Lee's Learning Curve Changes Gears On The Fly
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One month ago, Timberwolves rookie guard Malcolm Lee was in the NBA Development League with the Sioux Falls Skyforce. A rookie coming off knee surgery and log-jammed behind three top-notch point guards on the depth chart, the Wolves sent Lee to Sioux Falls knowing he’d see the court with more regularity and have the chance to hone his skills early in his NBA career.
That was then.
Today, Lee is No. 2 on Minnesota’s point guard depth chart. He’s nearly played more minutes in his three games in April (51) than he had in the team’s first 56 contests (59) and is no longer able to use his rookie season as a learning curve campaign. With injuries to Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour and JJ Barea peppered throughout the past four weeks, Lee is now a major part of Minnesota’s back court plans.
Fortunately for the Wolves, he’s kept himself prepared.
“You’ve just got to be ready for any opportunity when it presents itself,” Lee said.
Lee likely wasn’t expecting things to change this dramatically so quickly. In training camp, the Wolves had their returning starting point guard, a highly celebrated rookie from Spain and a championship-winning spark plug all ahead of him on the depth chart. Add in Lee undergoing surgery to repair the torn meniscus in his left knee in December, and this shortened season figured to be one of recovery and learning.
But Lee, a UCLA product who was drafted 43rd overall by the Bulls in June and traded to Minnesota on draft night, kept himself ready to perform throughout the process. During his rehab when he couldn’t run, he weight trained and studied the team’s system. When he was cleared to practiced, he consistently played one-on-one games with Derrick Williams to test his knee.
During his two stints with the Skyforce, Lee pushed himself to regain his conditioning. Admittedly tired in his first game with Sioux Falls, Lee ended up scoring 10.1 points per night while adding 5.9 assists and 4.1 rebounds in seven games with Sioux Falls.
And when all three Wolves’ point guards suffered injuries over the past four weeks, Lee used all of that preparation to step up. Heading into Saturday’s game at New Orleans, he’s averaging 17.0 minutes per game this month and is continuing to feel more and more comfortable on the floor.
“Just coming into the point guard spot—the point guard is the head of the snake,” Lee said. “So that’s probably the hardest position to come in for a rookie and take control.
“You’ve got to know everybody’s tendencies and what they do.”
Defensively, coach Rick Adelman said Lee is holding his own. Coming from Bruins coach Ben Howland’s program, Lee entered the NBA with the size (6-foot-5), athleticism and defensive mindset to succeed from the start. He’s challenging shots, making quick adjustments as opponents cut to the basket and has, on occasion, contributed to the box score on the defensive end. He had two blocks in five minutes in his first NBA regular season game (March 10 against New Orleans), and he collected a season-high two steals against Portland on April 1.
The next step in his development is on the offensive end, where controlling the game and knocking down shots are both necessary improvements. He’s averaging 5.0 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.7 assists per game in April.
Assistant coach Terry Porter said the play calling is all new to him this year.
“The more he gets out there, the more confidence he’ll get running the team,” Porter said. “When you’re that young, those are the same things I went through. Until you’re out on the floor, you start building your confidence. Saying you kind of belong. You can watch it, but until you get out there in the heat of the battle, that’s when you really get a chance to mature and grow and improve your game.”
Both Porter and Adelman said they see a bright future for Lee as a combo guard—a player who can not only play point guard but can also rotate to shooting guard due to his size and speed. He’s a player who can defensively match up against traditional shooting guards while also having the ability to handle the ball.
But for now, he’s being asked to play point guard to fill the depth chart. He’s had the opportunity to learn the position from Rubio, Ridnour and Barea, and he’s shown his teammates he’s willing to do whatever necessary to learn the position and contribute where he can.
“He’s doing everything right outside the court,” Barea said. “So inside the court (he needs to) just stay aggressive, run the team and I think he’s doing a good job of that.”
Ridnour said Lee’s time in the D-League was a crucial part in preparing him for his current role, although no one would have predicted such a drastic change in the team’s point guard depth chart availability.
“When he came in here he’s in shape and ready to go, and he’s got a lot of talent,” Ridnour said. “The more he gets on the court, the better he’s going to be.”
From what Lee’s shown over the past three months, it’s safe to say he’s prepared to take on whatever role he’s asked to moving forward. He’s proven he can adjust on the fly.
“I was ready,” Lee said. “Like I said, I’m always ready for challenges.”
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