Before the start of the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves were one of the league’s more intriguing teams. Their core, which includes the past two NBA rookies of the year (Andrew Wiggins in 2014-15 and Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015-16) and one electrifying slam dunk contest champion (Zach LaVine), appears poised for a bright future. And while all three are just 21 years old and have yet to translate their talent into wins, they still pose a challenge.
“They’re as talented as a trio in this league. I don’t look at them as being young. I look at them as being good,” said Washington Wizards Coach Scott Brooks, whose team faces Minnesota on Friday night at Verizon Center. “Like I told our guys, we better be ready. And it’s just not the starters; the bench better be ready because [Wiggins, Towns and LaVine are] going to play 38 to 40 minutes each.”
The Wolves have the second-worst record in the Western Conference, at 11-24, but they’ve produced the third-highest-scoring trio in the NBA, behind the Big Threes in Cleveland (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) and Golden State (Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson). With three players virtually tied for the team’s scoring lead — Wiggins averages 21.7 points per game, Towns 21.6 and LaVine 21.1 — Wizards guard Bradley Beal shared his tongue-in-cheek defensive game plan.
“You take two away and make one shoot the ball so the other two get mad,” Beal said.
And if that doesn’t work, rough up the young pups.
“It’s tough because those guys are young and athletic and get out in transition and put the ball on the floor,” Beal continued. “So they’re very talented in a lot of ways. It’s definitely going to be challenging, but we have to accept it. We have to make it uncomfortable for them, be physical with them and control the tempo.”
Beal, 23 years old and in his fifth season in the league, can look at Wiggins and LaVine and almost see a version of himself. Last summer in Los Angeles, Wiggins and LaVine worked with Beal’s longtime skills trainer, Drew Hanlen. Beal expects to be familiar with the duo’s moves and vice versa.
“Everything that they hit me with,” he said, “I’m 10 steps ahead of them. They probably have the same with me.”
Beyond their offseason similarities, the Wolves are learning an uncomfortable truth the Wizards’ core has, too: It’s hard to win in the NBA with a young team.
“They came in the league at a young age just like John [Wall] and I, and they have a huge upside just like John and I have,” Beal said. “It’s just a matter of time now for them to put everything together with a great core that they have and really figure it out. We were able to do the same thing . . . and now we’re scratching to get back [to the playoffs] and fight, but it definitely starts with a younger core, and they’re building their way up.”
Added Wall, sharing the greatest lessons young players must learn: “Just trusting each other because in that situation you both want to be the guy; you both want to be the hero guy to take the big shots and make the big plays, but you have to be able to trust each other. I think that’s something me and Brad have [grown] up on. No matter who’s hot in the situation, if it’s the right time to make the right play, we’re believing in the next guy to make the right play.”
Before the 2015-16 season, the “Bounce Brothers,” as Wiggins and LaVine took to calling themselves, already filled Minnesota with hope. The inclusion last season of Towns, the 7-footer who was unanimously named the top rookie, accelerated the Wolves as a potential future Western Conference power. Towns has 26 double-doubles this season along with a 47-point game (a scoring performance that has been equaled by Wiggins). Also, Towns is the type of hybrid big man who can both post up and step behind the three-point arc, having attempted 135 three-pointers this season. Though he has made them at only a 31.1 percent rate, a shooting big could cause trouble for a scattered defensive team such as the Wizards.
“We have to be ready for it,” Brooks said. “It’s hard, and it’s an adjustment [center Marcin Gortat] will have to continue to adjust on because the league is going that way.
“We have to make their catches tough,” he added, referring to defending LaVine, Towns and Wiggins. “We have to be as physical as we can be within the rules, but we have to not give them any feel-good shots because they’re athletic, they’re skilled, they’re shot-makers and they can put it on the floor. And all three of them can finish over the top.”