As healthy vets return, role of Wolves young players to change

Timberwolves rookie guard Zach LaVine and second-year center Gorgui Dieng figure to receive less playing time as Minnesota gets some of its veteran players back from injury.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Zach LaVine, in case it requires reminding, is 19 years old.

He can’t go out with most of his Timberwolves teammates on the road because he can’t get into bars. He’s only been eligible to vote in one presidential election so far. He’s got one year of college under his belt. Two years ago, he was playing high school basketball.

Naivety often accompanies youth and inexperience. Not in this particular case, though.

There’s recognition on LaVine’s part that as soon as Ricky Rubio returns from his ankle injury, it’ll be back to the backseat. Heck, half of LaVine never expected to be in this position in the first place — starting NBA games just a few months after being drafted 13th overall out of UCLA.

"It’s going to change," LaVine said Friday morning ahead of Minnesota’s matchup with New Orleans. "Dudes (are) going to get minutes, some people get reduced minutes. I know I’m a rookie. I know I’m going to have to deal with being put in different situations like I have already. So I’ll just go at it the best I can."

The winds of change are softly whispering throughout the Target Center. With center Nikola Pekovic back and Rubio and Kevin Martin supposedly near their own returns, decreased roles are expected for some of the youngsters that have worked in the starters’ stead.

"Probably their game is going to change a little bit," said Pekovic, who missed 31 games with ankle and wrist issues but returned Wednesday against Dallas and is active again for Friday night’s contest between the Wolves (7-34) and Pelicans (21-21). "It’s probably going to be a little different for everybody. It’s going to be also a process, you know, because everybody didn’t play a long time."

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For LaVine, a fully healthy roster means moving into the third tier at both guard spots. He’s averaged 24.4 minutes per game and started 21 games since Rubio was hurt Nov. 7.

But he’s currently coming off the bench behind Mo Williams. And once Kevin Martin (fractured wrist) and Shabazz Muhammad (outer oblique strain) come back, there won’t be much room for LaVine at the two-guard spot, either.

Martin isn’t playing Friday night. Neither is Rubio.

Second-year center Gorgui Dieng actually welcomes the change. Pekovic playing — currently, coming off the bench — allows Dieng to exert himself full-force without fear of drawing too many fouls or losing his wind, a risk the Wolves have run for much of the season with Dieng as their only available center.

"Absolutely, it’s good to have Pek back," said Dieng, the NBA’s No. 8 shot blocker and No. 20 rebounder. "I know I’m not going to play 40 minutes a game. When I get out there, I just give it everything I have."

Two-time Western Conference rookie of the month Andrew Wiggins will continue to play big minutes as Minnesota’s starting small forward. Power forward Anthony Bennett’s role isn’t set to change much as long as starter Thaddeus Young stays healthy.

Muhammad, meanwhile, can slide into a sixth man’s role once he returns. He’s been out since Jan. 10 and is scheduled to be reevaluated in the next few days.

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Big-picture, the Wolves almost did it backwards. The plan for this young, restructured club was to blend in the young guys behind veterans and ease them along gradually. Now, they all have ample experience they can take into the classroom that is an NBA bench.

It doesn’t change everything, though.

"I’m going to still approach the game the same way, still be as aggressive and assertive as I’ve been," Wiggins said. "With K-Mart on the floor and Pek and Ricky, it’ll take a lot of pressure off me and anyone else playing. They can do lots to open up shots for me and make the team better."

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