A year ago James Nunnally was fresh of a season filled with titles but oodles of questions. Delivering the necessary answers set him up for a jump to the NBA and a chance to be a useful piece for the Minnesota Timberwolves, writes Emmet Ryan
The natural narrative around the T-Wolves this off-season was how the moves they made led to a side that looked awfully familiar to the 2011 Bulls but one international arrival could be a useful piece as they look to make the playoffs for a second straight season.
James Nunnally took the merry route around Europe before earning his chance to come back to the NBA. Trips to Estudiantes, great for hipster cred, in Spain and Ashdod in Israel preceded the launchpad switch to Avellino in Italy. It was the rocket up his ass but one that brought with it complications down the line.
What you need to understand about Serie A is that it’s great but it’s loaded with issues. There’s tremendous fan culture in Italy only topped by a history of financial ineptitude across sports. As my buddy Sam Meyerkopf says, Serie A doesn’t have financial issues so much as it doesn’t have finances.
Coming into Serie A, Nunnally was going in with a blank slate. Fail, and he’d be gone quickly in a no harm no foul situation although he’d probably have fair complaints. Succeed, and he’d be trusted to do any and everything and to keep on doing it. Nunnally comprehensively did the latter, picking up the season MVP award and becoming one of the sought after bodies in the summer of 2016.
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The prime spot for that season wanted him. It made too much sense not to jump at the opportunity. Fenerbahce had just lost an all-time classic title game in Euroleague and claimed the Turkish championship. Nunnally was seen as one of the pieces they needed to go from being just a little shy of the title to being the force to be reckoned with in Europe. By the end of the year, it’d be a move that made sense for both parties but, to borrow some corporate speak, there were a lot of learnings along the way.
Nunnally came in having been used to be the guy. Had Fenerbahce been healthy through the guts of the first two thirds of the season, getting him re-familiarised with being part of a stronger unit might have gone easier. He was, after all, joining Bobby Dixon in the back court who had just gone through the same switch a season prior and was comfortably the right kind of player mentally to help.
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Unfortunately, even Dixon wasn’t going to be able to account for the up and down nature of Fener’s roster health as Nunnally was caught between being a primary 2, a primary 3, and a true swingman. He’d have likely been fine with focusing on one and adapting to the others but shuffling between all three while having to re-learn the type of role he had clearly took its toll.
As Fener’s line-up became more consistent, so too did Nunnally’s play. A couple of championships, a first Euroleague for Fener and retaining the Turkish title, certainly helped but the bigger factor for Nunnally was that he’d finally found a rhythm from which he could grow his role and oh how he did.
Fenerbahce recorded another victory in the Turkish championship and made it all the way back to the Euroleague title game before falling to Madrid, while Nunnally found his groove nicely. He essentially became the luxury 3 and D player of 3 and D guys, because he certainly did more but when you are contributing 55.4 per cent from deep over the season in Euroleague and it never looks aberrant you know you’ve got something good here.
The fantastic shooting came from Nunnally’s improved knowledge not just of what he was doing for the side but what those around him could and would do. The IQ aspect just rocketed on the back on improved comfort in what he was doing. That’s why the timing of his move back to the NBA looks so intriguing.
The Timberwolves have certainly made some rather, umm, well awful roster moves but the core is still loaded with some simply extraordinary young talent in Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins while Jimmy Butler is still going to be under 30 after this season. Those are the type of core talents, all questions about the role of Wiggins taken as read, you look to put players who can adapt around.
Nunnally has been an all or irrelevant guy for most of his career. In his D-League stints, he was the guy. Upon getting a NBA call-up, he’d barely see the floor if he was lucky and be gone. It took the European excursion for him to find himself as a more rounded basketball player because it was where he first really got the opportunity.
Nunnally was thrown in as the guy quickly before finally getting to work with Zeljko Obradovic and learn to modify his game around players with the games needed to allow him to think more on the floor.
The cup of coffee Nunnally previously spent in the NBA should be forgotten. It’s what he has managed in the last 18 months that should make him a most interesting option for Minnesota this coming season.
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