Timberwolves’ Matteo Spagnolo knows he’s a work in progress, but is reveling in his NBA crash course
A second-round pick in last month’s NBA Draft, the Italian point guard is getting a three-week crash course in NBA basketball at Summer League before heading back to Italy.
LAS VEGAS — The shear volume of new experiences Matteo Spagnolo is enduring at the moment would overwhelm just about anyone let alone a baby-faced 19-year-old.
Emphasis on the baby face.
“He looks like a baby,” Minnesota Timberwolves Summer League coach Kevin Burleson joked. “Like a young kid.”
But he sure doesn’t act like one.
The Italian point guard is in a different country learning what’s effectively a different game here in America. A second-round pick in last month’s NBA Draft, Spagnolo is getting a three-week crash course in NBA basketball at Summer League before heading back to Italy, where he’ll continue to play until he and the Timberwolves decide the point guard is ready to make the full-time leap into the League.
And the guard is reveling in all of it.
“This is probably the best experience of my life,” Spagnolo said as he marveled at the full-blown spectacle that NBA Summer League has become, smack dab in the middle of a city that’s a spectacle unto itself. “Everything almost looks fake. It doesn’t look real. So I’m incredibly happy. The feeling of stepping on the court (for his Summer League debut on Friday) was one of the best feelings of my life. Ten years ago, I would never think I would be here. So right now, I’m just enjoying it, trying to get the most out of it.”
The latter means absorbing as much about the NBA game through the close approximation of the game that is Summer League. Spagnolo has played professional basketball since 2017 — early in his teenage years — but there are many differences between the European game and the NBA, where the pace, space, athleticism, reliance on 3-point shooting and volume of individual creation all ramp up.
“It’s a different type of game if I compare it to the European (game), but I’m having a lot of fun. I’m adjusting to this game. But it’s fun,” said Spagnolo, who is fluent in English. “It’s a learning process and I’m learning every day, new things, how to play, how the Timberwolves play.”
You can see the differences between leagues on television, but you can’t simulate the speed, style and athleticism of the NBA until you experience it, Burleson noted. There is a legitimate adaptation process that needs to take place.
Minnesota is intentionally putting Spagnolo in different situations to see how he reacts to both evaluate and teach the young guard. That’s included a quickly expanding role within the Summer League team. In his debut, Spagnolo played 16 minutes off the bench and took just two shots.
In Sunday’s loss to Memphis, Spagnolo started, played 22 minutes and attempted 10 shots, including seven in the final period. There were certainly struggles — his jump shot is a work in progress — but that’s to be expected. It’s what this time is for.
Spagnolo already has identified areas in which he must grow his game — easily identifiable deficiencies that have displayed why Spagnolo isn’t quite ready to contribute at the highest level yet.
“That’s also why I’m here, because I wanted to see how the game is here and what I have to improve on the most,” he said. “You can improve on everything, but this game is based on transition, athleticism, shooting threes, so these are the most important things that I should work on.”
It’s an incredibly mature perspective for a young player getting a taste of a brand-new environment. Spagnolo’s demeanor is what Burleson likes most about the young guard.
“You can see nothing really bothers him. He doesn’t get too high or too low. That’s something you need, especially in a combo guard position,” Burleson said. “I was talking to him a little bit (Saturday) in the hotel and I was like, ‘This kid has a good head on his shoulders.’ Real respectful, real chill, just a good head, so I think he’s going to be good.”
There have been on-court reasons for optimism, as well. While Spagnolo isn’t accustomed to the on-ball pressure American defenses implement in half-court sets — which he’ll need to adapt to in order to run an NBA team — Burleson still has been impressed with the guard’s playmaking.
“When we move the ball, he has a good understanding of the offense,” Burleson said. “So he’s able to manipulate it and get guys the ball, so I like that kind of feel he has.”
There was even a taste of potential flash in the open floor Sunday, as well, when Spagnolo dropped a beautiful no-look outlet pass in transition. It’s easy to see why the Timberwolves were intrigued enough to take a chance on the 6-foot-4 guard. He has potential. Burleson noted it’s on the Timberwolves to put the proper plan together to help him realize it.
This month is a major step in that process.
“Obviously this is all new for him,” Burleson said. “But what he’s going to take (with him) when he gets back (to Italy), he’s going to be working on things that he knows he has to improve on to play at this level.”
Spagnolo is confident he’ll get there.
“As (with) everything, you have to learn, and it needs a little time and focus, but it comes,” Spagnolo said. “And when it comes, it will a great opportunity.”
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