Timberwolves in Spain; FIBA Ball, Baby

After today, the pool play round of FIBA’s World Cup in Spain will come to a close. There were plenty of surprises throughout pool play, including some scares for the USA, but I’ve been keeping my eye on how the international Timberwolves prospects have been doing. Within that group are Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng and (still a Wolves) J.J. Barea.

One of those surprises that I’ve seen watching the worldwide tournament is the play of the three Wolves’ players. For instance, many might think Rubio would be tearing it up in his home country with his ‘mates. Instead, he doesn’t even start for a loaded Spain national roster.

So let’s run through these guys’ performances to date.

Ricky Rubio

With the Kevin Love trade over, Rubio emerges as the Wolves’ most polarizing figure. Although his production hasn’t quite lived up to the hype in the States quite yet, the pressure will be on Rubio’s shoulders to handle the duty of leading a cast of young guns while still developing in his own right. The best he can do that is by becoming the leader that Love never was, by taking charge when things get rough and encourage in the right moment.

Sadly, Rubio doesn’t get much of a chance to practice those characteristics in Spain, and never really has. With such a stacked roster of mainstays like the Gasol brothers, Rubio hasn’t started for Spain once. A backcourt with a rotation that includes Jose Calderon, Sergio Llull, Sergio Rodriguez and Juan Navarro can be a tough one to crack, and that’s the problem Rubio’s run in to.

It’s not like Rubio isn’t playing though. In fact, he’s averaging the third-most minutes in that backcourt stable and doing exactly what he does best when he’s out there: Creating shots for others and pestering ball-handlers on defense. Rubio’s only averaging 3.8 points per game, but that’s to be expected. He’s also posting 5.8 assists and five rebounds per game, as well as 2.5 steals per game.

Rubio isn’t struggling statistically other than his shooting and scoring numbers, and that’s always been the case. To be honest, this far into his career, it’s actually hard to believe it’s going to get much better. But as long as he can create a belief that he can score is all that matters. Against France, Rubio was really attacking the rim, which is exactly what he needs to do. He settled for way too many mid-range jumpers out of the pick and roll last season because the defense sagged off him on purpose. But if he can consistently attack the paint, it’s going to create more opportunities and free throw attempts.

In that regard, Rubio has been doing very well for himself and also gives Spain something unique in the backcourt coming off the bench. But his inability to score when needed will remain a hinderance to himself, Spain and the Wolves when he’s back here playing for Minnesota.

Gorgui Dieng

No one was more surprising on the Wolves roster than Dieng himself. Stepping in for an injured Nikola Pekovic towards the end of last season, Dieng made a spectacle, headlined by scoring outputs that no one could imagine and continuing what he knew best, rebounding and affecting inside shots.

Here’s the thing: It wasn’t a fluke, and Dieng seems to be the real deal. Playing with his native Senegal, Dieng has become the best center statistically during pool play. He’s averaging 18 points per game on 46-percent shooting. He’s at least taking a few threes, which is a good sign for his NBA mid-range game, and, my favorite part, is getting to the free throw line and knocking them down consistently (6.8 FTM – 8.8 FTA for 77.3-percent).

He’s become one of the most active big men in the paint, especially on defense, which is why he’s second in rebounds per game (11.4), tied for fifth in blocks (1.8) and two steals and assists per game.

Dieng has proven that he’s ready to make another step forward this year, which is a good problem for the Wolves to have. With two starting-caliber centers with very different skill sets, Flip will have the flexibility to throw out some very diverse lineups, potentially including one that has both Dieng and Pekovic on the floor together.

Dieng has become so much more than just a late-first round defensive stopper. He’s now developing an offensive game that’s more about grinding than the flash in the post. And that’s what has his stock soaring north.

J.J. Barea

The Timberwolves signed veteran Mo Williams less than a month ago to become a mentor to these young players, leaving Barea’s future in Minnesota in a flurry of snow drifts. It’s not like he should care much; he’s got an NBA Championship ring, a Victoria Secret model wife, and hails from the gorgeous vacation paradise of Puerto Rico. In fact, he might be the most enviable player off the entire Wolves roster.

The Wolves signing Williams wasn’t a surprise given Barea’s rough-go last year. It was his worst shooting year of his career, and he never seemed to be in control of his game all season long. Not to mention, he’s battled nagging injuries throughout his three years in Minnesota. The fit never worked, nor probably will it ever.

But I don’t think it’ll be easy to say goodbye to Barea — if that day even comes. Barea is leading Puerto Rico in nearly every offensive category, and is even second in points per game behind just Luis Scola with 22.5. He’s shooting an improbable 51.7-percent from three-point land on 7.3 attempts per game. No one would’ve guessed that he could average four rebounds and 3.8 assists per game either, even in international ball.

Barea’s always been a streaky guy. That was shown in yesterday’s match up with the Phillipines, where Barea went off for 10 points in the final four minutes to win the game. He finished with 30, leading all players. Barea can ball but he needs the ball to be successful. If you’re not willing to accept that or even have someone who you’d rather have in the game, you’re never going to see it. With the Wolves, playing Barea over Rubio in the fourth quarter seems ludicrous, but Rick Adelman had an idea of what he was doing because he knew the potential spark plug Barea could be down the stretch of games.

With this 2014-2015 team, though, Flip won’t be putting in Barea in the game during the final minutes of the fourth because he knows this team is looking to develop its young talent and not just win a couple close games. I’d prefer to see Barea on another team with a real chance at contending next year. Dallas knew what he had to offer, and I think another team will see that as well, especially after a strong FIBA World Cup. Hopefully he can become tradeable now because this “buy out” talk is just insane.

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