When J.J. Barea and Ricky Rubio arrived at Mexico City Arena ahead of last December’s planned NBA Global Games matchup against the San Antonio Spurs, they were greeted by a throng of fellow Spanish-speaking, basketball-loving aficionados in los Estados Unidos Mexicanos’ capital city.
An offseason roster overhaul and a nasty injury, respectively, mean neither of them will be present when the Timberwolves "host" Houston on Wednesday night in the same venue. But even with all the changes Minnesota has undertaken the past calendar year, its roster remains an internationally laden one.
Which is why the NBA invited the Wolves back for try No. 2, with precautions taken this time to ensure all arena equipment works properly and a game actually takes place.
"For us, the Timberwolves are a great young team that has a great international roster," NBA vice president for Latin America Philippe Moggio told FOXSportsNorth.com. "Ricky Rubio, for sure, obviously has a great appeal in the market. They’ve been a great partner of ours, and we like working with them a lot. Having them here is really important for us to have in place a matchup that is going to be exciting and is going to resonate with our local audience."
With six international names on its roster, Minnesota is tied with Brooklyn for the second-most foreign-born players in the NBA. Unlike last year — when the game was canceled after a gone-bad generator caused the arena to fill with smoke — none of the active players use Spanish as their first language.
Rubio, of Spain, and his Puerto Rican former backup at point guard J.J. Barea both do, which allowed them to connect with the thousands of fans who converged upon Mexico City for last year’s contest. But the Wolves reached a buyout agreement with Barea before the season started, and Rubio is back in Minneapolis trying to nurse a severely sprained left ankle back to health.
So instead of cheering on players they can directly relate to in terms of language and history, the 22,000-plus fans expected to show up Wednesday night will get one of the inaugural looks at the NBA’s past two No. 1 overall draft picks.
Both of whom happen to be from the United States’ other bordering neighbor, this one to the north.
Canadian phenoms Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett are the newest non-domestic players to don Timberwolves black and slate blue. Key pieces in the Kevin Love trade this summer, they came to the Twin Cities while Russian guard Alexey Shved and Cameroonian power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute ended up in Philadelphia.
Wiggins has started all six of the Wolves’ games to date and is averaging 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per contest. Playing behind veteran Thaddeus Young, Bennett averages 6.2 points on 56.5 percent shooting and 2.4 boards in 12 minutes per game. He missed Saturday’s game in Miami but practiced Tuesday, a hopeful sign for his availability in Wednesday night’s 9 p.m. tilt.
Centers Nikola Pekovic (Montenegro), Gorgui Dieng (Senegal) and Ronny Turiaf (Martinique, an island territory of France) all made the trip last year. Dieng and Turiaf both know a little Spanish, but that’s it.
"I’ve been trying to learn" the language, forward Shabazz Muhammad said Tuesday after practice. "It still hasn’t clicked quite yet."
But there are other ways to engage. Dieng, Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Robbie Hummel, Glenn Robinson III and Chase Budinger participated with a handful of Rockets players in Tuesday’s Special Olympics Unified Basketball Clinic, interacting with young natives and giving them some hoops tips.
It’s all part of the NBA’s master plan to keep growing the game internationally, with Mexico serving as a primary target market. The league’s 2014-15 Global Games schedule featured five preseason games in four different countries and concludes Jan. 15 with the Knicks and Bucks squaring off in London. Since 1978, the NBA has played 152 games abroad while developing a talent pool the world over.
Former Wolves president of basketball operations David Kahn became engrossed with luring such athletes, which included drafting Rubio fifth overall in 2009. Current president and coach Flip Saunders says he could care less where a player is from, so long as he can play.
Saunders’ wagon is hitched to Rubio, though, after the 24-year-old signed a four-year, $55 million extension shortly before sustaining an injury that has him sidelined indefinitely.
It took some convincing to get Minnesota to return after last year’s debacle. But owner Glen Taylor, chairman of the NBA board of governors, recognizes the importance of expanding the league’s global footprint and the opportunities present when his own franchise is exposed to more audiences.
And having a handful of players from other countries only enhances that exposure.
"We’re excited to come here," Saunders said. "It’s a great opportunity for us and the brand of the NBA, to spread it into Mexico City. The people of Mexico are extremely excited about their basketball."