Fair-ly optimistic: Wiggins, Bennett and Young embraced by Wolves fans
The new era of Timberwolves basketball was introduced to the masses on Tuesday at the Minnesota State Fair, as Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young had a long-awaited press conference.
The newest Timberwolves display their new jerseys on Tuesday at the Minnesota State Fair. From left to right, guard Andrew Wiggins, forward Anthony Bennett, forward Thaddeus Young and guard Zach LaVine display their Timberwolves fatigues.
Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports
By Phil ErvinFOX Sports North
FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. -- Andrew Wiggins spun 360 degrees in the air -- on a ride called the Tornado, his three sisters in the cart next to him. Anthony Bennett gnawed on a piece of fried alligator -- "tastes like chicken, just like they say," he chortled between mouthfuls. Thaddeus Young snapped a selfie with hundreds of fans cheering behind him -- "I've never been a part of something this big before," he said, smiling.
And thus, the new era of Timberwolves basketball was introduced to the masses, amid the fun and frivolity of the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
It began, though, at a baggage claim point at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on Monday. That's when Young, a seven-year NBA veteran who's spent his entire career in Philadelphia, first met his two fellow newcomers.
"We're here to work," he told Wiggins and Bennett, the NBA's past two No. 1 overall draft picks.
It's a charge that hasn't fully sunk in yet for 19-year-old Wiggins and 21-year-old Bennett, teammates once again after their days representing Canada at the international youth level and playing for the same AAU organization: carry an organization that just lost its star player past the crippling personnel decisions that have kept it out of 10 straight playoffs. There will be no replacing Kevin Love -- whom the Wolves sent to Cleveland in a three-team deal that nets them Wiggins, Bennett and Young -- but there will be a renewed sense of enthusiasm.
The way Young talked Tuesday, it's already here.
"Ten years has been too long," Young told the gathered throng of fans, media and team personnel at the Minnesota State Fair. "It's been way, way too long."
Indeed, it's a success-starved franchise that officially welcomed its trio of new athletes Tuesday. A failure to appease Love led him to force his way out, joining the ranks of departed stars Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury and Al Jefferson for a 25-year-old club that's made it past the first round of the playoffs just once.
Thanks to president of basketball operations Flip Saunders' shrewdness, Minnesota gained a pair of potential superstars and a bona fide starting power forward in return. And thanks to the same man's preferred coaching philosophy, the three will be asked to, alongside point guard Ricky Rubio and 13th overall draft pick Zach LaVine, usher in a new culture of track-meet offense and feisty defense.
"We've got a lot freaks on this team," Wiggins said, not breaking the ear-to-ear grin he carried around the entire 20 minutes he and his new teammates took questions from reporters Tuesday.
Regarded as one of the best NBA prospects since LeBron James, Wiggins is no stranger to expected stardom. By the time he got to Kansas, his status as the land's top-rated prep recruit had already exposed him to the attention and expectations that come with inflated hype.
And after an offseason of rumors surrounding his name as the trade -- delayed, per NBA rules, 30 days after he signed his rookie contract for four years and $24.7 million with a fifth qualifying-offer year worth $9.8 million -- materialized, there will be no cowering from the 6-foot-8, 200-pound swingman with a 7-foot wingspan.
"Being ranked No. 1 out of high school, that prepared me a lot," said Wiggins, who averaged 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in his one season as a Jayhawk. "And then (being recruited by) schools like Kansas, (Kentucky), North Carolina, Duke, all those big schools treat basketball players like rock stars. That really prepared me for the spotlight."
Young comes in on the opposite end of the spectrum, entering his eighth NBA season after a 76ers tanking campaign he called the most frustrating of his career. But there's more on Young's plate than a fresh start with an organization looking to rise sooner rather than later.
On a roster with as many as three rookies, four second-year players and an average age of 25 1/2, he'll be looked to as a locker-room voice and mentoring presence for young bigs Bennett and Gorgui Dieng.
And Young himself is only 26.
"I don't feel like I'm one of those grizzled, old veterans; I still feel like I'm fresh," said Young, who scored a career-high 17.9 points per game last season. "It's a great thing for some of the young guys, it's a great thing for me. I can step into a situation where I already kind of know some of the concepts, and I can help some of the young guys get better."
For Young, 2014-15 is also an audition of sorts. He can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
And then there's Bennett, who has plenty to prove after a rookie season that fell woefully short of expectations. Appearing in just 52 games while dealing with disease and injury, the 6-8, 245-pound UNLV product averaged just 4.2 points, three rebounds and 12.8 minutes per game last season.
This offseason, he had his tonsils and adenoids removed to take care of sleep apnea-related issues. He's also fully recovered from a patellar tendon strain he suffered in March, he said.
"I can play," Bennett said. "Last year, I never really got a chance to showcase that."
This is the core that -- alongside Rubio, Dieng, Nikola Pekovic and whatever auxiliary pieces Saunders deploys -- will attempt to replicate the success Saunders had in eight playoff seasons with Garnett in the fold. Unlike Young, Wiggins and Bennett come with locked-in rookie scale contracts that keep them here through at least 2017-18 and 2016-17, respectively.
After that, it'll be up to Saunders and owner Glen Taylor to convince them the Twin Cities are worth staying in -- a task that's proven too tall often during the franchise's 25 years of existence.
"I think part of it will be that they themselves will have to learn to play with each other and complement each other," Taylor said. "I think it'll sort of take care of itself over time."
"(Their contracts expiring) may be a problem three years from now, and I'll grant that. But I think I can pay a pretty high salary to three guys."