s an All-Star and All-NBA level center who has another gear or two he can reach, and when he does good luck slowing him down.

Minnesota has Towns locked up — his five-year, $190 million max contract extension kicks in this season. Towns says he’s happy in Minnesota and plans to stick around, and he has a strong relationship with coach Ryan Saunders. This is not a disgruntled superstar trying to push his way out the door.

But the clock is always ticking.

Minnesota won 36 games last season — despite the fact Jimmy Butler torpedoed the team and Tom Thibodeau’s job during trading camp — and is projected to be in that same ballpark this season (the Westgate line in Las Vegas is under/over 35.5 wins).

If Minnesota beats the Vegas projection — and on the high end flirts with a playoff spot in the deep and brutal West — it will be because Towns took steps forward. Again. Saunders plans to get Towns more touches by using him in more of a Nikola Jokic role as an offensive facilitator at the elbow, something Towns has craved. Minnesota had an 112.2 offensive rating when Towns was on the court last season (that would have been sixth in the league) and that number could go up. If Towns also becomes more of a consistent force on the defensive end — he has done it for stretches but not night in and night out — that’s another way Minnesota improves. Robert Covington in Towns’ ear every night helps on that front.

However, Minnesota’s improvement would not come from the roster around Towns — and that’s what keeps the clock ticking. Minnesota has yet to put a strong roster where the pieces fit well together around its young star.

New head of basketball operations Gersson Rosas knows it, and knows he has a couple of years to build something around Towns that keeps his superstar happy. To his credit, Rosas tried this summer and was in the running to land D’Angelo Russell (a good friend of Towns) before the Warriors swooped in. Minnesota needs more of that kind of aggressive thinking.

Rosas needs to figure out who will be the No. 2 star next to Towns? Thibodeau thought it would be Butler, but that blew up spectacularly. Right now there is no answer.

Right now, this is a roster that needs work. A lot of work.

Robert Covington is Minnesota’s second-best player heading into the season — a guy who shot 37.8 percent from three last season and, if healthy, could get into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation — and he’s locked up for two more seasons after this one. Covington brings much-needed shooting and a defensive mindset. But he’s not a No. 2 option on an elite team, he’s just the best Minnesota has.

After that… things get a little slim.

Andrew Wiggins is being paid to be that No. 2 guy but instead is the anchor weighing down rebuilding this roster. He has four years left on a max contract and while he puts up empty calorie points (18.1 per game last season) his shooting percentage drops every season (here are his percentages the past four years: 45.9, 45.2, 43.8, 41.2). His lack of efficiency, the fact he doesn’t really get rebounds or assists, his casualness towards defense, it all just drags the team down. The Timberwolves would love to trade Wiggins — expect to hear rumors about it — but the four-years, $122.3 million he is still owed makes him one of the hardest players to trade in the league (maybe only John Wall would be harder to move at this point). Minnesota likely has to throw in a sweetener, but Wiggins gets easier to trade next summer and beyond as the years left decrease.

Josh Okogie enters his second season with a lot of promise but what exactly is his ceiling? The Timberwolves drafted Jarrett Culver at No. 6 and are betting he can be part of the future in Minnesota. Both youngsters have potential, but a lot to prove still.

Jeff Teague is a solid point guard but is in the last year of his contract and is not the future at that spot. Gorgui Dieng is a good enough backup big but will make $33.5 million over the next two seasons in that role. They got Jordan Bell on a steal of a deal to soak up some frontcourt minutes off the bench and bring energy. Jake Layman is a nice pickup as a rotation guy. Shabazz Napier is a fine backup point guard.

Is that a playoff roster? Probably not this season, not in this tsunami of a Western Conference. Even with Towns taking a step forward.

Which is why the clock is ticking.

It’s still in the distance, there’s time to build a quality playoff roster around Towns, but Rosas hears it. He knows if things don’t change in the next couple of years it’s only going to get louder and louder.

Nets reportedly sign Donta Hall for restart games in Orlando

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Donta Hall went undrafted out of Alabama last June, then made the most of the opportunities he was given. The 6’9″ big man tore up the G League for the Grand Rapids Drive, averaging 15.4 points a game on 66.9% shooting, plus gabbing 10.6 rebounds a night. It was good enough to get him a call up to the Pistons and getting in four games for them.

