PRESCOTT VALLEY, ARIZ. – The Timberwolves invested millions in their very own G League team precisely for days such as Thursday.
That’s when little-played guard Marcus Georges-Hunt rose in San Francisco while his teammates slept, caught a commercial flight ahead of their charter to Phoenix and rode two hours through the desert mountains to play a game that night for the new Iowa Wolves against the Northern Arizona Suns.
In the NBA, the undrafted second-year prospect played 11 minutes in the first 11 games this season. On Thursday, he played 39½ minutes before about 1,000 fans at the Prescott Valley Events Center.
Georges-Hunt arrived two hours before the opening tip, greeted his new teammates — three he knows from Timberwolves training camp — and scored 34 points in a wild 141-140 loss. Then he rode back down the mountains in the dark and rejoined his team for Friday morning practice in Phoenix.
The evening allowed him to gauge what condition his conditioning is in, even if the 281 combined points weren’t exactly Timberwolves defensive-minded coach/President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau’s brand of basketball.
“He probably would have lost his mind,” Georges-Hunt said. “He definitely would have lost his mind, for sure.”
But the opportunity to play so many competitive minutes on a G League team that already includes Georges-Hunt’s training-camp teammates Melo Trimble, Amile Jefferson and Anthony Brown is what Thibodeau envisioned when he convinced owner Glen Taylor to buy and rebrand the Iowa Energy team in Des Moines.
“It just made a lot of sense,” Thibodeau said. “Marcus has worked hard on his conditioning, but there’s nothing like playing in a game. As much as you try to practice to a gamelike intensity, you can never get it.”
Thibodeau expects injured rookie Justin Patton to shuttle between leagues when he heals from July foot surgery. The Iowa Wolves’ eight-day Thanksgiving break presents time for Brown — a former Los Angeles Lakers draft pick signed to one of the NBA’s new two-way contracts — to return to the NBA.
“Any time you come down here, it’s important for me to keep myself engaged,” Brown said. “The ultimate goal is to be successful at the NBA level. If you’re not preparing yourself down here, you won’t be ready when you do get your chance up there.”
Their own new G League team allowed the Timberwolves to hire coaches and staff who installed Thibodeau’s systems. A forward on the inaugural Wolves expansion team long ago, Iowa coach Scott Roth keeps a board in his office that details the same terminology Thibodeau uses in the NBA.
Roth also installed a condensed version of Thibodeau’s playbook to simplify things for players as they come and go in a league that once was named after what it’s still all about: Development.
“You have to remain flexible,” Roth said. “Sometimes you maybe have to sacrifice even winning to make sure guys we’ve invested more time with are getting their minutes and getting what they’re supposed to get out of it. That’s the nature of this beast.”
Three decades ago, Roth played his way to a long NBA career as a player and coach through the Continental Basketball Association, a forerunner to the G League. He played for Bill Musselman on an Albany, N.Y., team that Roth calls one of the greatest minor league teams ever assembled. Something of a minor league historian himself, Thibodeau clicks off names from another time — Bill Laimbeer, Bruce Bowen, Sam Mitchell — who from the CBA forged successful NBA careers.
Now they are looking for the next ones from the newly renamed G League.
“I’m a product of this league,” said Roth, a longtime NBA assistant who coached a D League team a decade ago. “It’s one of the things I can sell to these guys. I did this as a player, I came back as a coach. They see me and know if they work, possibilities can open for them.”
From the 2013 NBA draft’s first overall pick to the D League, Europe and now back again, former Timberwolves forward Anthony Bennett is in the newly named G League, playing at age 24 to prove there’s still a place for him in the NBA.
The first Canadian drafted first overall when Cleveland did so, Bennett has played for the Cavaliers, Wolves, his hometown Raptors and Nets, and he also spent time with two D League teams in the past four years. He played in Istanbul last season and now is with Phoenix’s Northern Arizona G League team after the Suns signed him in September and waived him in October.
This time, Bennett hopes he and his situation both are different.
“I guess my focus is different,” he said after his team’s 141-140 victory over the Timberwolves’ Iowa team Thursday in Prescott Valley, Ariz. “I wouldn’t say this is my last chance, but, you know, I just have to prove to everybody that I can play.”
Longtime friend Andrew Wiggins became the second Canadian drafted first overall when the Cavs selected him in 2014. They played one season together in Minnesota after both were traded in an August 2014 deal for Kevin Love.
Last month, Wiggins signed a contract extension that could approach $150 million.
“He definitely got a big one,” Bennett said. “I’m happy for him. All the things he has been through in high school, college, he definitely deserves it.”
Bennett, meanwhile, is hoping his rebounding, defense and passing will bring him back to the NBA, both for himself and his adorable five-month-old son, Zayden.
“If I do that, everything will take care of itself,” Bennett said. “I’ve just got to go harder for him to make sure his life is straight, too.”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 8 p.m. at Utah
Wednesday: 7 p.m. vs. San Antonio
Friday: 7:30 p.m. at Dallas
All games on FSN
Player to watch: Ricky Rubio, Jazz
After starting the season where he left off late last year, the former Wolves point guard went 9-for-40 from the field — including 1-for-14 on three-pointers — during a four-game Jazz losing streak.
“We just outscore people a lot of the times. We don’t guard nobody. We’ve got to guard.”
Veteran guard Jimmy Butler, two days after the Wolves lost at Golden State 125-101.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Blog: startribune.com/wolves