In order to properly start sharing thoughts about this off-season, I feel it essential to share some thoughts about events in recent Twolves past. Looking back at this last season, after the great triumph of landing the #1 overall pick and hitting a home run with it, nothing went as originally planned. Especially, the loss of Flip Saunders. He was the mastermind behind the present Wolves roster. With his loss, the Wolves were left without overarching vision.What-ifs are impractical, and they don’t help change anything about the present, but acknowledging the effect of tragedy, and acknowledging the positive and negative effects the past events may have on the present, is essential to growth life. This shouldn’t be any different for a fan base or organization, which are each a sort of life form of their own.
If there is anything that the past year of Timberwolves basketball showed me, was just how much of an impact one man can make on the people with in an industry and the industry itself, even one that can appear so shallow. The NBA is a place that’s all about shoe deals, flashing lights, multi-million dollar contracts, stars ranting about the worthlessness of practice and the desire of all to be champions. This is not a place where you expect touching tributes, or tears and grief to be present. Unless its about one’s own accomplishments or set backs. In my mind there is no questioning how much the passing of Flip Saunders effected the 2015-’16 season, above and beyond his leadership. We cannot forget that.
It’s absolutely amazing to think that KG, had known flip for more than half of his life. For much of that time of that he was mentored by Flip. Coming out of High School straight to the NBA would be nuts, but having a guy like Flip as your coach must have made it easier. This picture is iconic. Expresses deep grief and disbelief that his friend, mentor and coach had passed away
Zach LaVine’s Tribute:
Turning his #8 around to form an infinity symbol is pretty high level stuff from Zach. This shows class, thoughtfulness and relationship.
Andrew Wiggins’ Tribute:
Wiggins’ comments speak for themselves.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ Tribute:
These statements are more than publicity stunts. These statements are the honest tributes from men who had great respect for a man who made a big difference in their life. You never know how people respond to a death close to them. A lot of 19-20 year olds haven’t experienced much death in their life. This, y’all is a big deal.
While I find it easy to look back at what went wrong, the things that this team went through and worked through last year, have done a lot to build them into the team they are now. A team that was the most sought after coaching position in the league. Not only that, but they now appear to be the destination where many top NBA lotto picks want to land. Minnesota is becoming a desirable NBA destination? Yes please! So moving on from the tragedy of Flip, it’s time to look back at a few events this past season and ultimately how they point to great things in store for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
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First, I’ll start with reviewing:
Sam Mitchell’s Stint as Interim Head Coach
Stepping in after Flip Saunders passed away could not have been an easy thing to do, especially considering the relationship between Mitchell and Coach Saunders. He was tasked with leading a roster full of veteran players and youngsters that Saunders assembled. Saunders who was his boss, and before that his coach and more than all that his friend. To his credit, Mitchell jumped right in and drilled the team on where they faltered most the previous year: on the defensive side of the ball.
While Twolves nation has been quite vocal about the many ways they were dissatisfied with Sam Mitchell’s coaching, we never heard an ill word from the players. There’s one thing about Sam Mitchell that I consider irrevocable; He is real. What I mean by this is that his expectations of his players were clear. He expected hard work out of everyone and he was dead set on developing the young players. While many of us have some specifics that we wish would would have seen in the on the court development of Wiggins, LaVine and Towns, by season’s end, can anyone say they haven’t greatly improved? Those three joined Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Deing to form a solid starting unit for the Twolves that played very well at end of the year. So well that they took down the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors late in the season. Even while those teams were fighting for securing additional home games in the playoffs and history making winning percentages respectively.
Now I tend to be a bit of a pessimist in my own personal life, so in the things I enjoy I want to be an intentional optimist. So while it could be said that I would have liked to see the young talent in different places on the court, for instance more frequently shooting from behind the three point line, I’d like to give Sam Mitchell more than the tiniest amount of credit. Sam Mitchell was a work man and a professional as a player in the NBA, and I saw that same mentality in him as a coach. He is a passionate hard-working man and I believe that translated well to the players on this roster. I believe that they learned a lot about the NBA this year. I think Sam taught them something about team basketball. While he may not be a great strategist or instructional teacher, I believe Mitchell proved to be a great leader. I believe Coach Mitchell held them responsible for their professionalism, the quality of their play and level focus on the court. I believe that he made them better doing this, far more than he held them back by restricting them on the court.
