If you’re lucky, you might get to be one of fewer than 200 people who get to watch primetime basketball alongside Kevin Garnett.
The Minnesota Timberwolves superstar showed up June 29, as a spectator to watch teammates Trenton Hassell and Ndudi Ebi battle it out in the Howard Pulley Summer League in the St. Paul Salvation Army gym.
While the league features NBA players such as Hassell and Ebi and plays by NBA rules, its biggest draw is among college players, bringing out some of the game’s best young talent with Twin Cities ties.
The pro-am league, which started in 1985, has most notably served as a venue for current Gophers men’s basketball players to sharpen their skills in a competitive, yet low-pressure, setting.
“It’s not so much about the pressure; it’s about playing other people,” Gophers guard Adam Boone said. “We play on campus three times a week against ourselves, but when you’ve got different competition, a couple pros and some European guys, it’s a different type of atmosphere and it’s good for the summertime.”
Boone was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility for next season. He had to sit a year because of NCAA transfer rules after coming to Minnesota from North Carolina and sat out last year with a torn biceps tendon in his right arm.
Though he’s past rehab, the Pulley league is Boone’s last chance to get in shape before the start of his final year with the Gophers.
Boone said playing with Vincent Grier and against other Gophers is getting him anxious to play with them for real and he feels he’s ready.
“It’s difficult to gauge yourself when you’re playing against your teammates every day,” Boone said. “But to get out there and play against some other guys, it really shows me that I’m ready to go.”
Boone and Grier both scored 25 points Thursday in Orenstein/Rose’s win over Compass Financial.
Grier scored 12 points in the fourth quarter alone and excited the crowd with several dazzling plays – including an alley-oop on a pass from Boone.
Grier said the Gophers have “some of the best freshmen in the nation” coming to the team this season in Damian Johnson and Brandon Smith, who played for Sabes/Petters in the late game Thursday.
Both struggled most of the game, especially Johnson, who finished with 10 points but looked confused much of the game, shooting an airball and missing several free throws.
“I have good nights,” Johnson said. “Tonight I really didn’t have a good night because I was a little tired from the workout I had today and all. But I think I’m progressing as I go.”
Johnson said the biggest thing he’s seeking to improve upon in the Pulley league is his footspeed, so he can guard the Big Ten’s quick guards such as Michigan State’s Shannon Brown and Illinois’ Dee Brown. Smith, who had seven points, said he’s working on his outside shooting.
Aside from Grier and Boone’s domination in the first game Thursday, the most impressive Gophers player was redshirt freshman Jonathan Williams, despite his struggles shooting.
Williams had five blocks, but the amount of authority he used punctuated them even more. Four of his thundering stuffs went into the bleachers.
So whether they’re going into their sixth year or first year, the Pulley league is serving several Gophers with everything they need to get better for next year – an opportunity.
“During the summer, we ain’t got nothing better to do than work on our game,” Grier said. “You just got to get the timing down and continue to keep playing in the summer, so when the season comes you’re straight out of the summer rolling into the season.”