To be clear, the term "long drive" is quite subjective.
For example, my mother....who lives in the town she grew up in and works not ten minutes from my parents' house....would consider a 90 minute drive to Mankato at 9pm to be roughly equivalent to flying from Abregado-Rae spaceport to the Sluis Van shipyards; a 4 day journey even at the respectable hyperdrive engine speed of 0.5 past lightspeed (according to Heir to the Empire: book 1 of 3 in the trilogy of Grand Admiral Thrawn)
I, on the other hand....having driven multiple times from St Paul to Dallas straight though; an 18 hour drive at the not-so-respectable Mazda engine speed of 65 mph....consider here to Mankato something of a grocery run.
So yes, I appreciate everyone's well wishes for safety as I drove home at 2am Tuesday morning. But no, it wasn't really a stress on my constitution.
And yes. It was worth it.
The atmosphere at Bresnan Arena was electric. More so than the open scrimmage at Target Center back in July. More so than, I imagine, the introductions at the State fair as well. There's nothing quite like a college arena packed with college kids screaming at Crunch as he throws tshirts in his underwear.
It's appropriately surreal to have your favorite mascot romping around in whitey tighties while 73 year old Glen Taylor gets interviewed by Greg Anthony and Isiah Thomas, all with bass from a Drake playlist rattling the building in the background. It couldn't have gotten crazier unless actual Drake showed up.
Tim Faklis assures me that Bresnan does not normally generate noise pollution at 12:30am on weekdays. But this exception was well worth the effort.
The show was a show
The Wolves spared no expense putting on a production. There were lights. There were fireworks. There was music with bass deep enough to rattle your bones. They had Crunch. They had the dunk squad. They had the break dancers. They had a dance contest between a girl Crunch dunked on and a guy that looked disturbingly like Anthony Bennett pre-Navy Seal training.
Look, plenty of teams have a showcase scrimmage. Hell, the Heat had one yesterday, and they're the team LeBron ditched. But if you're going to launch a new era of your basketball team, you have to go big. The Wolves did just that.
Shabazz and Bennett are in shape
Speaking of doing bootcamps with Navy Seals....
As soon as Bennett ran out of the tunnel, I turned to Zach and was like "dude, this is crazy. We just saw him like a month ago". Those military guys do not mess around, and it shows. Bazz is in fantastic shape. The kind of shape I was talking about him needing to get into a year ago. That guy has PUT IN WORK, and it showed. He ran the floor and got off it better than I've ever seen him, and didn't give up any of his low post strength either.
And Bennett....while he's not yet in peak condition, he's certainly eons better than he was two months ago. To say nothing of last season, when he was getting awful Cavaliers-Shawn-Kemp-like. He's moving better, he's breathing easier, and he looks motivated.
It wasn't just 20-somethings
As you'd expect at a midnight event held on a college campus, the majority of the crowd was college aged. But not nearly all of it. Behind myself and Zach sat....well, Glen Taylor and Chris Wright. But behind them sat a good two section's worth of moms and dads. And while most of them admittedly looked out of their depth during the Cha Cha Slide, they certainly didn't give up anything screaming for Wiggins to dunk or Pek to take a three.
This is, by far, the most athletic team the Wolves have ever had
By a Kessell Run parsec. Maybe if 2004 had been 25 year old Sprewell, that squad could have compared. But as it is, there's no question this team can run and leap with the best of them. It's not just Wiggins and LaVine. Thad is athletic. Bennett is athletic. Bazz is increasingly athletic. Corey is....weirdly athletic....but athletic nonetheless. So while the team might not be good in the way that a playoff team is good, neither will they be dreadfully boring in the way that a Kevin Love/Al Jefferson/Ryan Gomes team was (look, I'm just sayin...)
(Although Wiggins and LaVine don't exactly hurt the athletic factor...)