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Moving on, I’ll looking back on individual players recent past, I’ll start were most would expect:
Karl-Anthony Towns Displays NBA Readiness + Potential
Karl-Anthony Towns basically aced is rookie year in the NBA. He’s a once in a generation talent. His unique combination of size and skills may not be rivaled in NBA history. There are many remarkable things to mention about KAT’s rookie year. I’ll hit on a few. First of all, he received plenty of national recognition for his successes. He was nominated All NBA third team by several national NBA media constituents. To have a rookie, especially a rookie on a team that didn’t make much of a splash on the national radar until those two notable post-All-Star break victories, should show the world just how good KAT was at the close of the season. While he didn’t win a spot on any All NBA team this year, his rookie season was not without accolade. He won the NBA skills competition showing off his remarkable guard skills, and unanimously was named Rookie of the Year.
But Twolves fans all know this. What’s even more remarkable is that even among past Rs.O.Y, KAT stands out. Just take a look at his shooting numbers next to some of the greatest rookies in recent memory: LeBron James and Anthony Davis (all stats via http://www.basketball-reference.com):
King James 2003-2004:
|Shot Distance||At Rim||284||470||.604||0||0||.604||139||.489|
|3 to <10 ft||89||250||.356||0||0||.356||30||.337|
|10 to <16 ft||75||240||.312||0||0||.312||29||.387|
|16 ft to <3-pt||111||315||.352||0||0||.352||49||.441|
|Shot Distance||At Rim||226||317||.713||0||0||.713||159||.704|
|3 to <10 ft||54||124||.435||0||0||.435||45||.833|
|10 to <16 ft||31||83||.373||0||0||.373||29||.935|
|16 ft to <3-pt||38||146||.260||0||0||.260||34||.895|
|Shot Distance||At Rim||276||394||.701||0||0||.701||156||.565|
|3 to <10 ft||113||243||.465||0||0||.465||73||.646|
|10 to <16 ft||43||105||.410||0||0||.410||32||.744|
|16 ft to <3-pt||163||322||.506||0||0||.506||136||.834|
The comparison is stunning. Towns shows remarkable efficiency even deep into the mid-range. To see a rookie center with only one year of college experience shoot the ball over 50% from 16ft to <3-pt line is ridiculous. This just isn’t something that happens. KAT out paced LBJ him by +.118 in eFG% and fellow Wildcat Anthony Davis by +.040. Also the number of shots KAT took this season proves his shooting isn’t an anomaly. By the end of the year, I felt every KAT jump shot was bound to go in.
Just to accent KAT’s offensive efficiency, I would like to compare his Rookie stats to a three great shooters.
Dirk Nowitsky 2004-2005:
|Shot Distance||At Rim||200||319||.627||0||0||.627||63||.315|
|3 to <10 ft||78||204||.382||0||0||.382||19||.244|
|10 to <16 ft||250||516||.484||0||0||.484||88||.352|
|16 ft to <3-pt||286||606||.472||0||0||.472||170||.594|
LaMarcus Aldridge 2014-2015:
|Shot Distance||At Rim||209||309||.676||0||0||.676||91||.435|
|3 to <10 ft||107||248||.431||0||0||.431||17||.159|
|10 to <16 ft||120||316||.380||0||0||.380||31||.258|
|16 ft to <3-pt||220||538||.409||0||0||.409||162||.736|
Steph Curry 2015-2016:
|Shot Distance||At Rim||275||404||.681||0||0||.681||108||.393|
|3 to <10 ft||65||154||.422||0||0||.422||18||.277|
|10 to <16 ft||42||91||.462||0||0||.462||10||.238|
|16 ft to <3-pt||75||168||.446||0||0||.446||26||.347|
Now these three are different players, but to have KAT appear even on any of their radars is remarkable. These are shooting statistics from two of the most versatile, highest-scoring big men ever in arguably their best offensive seasons as pros. And then of course, there’s Steph Curry, who’s shooting this year was, for lack the a better term, unbelievable. What’s shocking is how close KAT’s rookie percentages are to these studs best scoring seasons. Now the number of shots they took is totally different, but this gives us a bearing for how good KAT can be if/when he gets the opportunity.