Now he’s going to play in the NBA restart for the Brooklyn Nets, a story broken by Marc Stein of the New York Times.

The shorthanded Nets are without big men DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, and Nicolas Claxton (Jarrett Allen was the only center on the roster). Donta Hall will get the chance to impress the Nets — and other teams — and try to earn a contract for next season (he will be a free agent when the Nets are eliminated).

Hall is a tremendous athlete, he’s bouncy and long (7’5″ wingspan). If his skills develop, he has a role in the NBA.

The Nets were hit hard by injuries and had to make substitute signings such as Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley. Here is what the final Nets roster looks like in Orlando.

After four months off, first NBA teams practice in restart bubble

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotel and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the (hashtag)JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor.

Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”

Zion Williamson’s stepfather accused of taking $400,000 before Zion’s season at Duke

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The legal fight over NBA rookie Zion Williamson’s endorsement potential now includes an allegation that his family received $400,000 from a marketing agency before his lone season for Duke.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed a lawsuit last summer in a Florida state court, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. That came a week after Williamson filed his own lawsuit in a North Carolina federal court to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

In court filings Thursday in North Carolina, Ford’s attorneys included a sworn affidavit from a California man who said the head of a Canadian-based firm called Maximum Management Group (MMG) told him he paid Williamson’s family for his commitment to sign with MMG once he left Duke for the NBA.

The documents include a marketing agreement signed by Williamson with MMG from May 2019, a December 2019 “letter of declaration” signed by Williamson and his stepfather agreeing to pay $500,000 to MMG president Slavko Duric for “repayment of a loan” from October 2018, and a copy of Williamson’s South Carolina driver’s license — which listed Williamson’s height as “284” and his weight as “6′06.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, Williamson attorney, Jeffrey S. Klein, said those documents were “fraudulent.”

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent – and neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealings with them,” Klein said. “We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.

“This is a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball.”

The affidavit is from Donald Kreiss, a self-described entrepreneur who worked with athletes and agents in marketing relationships. He had recently contacted Ford then provided the affidavit last week outlining interactions with MMG and Williamson’s family, according to one of the filings.

Ford’s attorneys have sought to focus on Williamson’s eligibility. His lawsuit stated that Prime Sports violated North Carolina’s sports agent law, both by failing to include disclaimers about the loss of eligibility when signing the contract and the fact neither Prime Sports nor Ford were registered with the state.

Ford’s attorneys have argued the Uniform Athlete Agents Act wouldn’t apply if Williamson was ineligible to play college basketball from the start.

Ford’s attorneys had sought to have last summer’s No. 1 overall NBA draft pick and New Orleans Pelicans rookie answer questions in Florida state court about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils. They had also raised questions about housing for Williamson’s family during his Duke career in a separate filing in North Carolina.

A Florida appeals court last month granted a stay to pause the proceedings there, shifting the focus to the North Carolina case.

Duke has repeatedly declined to comment on the case because it isn’t involved in the litigation, but issued a statement in January that school had reviewed Williamson’s eligibility previously and found no concerns.

Russell Westbrook, James Harden do not fly to Orlando with Rockets, will join team later

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The Houston Rockets have landed in Orlando to be part of the NBA’s restart bubble.

Except for stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Neither was on the team’s charter flight from Houston, but both plan to join the team soon. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news, with the story confirmed by others soon after.

Just-signed Luc Mbah a Moute and assistant coach John Lucas also did not fly with the team and will catch up soon, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Westbrook and Harden are not the only stars to delay their arrival in Orlando, the Clippers Kawhi Leonard did the same for personal reasons. The teams have agreed to this, but with limited practice time in the run-up to the eight seeding games, coaches want everyone in camp to work on rebuilding chemistry as fast as possible.

Coach Mike D’Antoni did fly with the team and was cleared to be in the bubble. D’Antoni, 69, was subject to extra consideration for entrance into the bubble by the NBA due to his age and the risk factors for people older than 65 with COVID-19.

The Rockets are one of the most interesting teams to watch in Orlando because of their all-in commitment to small ball — 6’5″ P.J. Tucker will play a lot of center. In the uncertain world of the NBA’s restart, that unconventional approach could get them upset wins. Or, they could get bounced early. There is no more high-variance team in Orlando than the Rockets.