MANKATO – The Timberwolves broke training camp late Sunday afternoon after completing their sixth day of practice at Minnesota State Mankato and returned home to prepare for Tuesday’s preseason opener at Indiana.
They did so relatively healthy, except for veteran Kevin Martin’s groin injury that will sideline him at least until Thursday.
They did so also knowing more about themselves than they did when they arrived with a remade roster for late Monday night’s “Dunks After Dark” production. Here are five things that their seven days in Mankato suggest:
1. Don’t believe the rookie fallacy: Due probably to the Kevin Love trade that brought back the NBA draft’s last two No. 1 overall picks, there this national-media narrative out that the Wolves are starting all over again with a bunch of rookies.
The core of this team still will be veterans such as Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger, newly acquired Thad Young and Mo Williams as well as improving second-year center Gorgui Dieng.
Saunders will blend into that group Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett — the aforementioned No. 1 overall picks — as well as rookie Zach LaVine and second-year forward Shabazz Muhammad.
Saunders praised Wiggins for getting better each day and called Sunday’s practice “by far his best day overall” because of his offensive improvement.
Bennett impressed at camp with his shooting range and activity under the basket. Muhammad made a statement with his newly sculpted body and improved conditioning.
“There’s a misconception nationally, they think we’re really a super, super, super young team,” Saunders said. “But we’ve got veteran guys who have played in the playoffs, who have won championships, have been All-Stars, and everything else. Let people think we’re young. Like I told our players, that’s OK.”
2. Kevin Love is gone to Cleveland, but Saunders has a strategy: Love’s absence removes a superlative three-pointer shooter from a team that has struggled in that area in recent years. It also could create less space for Pekovic and Dieng — who each flourished at times last season because Love’s shooting threat spread defenses so wide — to work inside.
Saunders’ “multi-action” offensive sets displayed in Mankato place Pekovic or Dieng underneath the basket and spread the other four players out near the three-point line.
“We’ll have more space, be more stretched out than last year with the corner offense,” Saunders said, referring to former coach Rick Adelman’s famed offense. “The big thing is you’ve got to be able to make shots, whether it’s three-pointers or 18-footers. If you can make 18-footers, they have to guard you to 18 feet.”
Whether this team has enough shooters remains to be seen, but Saunders said he believes his offense will create better shots.
“We’re making sure we’re getting good shots,” he said.
3. Don’t dismiss J.J. Barea just yet: The July signing of Mo Williams suggested he would replace Barea as backup point guard. But before you guarantee Barea — who was on Dallas' NBA championship team in 2011 — will be traded, waived or bought out...
Well, he went and delivered what Saunders, seemingly without ulterior motives, called one of the best camps of anybody. He just might be been the best point guard all week.
“Like I’ve said, the players will make it difficult for me on who plays,” Saunders said. “Hopefully they’ll buy into it that one game they might play 10 minutes, the next they might play 30 minutes.”
Saunders said the considerable size of Rubio and LaVine at their position allows him to mix and match and play varying combinations of his four point-guard candidates together. He placed the ball in LaVine’s hands plenty during camp, often teamed with Williams playing off the ball while Barea efficiently ran the offense on another scrimmage squad. Barea’s teams won often.
“Proving myself, that’s how I made it to this league,” said Barea, who came to camp from a FIBA World Cup appearance with Puerto Rico. “That’s always how it has been throughout my career and now I have to prove myself again.”
4. Budinger appears healthy: If the Wolves’ week in Mankato is an accurate indication, he’s back after two seasons basically lost to knee injuries.
Saunders called him one of the best players all week in camp, handed him literally a key to success for his exemplary play on Thursday and played him everywhere from shooting guard to power forward.
Budinger hasn’t played that “stretch 4” spot before in his career. But Saunders is intent on getting his best players on the floor, even if that means playing three or four of his wing players together.
“I think you can use him how New York used Steve Novak and Houston used Matt Bullard,” Saunders said. “He’s long, athletic and can put a lot of pressure on defenses because he’s able to spread the floor, if that’s something you want to do.”
5. Brewer is ubiquitous: He was everywhere at camp, covering the court — and running it — with his boundless energy and filling the gym with his chatter, even after he chipped two teeth in a collision with Thad Young on Friday.
Before anybody anoints Wiggins as the team’s starting small forward, he’ll have to go through Brewer first every day in practice.
“What I liked about him is he was aggressive on the ball, but he didn’t take himself out of position defensively which I thought he did a lot last year,” Saunders said. “And he has made a conscious effort to try to rebound more. He has had a really, really good camp.”