Another way to review just how good KAT was in 2015-’16 is to look at a stat called Win Shares. KAT finished the year with a Win Share of 8.3. Below you will see the NBA league wide top 10:
|1.||Stephen Curry ▪ GSW||17.9|
|2.||Kevin Durant ▪ OKC||14.5|
|3.||Russell Westbrook ▪ OKC||14.0|
|4.||Kawhi Leonard ▪ SAS||13.7|
|5.||LeBron James ▪ CLE||13.6|
|6.||James Harden ▪ HOU||13.3|
|7.||Chris Paul ▪ LAC||12.7|
|8.||Kyle Lowry ▪ TOR||11.6|
|9.||DeAndre Jordan ▪ LAC||11.5|
|10.||Draymond Green ▪ GSW||11.1|
Now consider this:
The Win Shares stat boosts players like Steph Curry who score a lot on teams that win. Win Shares really doesn’t do very much to compare the defensive or intangible positives any one player brings to helping his team win. Essentially the cumulative Win Shares stat (a combination of Defensive and Offensive Win Shares) is still significantly skewed towards players who score. To me then this actually highlights the numbers posted by the likes of DeAndre Jordan, Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard, as they are defensive forces on really solid defensive teams and are still high on this list. If you look at, Defensive Win Shares, you will see that they don’t vary all that much between teammates. So Curry’s defensive acumen, according to that stat is rated similarly to Draymond’s. We all know Steph is not a defensive slouch, but Draymond is in a whole different stratosphere of defender. But now … back to KAT.
The point I hope to make is, while KAT’s 8.3 Win Shares number doesn’t crack the top 20 in the league, it’s still a really remarkable number. To illustrate this I placed Win Shares over Total Team Wins, creating a stat I’d call Win Share %:
Now this stat and list feels pretty manipulated, and it doesn’t include other good players on losing teams. Their numbers would rise just like those of KAT and Beard. Nonetheless, to see the young blood Karl-Anthony on the this list, around these names, especially only under James Harden on an offensively skewed stat, is pretty telling. I mean, we all know how KAT and Beard compare when it comes to defensive engagement, intensity and skills.
I’ll just leave this video below to illustrate KAT’s defensive abilities:
The potential is off the charts. I feel like one of the most fun things that came with watching KAT, was that he was making all of these remarkable plays and I never found it out of character. I was thinking “Wow, he’s really good,” but it was never really a surprise. He was raved about, but I still think he’s somehow underrated.
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Of course, off the charts potential is a pretty subjective rating, and while KAT showed a lot of it last season, the Twolves are loaded with potential at other spots too. One significantly under the radar happening this season was:
The Emergence of Gorgui Dieng
So now when I say emergence, it’s clear that I don’t mean he’s breaking into stardom. However, after KG left the starting line up with his nagging injuries, Gorgui stepped up to the plate. There was a long stretch of games were “G” was consistently making good plays, and coming out of them positive in +/- in the box score. Of course, that stat is not fool proof, but the development of Dieng moving from a big with loads of defensive potential, to turning into a big with that and an offensive skill set, is a pretty big deal. He showed this at the tail end of the season. “G”‘s ability to knock down jump shots and flat out score the rock was on display during last summers international play, and he showed some of that shot making and hoops skill down the stretch of the season. He even showed off some handle and ball control abilities.
