There was so much to talk about, write about, for fans to cheer about, that it almost went unnoticed.
After all, in the streak-busting offensive explosion that was the Timberwolves’ victory Saturday at Target Center, you had the best of old and new. Career night for Jordan McLaughlin, Karl-Anthony Towns one assist away from a triple-double, Malik Beasley shooting the lights out.
But then, off the bench: James Johnson.
Johnson, who turns 33 on Feb. 20, is easily the oldest member of the new-look Wolves. He is one of a slew of new faces to make their debut Saturday after he was acquired from Miami as part of a three-team trade that sent Gorgui Dieng to Memphis.
“It was weird to get called ‘OG,’ ” Johnson said after the game. “In our locker room [in Miami], that was UD.”
UD, as in 39-year-old Udonis Haslem.
In his first game with the Wolves, Johnson — a 6-7, 240-pounder as comfortable in a mixed martial arts bout as he is on a basketball court — scored 15 points, hit six of nine shots (including two of three three-pointers), with three rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block in the 142-115 rout of the Clippers.
Ostensibly a power forward — he figures to back up newly acquired starter Juancho Hernangomez — Johnson was asked to handle primary ball-handling for the second unit with McLaughlin starting in place of injured D’Angelo Russell.
“I loved what he did,” Wolves coach Ryan Saunders said. “He played with Jarrett [Culver], Jaylen Nowell and Naz [Reid], who are all very good players, but also young players. And I loved the confidence he was instilling in those guys.”
For all of that, Johnson did a little more. He was, in his own words, “overcommunicating” on the court. On the bench he was talking to the younger players, cheerleading.
These are all things the elder member of the team must do. And Johnson can’t wait. His move to Minnesota might have had a lot to do with salary cap concerns as the swap for Dieng was a near-match in terms of salary and terms (Johnson has a $16 million player option for next season, the last year of his deal).
But he sees an opportunity in Minnesota, to both play and be a mentor.
“It’s not new,” said Johnson, the 16th pick in the 2009 draft out of Wake Forest now with his sixth NBA team. “I messed up with that role before. And I’m happy to get another chance at it.”
Johnson was referring to his time as captain in Miami, where, in his mind, he didn’t excel. To be sure, Johnson is not a captain in Minnesota. But he is a veteran. And on the NBA’s youngest team, that’s important.
“Just help lead,” he said. “Help coach, you know, what I know. Not help the coach coach, but help coach the locker room. Help coach fourth quarters. Try to build … I don’t want to say habits. The guys here, like KAT, they already have something. But just add to it. Let him know we have his back. This is Game 1 for us.”
These are things Johnson said he learned from Haslem. On a team that has lacked communication on defense, this could be a blessing. As Johnson said, this group won’t have the luxury of a training camp to build chemistry.
His versatility could be a huge asset, too. Wolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas said Johnson could even play some center.
“Just a lot of trust, lot of responsibility,” Johnson said. “We kept our turnovers down . We did a great job of moving the ball without turning it over. And it led to a lot of threes and things like that.”
As Johnson said, it’s just one game. But he loved the Wolves’ energy.
“Just pour yourself into the team,” he said. “Be happy with someone else’s success, and good things happen on the basketball court.”