Wiggins is the main draw. But not the only one
There's no question Andrew Wiggins is "the name", as evidenced by Bresnan spontaneously breaking into an "Andrew Wiggins" chant early in the festivities. But I dare say the crowd came away just as impressed by LaVine and Bazz. We already knew Zach had some draw considering the record turnout at the open scrimmage, but....well, the country will always think Wiggins because of the #1 pick thing. But I rather doubt Minnesota will think of Wiggins and LaVine as #1 and #13 for very long. They're both going to be household names.
Shabazz Muhammad could be "that guy"
You know how every good team seems to have "that guy"? The one who's good enough you have to begrudgingly respect, but who you still want to kick into low orbit because he knocks your team around with his antics and beats them in obnoxious ways? Lance Stephenson. Nate Robinson. Bonzi Wells. For years, the Wolves could not solve the Rubik Cube that was Earl Boykins no matter what they tried. That little dude was a wrecking crew and a half to our Pups, no matter who he played for, with no explainable reason why.
Well, Bazz is kind of looking like he's that sort of guy. He went full on Bonzi Wells/Matt Barnes/Metta World Peaceful Pandas Friend in the scrimmage portion, with a physicality and style that...at least if you're the guy guarding him...can only be described as maddening. And elbow here, a hip check there. Aggressive to the enth degree. Corey Brewer nearly fouled out in the first 6 minutes of guarding him, and spent the rest of the night letting the refs know how displeased he was about it.
(and yes, it was very entertaining to see Bazz's bulldoze crashing go up against Corey's acrobat crashing)
If Muhammad does nothing else this year, he might end up being worth the playing time just to see how many technicals he can goad the other team into.
Pekovic is going to be a full on folk hero
One of the most entertaining things was seeing how hard the crowd embraced Pekovic. Mankato loves Pek, in way I dare say Minnesota has never loved Love.
While he's always been a lovable, murderous, low post crushing teddy bear, I think he's going to get a new level of adoration his year by being the not-athletic one. Because with Wiggins and LaVine and Thad and Bennett and Corgi and Turiaf, his earthboundedness suddenly goes from being a red flag to being underdog heroism. He's Captain America on a team of flying iron laser suits and Norse gods.
Well, and I guess this helps too...
.@JerryZgoda's fav Pek quote. Reporter asks, "If u could b any tree, which would u b?... Pek: "Do I have to be a tree? Can I be a carrot?"— Timberwolves PR (@Twolves_PR) October 1, 2014
Flip Saunders is going to be a folk hero too
Believe me, I'm as shocked as you are. But he got a roar when he circled the court to chat with the NBA TV crew, and then the group of girls behind me and Zach spent a good 30 seconds trying to get his attention as he made his way into the locker room. So....
Anthony Bennett something something teh googles
So about 30 second in, lovely Bridget sitting next to me elbows me and points at Anthony Bennett.
"Has he always worn those?"
Yes. The Twitters spoke the truth that night. For a gloriously inexplicable 4 and a half minutes, Anthony Bennett wore a very Amare-esque set of goggles. No explanation why. Then he checked out. And apparently had a Radioactive Man epiphany, because when he checked back in they were gone.
I turns out Bennett had Lasik eye surgery over the summer, so he was given the goggles as a precaution. But doesn't want to wear them because.....he doesn't like them, I guess? I don't know what the league mandate is for this sort of thing...if there is one at all. So maybe that was all there will ever be to it.
But what a thrilling adventure, beginning to end.
The veterans are salty
So here's the thing about the high wire act the rookies put on. It was like, maybe 5 minutes total of the half hour of scrimmage time.
By the time the third scrimmage set started, the crowd was starting to flag, and not just because it was 1am. But that's like....real basketball. It has half halfcourt plays. It has sets and reads and foul calls. It's not dunks every other possession (unless you have Steve Nash) The scrimmages were just as much reality as they were showcase, which was fine.