One of my favorite things, is when players defy stereotypes. There are always generalizations being made about players. Tall lanky Africans are boxed in and labeled as defensive players. Opposing teams play by play guys scoff when Dieng made jump shots, or free throws. The same thing happens to guys like Al-Farouq Aminu, or on the other side of things, Chandler Parsons. Players appearance, instead of their actual skill, effect how they are used on the court. Gorgui is starting to blow up the box that people put him in. Anyway, without much spotlight, Gorgui is developing into a very solid NBA F/C on both sides of the court. Check out his shooting numbers for this year:
|Shot Distance||At Rim||159||224||.710||0||0||.710||111||.698|
|3 to <10 ft||45||114||.395||0||0||.395||30||.667|
|10 to <16 ft||42||91||.462||0||0||.462||31||.738|
|16 ft to <3-pt||56||129||.434||0||0||.434||43||.768|
While watching a basket ball game, one of my favorite thing to do is look at player interaction. It’s fun watching and listening for what players say to one another. One of my favorite occurrences in the 2015-16 season was listening to KAT and some other teammate yell, “Shooter!” … every time Gorgui made a shot. Not only does this suggest that “G”‘s offensive skills are respected by his teammates, but it reflects the level of fun that these guys were having at the end of the year. And everybody likes fun.
Going into the second half of the season, PF seemed to be one of the few major position of need for the Twolves. Now, with “G”s growth, KAT’s versatility, Nemanja Bjelica unique skill set, along with the potential stability of KG returning and playing in small doses, the PF depth chart look pretty solid, even before including any draft or free agent acquisitions. I think it’s easy to over look Gorgui Dieng. There a flashier names and more highlight worthy players who are both younger and appear to have higher ceilings than “G”. But I urge fans to not forget that G is entering his prime. Physically, he’s stronger than ever and as a 26 year old. He’s still relatively new to basketball, so I believe that Gorgui Dieng has another couple of steps that he can take in his game and basketball IQ.
Gorgui also seems content playing his role. He makes passes. He doesn’t demand a lot of touches. He’s a team player, and he’s learning how to get the job done. Dieng is a kind of player that teams need. He’s a guy that could be like Tristan Thompson. While their games and skill sets may differ some, I believe their mentalities are quite comparable. Thompson showed us just how much of an impact a great role player can have. Hopefully Gorgui can be that kind of “Role Star” in future Twolves championship runs.
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Turning back a gain to the type of players with highlight flash, and high potential, I’ll review how
Zach LaVine Settled in as a Scoring Guard
With Ricky Rubio’s injury in 2014-15′, and Sam Mitchell’s attempt to facilitate size mismatches in the first half of ’15-’16, Zach LaVine played a high percentage his NBA minutes at Point Guard. Many Wolves fans have been quite vocal about how Zach LaVine is NOT a point guard and that it was a complete waste for him to be there in the first place. I come from a different camp. Of course, by the title of the section of article, I agree Zach LaVine is not a pure point guard, and does not belong there for long stretches anytime soon. But what I am saying isn’t about position, but about role. But first, I want to go on a small but very encouraging tangent about Zach’s potential for development.
Zach shows remarkable restraint as a player. That might sound ridiculous. Let me explain my thoughts:
When Zach LaVine first entered the radar of most Twolves fans, it was when he appeared to be deeply frustrated after the Twolves drafted him. He mouthed something that painted a negative picture. It looked in the moment, that the Twolves had drafted a diva that would be pouting whenever things didn’t go his way. My reaction to this was only accentuated because throughout the whole draft process I had been pretty a vocal Zach LaVine supporter. I thought that his shooting and athleticism and ball skills gave him about as high of a ceiling as anyone in that 2014 draft class. Now Zach is starting to prove people wrong. He’s not a diva. He’s a team guy. He’s not just a dunker and his ego isn’t really an issue for him. I believe Zach is all about hard work and desire to win.
This was evident in the way that he jumped into learning the point guard position on a high level. Playing NBA point guard is not an easy thing to do. There are so many great point guards in the league right now, so to enter the league and a 19 year old combo guard and jump into the fray like he did, was impressive. Sure, Zach had his ups and downs as a PG. Mostly downs, sure, but he also learned a lot about when to pick up with pace and when to slow down the tempo. He made and effort to run the offense he was given keys two, and he played with restraint. That is to say, he proved to be coach-able, even to the detriment of his immediate performance and perception.
