By Steven Lebron
BROOKLYN -- As the Minnesota Timberwolves begin their 26th season in the NBA, there's a mixture of new and old that has combined to give the franchise a refreshed feel even as they embark on yet another rebuild.
The old: head coach Flip Saunders, who decided to come downstairs from his front office role this offseason after a coaching search netted no viable candidate but himself. Saunders coached the team from 1995 to 2005, and was here for the team's most memorable years with Kevin Garnett as the Wolves' cornerstone player. They made eight consecutive playoff appearances during that era, but made it out of the first round only once during that span.
The new: Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett -- the No. 1 overall picks in the last two drafts -- who were acquired in the offseason Kevin Love trade and are already part of the team's regular rotation. There are also two rookies, Zach LaVine and Glenn Robinson III, who are warming the bench, but figure to be part of the Wolves' future plans sooner rather than later.
If past iterations of the Wolves consisted of a superstar player who was ultimately let down by the lack of depth surrounding him, this team has the potential to break that mold. They are not a finished product, but the composition of their current roster shows promise.
Along with the aforementioned rookies, the team also has Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, who could potentially have an impact down the line. This group of youngsters is supplemented by a more experienced core that includes Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Mo Williams and Nikola Pekovic.
Perhaps the most intriguing of this entire group is Thaddeus Young, who was acquired from Philadelphia in the three-team Love trade. The 26-year-old spent his first seven seasons with the 76ers, and is a 50.0 percent shooter with career averages of 13.3 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Last season, as general manager Sam Hinkie of the 76ers began his multi-season tanking plan, Young started 78 of the 79 games he played in, and put up a career high average of 17.9 points per game. Often, it's easy to forget that while management executes a plan to rebuild, players -- especially those who might not be with the franchise long-term -- don't have the same buy-in. Losing might benefit the franchise, but not the players of the team. The Sixers won 19 games, and had less than a handful of recognizable names on their roster by season's end.
"With the situation in Philadelphia, I just had to play through it, and continue to have fun on the court regardless of the outcome," Young said prior to Wednesday's game against the Brooklyn Nets. "Each and every time I step on the court, I expect to win. It was frustrating, but I just had to continue and play hard and try to lead the troops. I was going to go down swinging."
Young is a career 32.4 percent three-point shooter. After 321 attempts from downtown in his first three seasons in the league, head coach Doug Collins convinced him to limit his perimeter game to inside the three-point line. In the following three seasons, Young made just eight three-pointers on 34 attempts. Last year, Young extended his perimeter game again, making 30.8 percent of his 292 shots from downtown. With the Wolves, he feels comfortable about his offensive role on the team.
"I've always been a pretty well-rounded player who can do a lot of things on the court," Young said. "Transitioning back to shooting threes wasn't as difficult as people thought it would be. Those were shots I've been taking since I was a kid. I pride myself on being able to play multiple positions and doing different things on the court. Coach [Collins] put me into a particular role that I believed in. At the time, I did whatever I had to in order to succeed in that role."
Playing alongside Pekovic, Young prefers to initiate his offense from the mid-range elbow and beyond the three-point line. The spacing allows him to face up his defenders, or shoot his signature floater in the lane.
Against the Nets, the Wolves jumped out to a 17-2 lead to start the game. Brooklyn found its legs, and three-point shooting, climbing back into lead at halftime. Young -- who was playing his first game after suffering a neck strain and later passing the league's concussion protocol -- struggled to find his rhythm on offense, finishing 5-for-13 from the field. But he contributed 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocks in his 36 minutes.
Wiggins scored 17 points, and has flashed a mid-range jumper coupled with his ability to get to the basket that indicates his offensive game might come along faster than most expected. He was repeatedly attacked in the fourth quarter by Joe Johnson, but Saunders said prior to the game he believes Wiggins is already advanced for a rookie on the defensive end. The plan is to match him up against the other team's best offensive player. Defending Johnson was a crunchtime lesson for Wiggins. There will be many more. It will help him progress into the two-way player he's projected to become.
In a perfect world, Saunders would probably like to see his young players grow and at the same time, have his veterans lead their team to victories. Things went according to plan on Wednesday. Wiggins contributed and came away with a few things to improve on defensively, while the older guys like Martin (26 points, 4-for-9 from downtown) took control of the game to lead the team to an impressive 98-91 road win.
It's not hard to envision this Wolves team growing into something more in a few years. With Rubio signed to a four-year extension, you can picture him conducting the offense, with Wiggins and LaVine on the wings and a frontcourt of Young and Pekovic to complement the youngsters. Of course, whether Young is even part of the future is up for debate. The team traded a first-round pick to Philadelphia to acquire him, even though he has an early termination option in his contract at the end of the season, at which time Young can forego with $9.7 million he's owed next season and become an unrestricted free agent.
While he admits to have thought about how the league's new television deal may have a positive impact on what kind of money he'll be able to earn when he hits free agency, Young is focused on being a positive influence for the young players on the Wolves.
"I'm definitely taking on more of a leadership role," Young said. "On this team, all the veterans -- me, Mo (Williams), Ricky (Rubio), Corey (Brewer), Kevin (Martin) and Ronny (Turiaf) -- speak out and voice our opinions when we have to. Everybody listens for the most part. The young guys listen and soak in our advice and try to incorporate what we teach them both into their games on the floor and into their lives off of it."
While he might not be with the Wolves for long, Young seems very open to the idea of growing with this group. After his experience in Philadelphia, especially last season, knowing that there's light at the tunnel is almost enough, for now.
"We have a good mixture of young guys and veterans," Young said. "I can definitely see myself in Minnesota for the long term. Every day, we're working towards getting better as a team. I stuck around in Philadelphia in seven years. It feels different here. I think we're building towards something great, something special."
Young might be new to the Wolves, but he's well aware of the team's postseason drought, which dates back to 2004.
"The goal for this season is to make the playoffs," he said. "That's the biggest thing, to try and get this franchise back there. It's been a 10-year drought. We've put together a team that can potentially do it. I think we have a chance."
Regardless of how this season ends up for Minnesota, there's a renewed sense of optimism of the team and within the locker room. And for Young, he might have landed in a place that can be called home for the foreseeable future.
Steven Lebron is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth. He has published work for Grantland, The Classical, VICE Sports, GQ, Rolling Stone and various other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_lebron.