- It was technically part of training camp, after all
- It's pretty much what the actual season will be like
The team is going to play to and through the veteran guys. Because rookies are rookies, and they just don't know what they don't know yet. And the vets made a point to let them know that they don't know in scrimmage. Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer in particular were all in on schooling LaVine and Wiggins. And Thad, Pek, JJ and even Ronny got in their shots. The future is not quite yet. If you subtract everyone with more than 4 years of NBA experience, we sink to slightly-above-Philadelphia level. We need to remember that.
Thad Thad Thad
If we consider Ricky Rubio to be enough of a work on progress to still be #EyesOnTheRise, then the veteran that will have the make or break impact is Thaddeus Young. Thad Thad Thad. Martin and Pek are workhorses and can do a lot of real NBA stuff, but they're both limited athletically and dimensionally and you pretty much know what you're going to get from them.
Thad, though, is a wild card, who may be playing on a team that an fully utilize his talent for the first time. He's athletic but strong. He can run the floor and handle. He can shoot the three and post up. He makes excellent reads and accurate passes. He's constantly in motion away from the ball. He fits in with the youth movement, but is completely and thoroughly a productive veteran force. And he's never played on a team with a dazzling point guard. He's never played on a team with a giant in the post to draw his defender away. As good as he was in Philly...which was pretty damn good mind you....it's very possible he's got another couple of levels he can still reach now that he's on a team that can facilitate his climb.
Cheer for Thad Young. We like Thad Young. We want Thad Young to stay in Minnesota. Make Minnesota a place Thad Young want to be.
Chase Budinger is healthy
It's pretty simple. Chase was able to make hard cuts and got his shot off in less than 2 seconds without the weird, bowlegged jump he's resorted two the last 18 months to get leverage.
Healthy Chase could be a revelation for this team. He can shoot the three. He competed in a dunk contest. He as prototypical a running mate for Rubio as any of the rookies.
Ricky Rubio is happy (again)
The Spanish Unicorn is finding his magic again.
As Steve McPherson wrote about (remarkably accurately, I must say) over at Wolf Among Wolves, Kevin Love was not a locker room enthusiast. To say the least. Over the last couple of years in particular, he's been a dour, at best, presence backstage, talking in flat tones, making almost no eye contact, saying pretty much nothing but company lines. No ad libs, no smiles, no banter with teammates. Nothing.
After the Phoenix loss on the March 23rd....which all but killed the team's last, desperate postseason push...Love started the media scrum with an angry "are you guys going to ask questions or what here?", followed by 5 minutes of him staring at the ground talking in monotone. Marney Gellner had to literally kneel to get her microphone close enough to pick Love up.
Like Steve, I don't think Love is a naturally dour guy. I mean, we saw just this week how much fun he's having in Cleveland. But partially out of circumstance and partially by choice, he shut himself down to Minnesota the last two years, and that affected everyone else. Particularly Rubio.
Love and Rubio shared a corner of the locker room, in the back, across from the door that leads to the showers. They sat next to each other and, out of convenience for us, would usually hold their interviews back-to-back. Love liked to do his early and escape the building quickly, so Rubio was often sitting next to him...and us huddled around him...as he talked. And for various reasons, Ricky chose to follow Love's lead, which often led to him being a no-fun boy. A stark contrast to the wide-eyed teenager who played for ACB. The smiling rookie walking though MSP airport. The guy who tells teammates to change their faces and plays catch with little kids during time outs.
Now with Love gone, that Ricky Rubio is making a comeback.
#DunksAfterDark was Ricky at his ever-lovin' best. Smiles and hugs. Taunting teammates. Playing up the crowd. Running into the stands for rock and roll fan love.
Ricky Rubio has fun being a fun basketball personality, the way that Magic and Barkley and Shaq did. He doesn't want to be Debbie Downer and now he won't feel like he has to be. The team is in his hands, not just in the plays it executes, but in the face it presents to the rest of the world.
(And yes, I am having an existential crisis about Lucas Film de-canonizing 30 years of Star Wars books. I know way too much about that universe than a healthy person should AND NOW THEY JUST THREW IT ALL OUT ON ME)