Now, Zach LaVine considers himself to be a guard and a scorer. He wouldn’t tell you he’s a pure shooting guard or a point guard. I think he’d tell you he’s a basketball player. All things considering, when Zach got on the wing, he played with freedom. He got out of his mind, and was able to apply some of what he learned in his NBA crash course in point-guardology. Zach has incredible basketball gifts. He’s got great athleticism, both vertically with his elevation, and on the floor with his quickness and flat out speed. He can catch and shoot, and he can shoot of the dribble. He even has some good instincts finding open teammates, especially when drawing defenders on a rack attack or fast break. The encouraging factor was seeing the game slow down for Zach. He shot the ball well and looked comfortable and fluid at the end of the year.
Look at some of the names he was listed with regarding his shooting after the all-star break.
That’s a pretty elite list of shooters. If Zach can duplicate or better that this next year the league better watch out. This level of shooting is rarely matched by a player with elite athleticism.
Zach also as received some flack for not being very great on the defensive end. I don’t buy that in the least bit. He’s got a lot of defensive tools. His athletic ability and length give him the tools to stay in front of just about anyone, and as he gets stronger (which apparently his father has been helping him with) he should become a plus rebounding guard. Zach also showed great hands, going in hard for the strip and frequently coming a way with the ball. This aggression is good. The understanding of when give a hard foul is good. From what I’ve seen from Zach is that he is coach-able and will improve on that side of the floor. Most of defense, is mentality and effort and if he continues to improve, we could be looking at a perennial All-Star talent.
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Speaking of future potential perennial All-Stars, it’s time to review the original chosen one to bring the Twolves to the NBA promise land. I find it remarkable to be saying this, but somehow I conclude that one of the greatest happening this past season was
Andrew Wiggins’ Under the Radar Subtle Offensive Growth
I believe, that of all of the players negatively effected by the passing of Flip Saunders, I think Andrew Wiggins is on the top of the list. Wiggins’ rookie season and introduction to the NBA was a wild ride. He was heavily touted all the way through high school and then heavily criticized after what some considered underwhelming productivity at the University of Kansas.
Once drafted by Cleveland rumors swirled about trades, with Wig finally landing in Minnesota. There Wiggins’ found some stability. Working with Flip, he gained his footing as an NBA player. To do this Coach Saunders gave him specific responsibilities and put him in the places where he a chance to succeed. He was responsible for defending the oppositions best guard or wing player, and was given the opportunity and was endorsed on offense to attack the defense. Flip put him in the high post and let him go to work. Think about that for a second. Putting Wiggins in the post gave him so many opportunities to grow as a player. First, he got to initiate contact with his deceptive strength, allowing him to feel that he could contend in a man’s league. Showing defenders that he’d be physical, results in fouls. If I push you, you push back. He practiced rising up and shooting over players in traffic, and when the help defender came he was put in a very natural position to have to find an open teammate.
In my mind this was the developmental genius of Flip Saunders. He gave Wiggins’ responsibility based on his ability. Wiggins’ athleticism and drive to win make “defensive stopper” a reasonable role to put him in. Especially on a team whose goal was development, he grew that season in competitive fire and it showed on the offensive side of the ball. As Wiggins’ rookie year progressed he became more and more aggressive, looking more like a NBA superstar and less like a talented but tentative teen age hooper. A lot of that growth can be attributed to Flip Saunders.
I really wish Timberwolves fans would have been able to see where Wiggins would be if Flip had been able to coach him another year. Instead he battled a bit this year. Sam Mitchell took some of that defensive enforcement off of Wig, by starting him at SG with Tayshawn Prince. Mitchell’s theory in doing this, was to allow Wiggins’ to focus more on offense, and to take advantage of his size against shooting guards who would have a hard time defending this length and athleticism. And while I’m not sure that I’d say this completely backfired, I doubt it’s effectiveness as proactive player development tool. I may be a strategy to put an 6’8″ athlete at SG to capitalize on his size, but it doesn’t help them grow as a player. Nevertheless, Wiggins still lead the team in scoring and played very well down the stretch of games.
The simple presence of Karl-Anthony Towns, shifted Andrew Wiggins out of the center of the spotlight for probably the first time in his life on the basketball court. The fact that Wiggins’ still grew through these changes, suggests to me that he’s just going to keep getting better. If Wiggins’ can regain the defensive focus from his rookie season, and continue to stay engaged one-hundred percent while on the court, he’ll be just about as productive as any wing player in the league.
