With injured starters returning, Wolves rewinding to training camp mode

As Nikola Pekovic (left), Kevin Martin and Ricky Rubio (not pictured) return from injuries, Minnesota is resorting to scenes normally seen at training camp to allow the veterans to get their legs back.

Mark D. Smith/Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Nikola Pekovic staggered off the floor against the Thunder on Monday feeling like he had an anvil chained to each of his tree trunk-like legs. "Coach," the Montenegrin behemoth panted toward Timberwolves head man and president Flip Saunders, "I can’t score one-on-zero."

It was Pekovic’s fourth game in six nights following a 31-game absence with a banged-up wrist and re-aggravated ankle, and he was understandably gassed. Saunders responded with a wisecrack: "I just want you to score one-on-one. I don’t care."

Earlier Monday, assistant coach Ryan Saunders had Martin running the Chesapeake Energy Arena stairs. It wasn’t for punishment; merely conditioning as he neared his own reinsertion into the lineup.

"First time in my life and probably my last time," said Martin, who scored a game-high 21 points in Wednesday’s win against Boston, his first outing since fracturing his shooting wrist Nov. 19. "A workout like that will make you want to come back sooner."

Point guard Ricky Rubio, the final member of Minnesota’s three fallen musketeers, wrapped up the Wolves’ morning shootaround Wednesday by performing a reaction drill meant to test his change of direction on a sprained ankle that’s had him out since the season’s fifth contest — a prolonged span, especially considering Rubio himself had hoped to be back by Christmas. Standing in the middle of four cones, each with an indicator light on top, Rubio sprinted, backpedaled and side-stepped to each one when its light blinked on. Dozens of youth players waiting to play on the Target Center court looked on as the franchise cornerstone worked his way closer to coming back.

Saunders said it could happen by the end of next week.

If it weren’t for the games every other night and the word "January" showing up on the calendar, the scenes would resemble the preseason. The Wolves, Saunders said, have embraced that idea, hitting the rewind button — all the way back to October in Mankato.

"I said we’ve got another three weeks of training camp, because those guys coming back, it’s going to take them about three weeks to get all their sea legs back," Saunders said. "We’re going to find out with our pieces how they all fit together."

A reconstructive season that’s been all about developing young talent now shifts course slightly. The primary objective of bringing along rookie Andrew Wiggins, second-year mainstays Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad and the rest of the youngsters hasn’t changed, but its means is about to take its original form.

In Pictures: Ricky Rubio

Once Rubio returns and Martin and Pekovic regain their health, that is.

During Minnesota’s actual month of preseason preparation, there was a sense within the organization it could make a surprising run, even after starting over with Wiggins following Kevin Love’s forced departure. Martin compared the Wolves’ potential to last year’s Suns, who won 48 games and almost made the playoffs in the face of virtually no expectations.

"We was going to shock a lot of people," Martin said. "Even with K-Love’s departure, we felt like we were built to be how Phoenix was last year shocking people. Unfortunately, we didn’t get that chance at the beginning of the season."

That’s because Rubio rolled his ankle Nov. 7 at Orlando, spraining it and suffering an additional bone bruise and tissue damage. Martin cracked a bone in his wrist. Pekovic continued to deal with nagging injuries.

Muhammad’s been lost to an oblique strain for the time being. Robbie Hummel, too, after breaking his right ring finger.

The attrition and lengthy losing streaks have forced Minnesota (8-37) into full rebuild mode. Saunders traded away Corey Brewer and could make more moves before next month’s NBA trade deadline. There’s a revolving door to the 15th roster spot, currently occupied by guard Lorenzo Brown, who signed a 10-day contract Wednesday.

The idea coming in was to see how Wiggins, fellow rookie and Zach LaVine could adapt to the NBA among a group fraught with veterans. Instead, they’ve received a crash course in playing primary roles.

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Now, though, the Wolves can redirect toward the original idea — hence the comparison to training camp.

"We’re three players that know how to win in this league," Martin said Wednesday, referring to himself, Rubio and Pekovic. "I’m back tonight, and hopefully Ricky’s back soon so we can have a complete — well, close to complete — team that we had early in the season when things were going pretty good." Said Wiggins: "We’re good with those guys back. It opens up so much more. They’re vets. They’ve been in this game for a long time, so it makes things easier on all of us."

Wiggins’ role won’t change much. But having a full complement of guards will allow LaVine to play some more shooting guard, his natural position, instead of trying to change himself into a playmaker overnight. Having Martin spreads the floor, and Pekovic’s presence and scoring touch change the dynamics of what Minnesota can do in the post.

It doesn’t automatically equate to more victories, especially in the rugged Western Conference. But it does give Saunders, the front office and coaching staff a look at what a balanced active roster is capable of.

The first view came Wednesday. The Wolves will try to win consecutive games for the first time this season Friday in Philadelphia, then come back to Minneapolis for Love’s return Saturday.

What better barometer than the club’s estranged star and LeBron James (if he’s healthy) to reset against? "I know with everyone back, we’re going to be seeing a lot more of what we saw (Wednesday)," Wiggins said with a huge grin. "It gives me confidence. It gives the whole team confidence."

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