Wolves season preview: Veterans mentoring talented young pups in Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS — One of the most interesting roster experiments in the NBA is happening in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves have assembled a mentorship program of sorts for a promising young core of talent.
President of basketball operations Flip Saunders and general manager Milt Newton brought in three veterans over the age of 35 to show five pups under the age of 23 how to be pros.
After more than a decade of futility that has included four 60-loss seasons and no playoff appearances since 2004, the Timberwolves finally appear to be assembling the kind of team needed to one day drag them out of the abyss. So they’re leaving nothing to chance.
This summer they re-signed 39-year-old Kevin Garnett and added 39-year-old point guard Andre Miller and 35-year-old wing Tayshaun Prince to give them tutors at every level for a group that includes 20-year-old Andrew Wiggins, the reigning rookie of the year, 19-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 overall pick, and 20-year-old Zach LaVine, the slam dunk champion.
"They have been everything we hoped they would be," Newton said. "They have set the tone in practice and kept these young guys focused and really showed them what it takes to be a professional in this league."
Saunders, who is currently on leave from the team while battling Hodgkins lymphoma, got the idea after seeing the effect veteran Sam Mitchell had on a young Garnett when he first broke into the league in 1995. Now Mitchell is serving as the interim coach, and he has Garnett as a wing man of sorts to underscore the messages Mitchell delivers on the court.
"Not just the talent level, but the I.Q. of these guys, their love for basketball, their passion to be good and want to be good, I’m very, very impressed," Garnett said. "The work ethic of these guys is unspeakable, just to sit back and watch them work."
The three veterans will often chime in during practice and film sessions, offering tricks of the trade and little pointers to try to ease their transition to a league that can be so unforgiving to young players.
"A lot of teaching," 19-year-old point guard Tyus Jones said. "They’ve been here and done that. They’re winners in this league. To have them on the same team as us every day is a new opportunity to learn something."
Garnett, Miller and Prince all figure to play limited minutes during games, so it remains unclear how many wins the strategy will deliver in 2015-16. Coming off a season in which they won a league-worst 16, there is nowhere to go but up.
Here are some story lines to watch with the Timberwolves this season:
FLIP’S OUTLOOK: Saunders left the team in September after experiencing complications from his treatment, creating a gaping hole in an organization in which he served as head coach, president and minority owner. His family has kept details strictly private, but he remains hospitalized. His son, Ryan, an assistant coach, returned to practice on Friday after an extended absence to be by his father’s side.
RUBIO’S HEALTH: Point guard Ricky Rubio only played in 22 games last season because of a severely sprained ankle that required surgery in the offseason. The Wolves’ on-off splits are substantially better when Rubio plays, so keeping him healthy this season is paramount if they are going to have a chance to surprise. He missed the first four exhibition games while dealing with a strained quadriceps muscle.
MITCHELL’S CHANCE: Mitchell hasn’t been a head coach since 2008, when he was fired by the Toronto Raptors 17 games into his fifth season. Mitchell has long wanted to return to a head job, but the circumstances with which he is getting this opportunity make it bitter sweet. "We’re all concerned, but we all have a job to do also," Mitchell. "When you come in the gym, you have to focus on the job. That’s what Flip would want us to do."
ARNIE’S INFLUENCE: After being ravaged by injuries over the last few seasons, the Timberwolves lured renowned physical therapist and strength coach Arnie Kander out of retirement. Kander spent more than two decades with the Pistons and earned a reputation for being able to keep players healthy and help injured ones recuperate faster. He has his work cut out for him here with Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, who is trying to come back from chronic foot problems.
LAVINE’S JOB: Mitchell surprised some early in training camp by naming LaVine the starting shooting guard over 32-year-old veteran Kevin Martin, who made it clear on media day that he still sees himself as a starter. Mitchell said it was a move made with an eye toward the future, but Martin’s willingness to accept a bench role on a team not expected to make the playoffs will be worth monitoring.