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Shifting back to a more over all team view its fun to review the offensive improvement of the Twolves last year. There a pattern for some players showing…
Significant Shooting Improvements after the Turn of the Year
The Timberwolves did not have a great shooting year. But it appears we have some good reason to believe that better things are yet to come. Take a look at some of these shooting stats from some Twolves broken down month by month.
You can see here, that while Ricky started the year red hot with his stellar season opener in LA, his production fell in November and December. But then entering 2016, Rubio’s numbers turned around a bit. Especially his three point shooting. For most of the second half of the season Rubio was shooting better than ever. It’s never going to be his number one or two feature as a player, but this actually does show improvement.
To go right along with the previous section, this chart really shows Wiggins’ growth in offensive efficiency closing out the year. The upward trend of his eFG% is really cool to see and his three point shooting from February through the end of the year should cause the Western conference to tremble. Like Rubio, if Wiggins improves as a shooter from outside, he becomes more effective at what he is already remarkably great at. Defense closes out freeing more space to drive, finish, posterize and draw fouls.
Zach’s chart actually looks better than I expected. That’s surprising. Zach LaVine’s eFG% for all of 2016 is very solid. Something else of note here, is that it’s not only his three point shooting that improved but his shooting overall.
If these three players can continue to improve as shooters, the Twolves offense shouldn’t look like a dinosaur next year. With these guys joining KAT and Nemanja, and with adding some shooters in the draft or free agency, the Wolves will be able to surround Rubio with shooters, and spread the floor to make space for drives and slashes.
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Now, I move on to the greatest and most remarkable happening in recent Twolves past:
Glen Taylor Finally Going Big and Hiring Tom Thibodeau
Wally’s world hit on this perfectly in New Front Office, New Vision. Tom’s the new visionary. While I do find it comical that this hiring can still be somewhat tied to the Timberwolves Country Club, due to Thibodeau’s presence on the first ever Twolves coaching staff, I find myself stunned by the fact that Tom Thibodeau is actually the coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s is as big of a name as I would have ever expected possible. He’s as high caliber of a defensive coach that exists, and he’s had success putting players in places they can be most effective on the offensive side of the court. Thibodeau demands defensive integrity, effort and competition. He will not stand for players who fail to stay engaged while they are on the court. He will play whoever gets the job done.
Thibodeau is almost like a blending of Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell’s coaching style, with some modern basketball mixed in. Like Mitchell, he’ll give you an ear full if you are out of place. Like Flip, he will put people on the court where they are best able to succeed. And like the trend of today’s NBA, he has already stated how he needs this team to be better from behind the three point arc.
Now I’m starting to veer into looking forward, but I can’t help it. Think of what Coach Thibodeau did with Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson and imagine what could be possible in working with Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns, and Dieng. Will he run the offense through Towns and/or Dieng from the high post like he did with Noah? Can Thibodeau utilize Nemanja Bjelica like Nikola Mirotic?
These to me are the wrong questions. I do not believe this is the way that Tom Thibodeau operates on the offensive side of the ball. He puts players together who get the job done. Maybe that sounds to simple, but … it’s just not. Basketball is about buckets and there are a few offensive skills that a team needs to get buckets. In the modern NBA, you need players who can finish at the rim, cut through space, shoot from distance and move the ball. You need a player who can run your offense and get people easy looks. Thibodeau, isn’t afraid to let his defensive hustle minded Center be the teams primary distributor on offense. As long as his skill sets allow him to be effective in that way. But simply because he had success with Jimmy Butler doesn’t mean he’ll now be grooming Andrew Wiggins to be the next Jimmy Butler. Similarly, because he had success with Derrick Rose doesn’t mean that he’s bound to jettison Ricky Rubio because he’d rather work with a scoring point guard. Offensive basketball skills have no position. Basketball is a game based on a collective goal. There are many ways to do it. I feel really excited to watch Coach Thibodeau use the blend of skills that are present on this roster. I feel like we are really finally going to see a Minnesota basketball team play like a pack of Timberwolves; relentless and unified, swift and fast, each body playing it’s role in connection with the other.
This, my friends, could get very fun.
In typical long winded nature,