MINNEAPOLIS — It’s been a while since there was a standing ovation inside the Target Center as players in Timberwolves jerseys walked off the floor.
But an opportunistic bunch of young reserves and fringe NBA hopefuls gave approximately 6,000 fans reason to stand, clap and cheer Wednesday night.
The Wolves’ high-tempo, dunk-infested, free-to-the-public Las Vegas Summer League dress rehearsal wasn’t about numbers. Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine, Minnesota’s top picks in the past two drafts, scored 19 and 16 points, but that was against defenses featuring players who won’t sniff the NBA this season.
It wasn’t as much about evaluation, either. While there’s some solid film to be gleaned from almost three quarters of full-go, scrimmage action, coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders turned his group loose a little bit during its fourth practice since Tuesday morning.
No, once a half dozen thousand or so folks streamed in from First Avenue, this became about re-engaging part of a fan base that’s endured 10 straight playoff-bereft seasons and could be on the cusp of saying goodbye to All-Star Kevin Love.
"That’s the first thing," Saunders said. "More of a surprise than anything was the fans. . . . I don’t know how many standing ovations we had last year at times."
Even during another offseason of uncertainty, folks still care — at least enough to come see what LaVine and fellow 2013 draft pick Glenn Robinson III are all about. To see how Muhammad’s come along heading into Year 2 of his career. To see if Alexey Shved’s improved any entering the final year of his rookie contract.
"I looked in the crowd and said ‘Oh, wait a minute,’" LaVine said, grinning. "’That’s a lot of people.’"
Said Muhammad: "I didn’t expect that many fans to come out. . . . That’s definitely big-time. I was definitely impressed seeing that crowd. I looked on the right side, looked on the left side and (saw) that it was pretty packed."
The pair of UCLA grads helmed six-man squads divided evenly along talent lines. The score was tied at 71 when Saunders blew his whistle with 38.2 seconds left in the third quarter and gathered his players at the baseline under the Lynx Party Zone (in place this summer while the Twin Cities’ WNBA team holds court).
Three-man weaves, each concluding with an attempt at a dunk meant to wow the crowd. LaVine did, soaring high enough on several occasions to place a quarter on top of the backboard. One of his slams came off a backboard toss from Muhammad.
Afterward, LaVine signed both of his shoes and tossed them in the crowd.
"It was a lot of fun to go out there for the first time," said LaVine, who also wrote his name on an NBA contract Tuesday. "It was pretty much like a practice for us, but it got a little more amped up the more people got into it."
Then came a standing ovation and a player autograph session. People therein were excited, Muhammad said.
It was just one night as the Wolves’ youngsters and bodies brought in to fill out the roster prepare for two weeks of summer tune-ups in Las Vegas. The numbers mean next to nothing. The eye tests mean little more, as the competition and setting are nowhere near NBA game standards.
But it was one of the first of many opportunities for Saunders and Co. to get in front of its primary audience and give them something to applaud. Even if it was mostly a series of high-flying jams.
"We have a very, very good, great fan base," said Saunders, who walked off the court to calls of "Welcome back, Flip!" afterward. "Maybe it’s not as big as we’d like, but it’s up to us to build that up by coming in, playing entertaining, winning basketball."
Big Fes: While waiting for his 2014 work visa in January, well-traveled big man Kyrylo Fesenko ran into Saunders during one of the coach’s trips to his hometown of Cleveland.
Then playing for the Canton Charge of the NBA Developmental League, "Big Fes" worked out for Saunders at a local health club.
"(He) killed me in about 40 minutes," said Fesenko, a Ukraine native who once played 132 NBA games in four seasons with the Utah Jazz. "That’s when I realized conditioning is the must-have thing if I want to be on the roster here."
The Wolves are set at center. But Fesenko did do enough to earn his way onto the team’s summer-league squad — perhaps the first step at landing with another NBA franchise after spending last year in the D-League.
Wednesday night, he showed why.
The 7-foot-1, 280-pound behemoth scored a scrimmage-high 21 points, punishing 6-8 Michigan product Jordan Morgan in the post and keeping the paint mostly clear defensively.
He didn’t have to contend with Gorgui Dieng, though, the only other true center on the summer league roster. But the ever-efficacious Fesenko thought he had a good showing. He even threw down a curtain-call, windmill dunk after unsuccessfully trying it during the weave lines.
"I was surprised why G didn’t show up," said Fesenko, who also was happy to share, unprovoked, with a group of reporters he’d never met he got married a month ago. "It was a little easier, but I still feel like I did a tremendous job."
Unfortunately for those who’d enjoy another charismatic, friendly five man to back up Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota has Dieng and Ronny Turiaf to fill that role this season. Still, Saunders lauded Fesenko for his skills — and conditioning — during a pair of two-a-day workouts Tuesday and Wednesday in preparation for summer league.
"To go through the practices and even just survive them, that’s No. 1," said Saunders. "He’s got great hands, can really score around the basket."
Other notes: Shved didn’t look much different than the frenzied, out-of-control guard he was last season, missing several open shots and scoring 12 points. Last season, his second in the league, Shved averaged 10.5 minutes, four points, 1.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game. . . . Dieng didn’t participate in Wednesday’s scrimmage due to a minor illness . . . Robinson showed off some of his own athleticism in the dunking line and scored 10 points. . . . The Wolves will practice one more time Thursday afternoon and fly to Las Vegas on Friday. Their first summer-league contest is Saturday against Dallas.