The Minnesota Timberwolves are Solidifying Their Core

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 10: during the game on November 10, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

This is the nucleus team of our team, years from now — we hope — and these guys gotta prove it. We hope Tyus is gonna be one of those guys, Shabazz, Gorgui, Zach, Andrew, Karl: we hope those six, seven guys … because you gotta have a core group of guys.

— Sam Mitchell before Minnesota’s first preseason game against Oklahoma City, 10/7/15

At the beginning of the season interim coach Sam Mitchell made it very clear who he thought was the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves. It wasn’t aging starters Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince, nor was it backup point guard Andre Miller or sharpshooting Kevin Martin. It was two No. 1 overall picks — Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns — as well as first-rounders Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Tyus Jones. Ricky Rubio presumably is part of that group as well.

“We’re hoping those guys, and I’m sure I left off some other names, but you hope those six, seven, eight guys forms your core,” Mitchell said at the time.

Miller and Martin are both on the San Antonio Spurs now, Garnett is injured and is acting as another coach behind the bench and Prince is no longer starting. The young guys, those named by Mitchell in the beginning of the year, have grabbed the reins. It’s their team now. The starting lineup currently consists of Rubio at the point, LaVine as the shooting guard, Wiggins on the wing and Towns and Dieng in the frontcourt.

This transition was by design. Certainly nobody in the organization wanted Garnett to get hurt, and it would be nice if they had a surprise run to try and get the No. 8 seed, in which case Martin and Miller may still be with the team, but all things considered it’s good that this transition took place. Eventually the young core had to take over.

“When we talk to our team, not only do I give the veterans an opportunity to speak up, but I always give the young guys an opportunity to speak up,” Mitchell said back in January. “Because I want them to take more ownership. I want them to start stepping up more.”

And they have. Not only Wiggins and Towns, who are the cornerstones of the franchise and have to improve every year if this team is going to avoid yet another rebuilding effort, but also the supplementary pieces around them. LaVine has the potential to be the player that rounds out the Big Three. Dieng is becoming a great compliment to Towns in the frontcourt. Jones is a serviceable backup to Rubio, offering a different skillset to compliment the pass-first Spanish guard. He may have done it in a way that rankles Wolves fans and the players alike, but he’s moving in the direction everyone with interest in this team wants things to go.

Back in December, I wrote a column saying that the Wolves had to start solidifying their core immediately, emphasizing back then the same thing that must be said now — if Towns and Wiggins are going to stay in Minnesota long term, they need a team around them. “The biggest thing the late Flip Saunders did when he returned to Minnesota was he brought stability,” I wrote. “He brought a plan and a vision. It wasn’t just ‘draft high and see what happens.’”

Saunders often articulated his vision, setting standards for his players and clearly outlining goals and milestones he had to the fans through the media. He breathed life into a moribund organization not only by bringing back Garnett and drafting Jones, a Minnesota native who had just won a national championship, but by making it clear what his plan was to turn things around. His transparency won over fans who had long lost faith in the Wolves.

Mitchell continued that vision and had methods of his own, but he has been less vocal about his intentions on a daily or weekly basis. Part of it has to be that he is an interim coach, where Saunders had more job security than just about everyone else in the league. Part of it is he’s often perturbed by the team’s media coverage and doesn’t have the magnetic personality Saunders did — Flip would watch basketball in his basement with his closest confidants in the local media; Mitchell isn’t going to do that anytime soon.

Part of it is that, truth be told, a lot of things had to go right in order to get to this point. Towns was expected to be a great player coming out of college, but right now he looks like a once-in-a-generation superstar. Wiggins couldn’t have a sophomore slump. Rubio had to improve his shooting. Jones and Dieng had to overcome their lack of size. Muhammad had to improve his shooting and show that he could bring energy every night while also staying healthy.

The veteran players also had to defer to the team’s youth at some point, both on and off the court. Garnett is still constantly in Towns’ ear, but he never ate him alive. Prince had to give up a starting role. Miller and Martin had to have faith that they would land somewhere else even though they weren’t showcased in Minnesota.

Even with the player development that has taken place, this team still has some needs that will have to be addressed in the offseason. Either Nikola Pekovic needs to get healthy — and team trainer Arnie Kander is convinced he will — or they need to find another big man to handle the DeMarcus Cousins’ and Zach Randolph’s of the world. They could use a large backup point guard to compliment the slighter Rubio and Jones. A “3-and-D” wing player is a must. Nemanja Bjelica, a ball-mover and sharpshooter, also needs to stay healthy given the importance of his presence off the bench.

It’s hard to wholeheartedly endorse a team that just passed the 20-win mark in March, but the team has been more competitive lately and the young players are developing — two signs that things are changing in Wolvesville. If Towns and Wiggins were the only players doing anything, there would be a legitimate fear that they, like Kevin Love before them, would leave at the first opportunity they got. But their young teammates are rising to the occasion as well, a formula that should — and needs to — produce positive results in the near future.

Photo credit: Minnesota Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 10: during the game on November 10, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

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