The Minnesota Timberwolves started out this season with a commanding win over the L.A. Lakers, and so far, they've been much better than we expected after last season's 17-win affair. Some of that comes with the fact that Ricky Rubio is healthier than he was last year, but some of it also comes with the fact that they're all-around a better team. Some of that is the addition of veterans in the locker room which also calls into question the merit of having strong veteran presence on young rosters (looking at you, Philly). There have been multiple times this season when Karl-Anthony Towns, number one overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, has heaped copious amounts of praise for Kevin Garnett, his mentor, to the media. That's pretty much all genuine hoops fans could ever ask for considering the talent that Towns has and the knowledge that Garnett has. Another huge reason for Minnesota's jump is owed to the improvement of the young guys on the roster.
For starters, Minnesota's second-best player improved greatly from last year to this year, and his last year was in college. Karl-Anthony Towns has been tremendous out of the gates for a rookie. He's easily established himself as the most successful rookie from his class at this young point of the season, and he's doing so by helping a team that has playoff aspirations. Towns has been playing professional basketball for a bit longer than most of his contemporaries, even seeing national TV time at 15 years old when he played for the Dominican Republic's National Team against Team USA Basketball in 2012. He looked promising then, and he looks great now. Averaging a smooth 14.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks, Towns has been a constant in this team's surge. Not many rookies can immediately come in and impact a team's winning percentage off the jump, but Towns has done that with his 2.1 win shares, an estimate of the number of wins a player adds to the team. That 2.1 number is a team-high. Reminder: he's only 20 years old.
Andrew Wiggins, though, has largely been this team's best and most consistent player. Wiggins started the year off on a slow note, seeing his shooting numbers dip from the year prior. This year, though, he's been on a tear, breaking out in multiple games with high scoring numbers. Wiggins is averaging 20.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.6 rebounds. He leaves a little to be desired with his shooting numbers, but otherwise, he's done a good job of carrying the load on the offensive end. He also produces show-stopping highlights, so that's a good reason to tune in as well. Wiggins needs to work on shooting consistency, and he should probably try to crash the boards a little more as well, but his offensive emergence has propelled the Timberwolves to just one game out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Zach LaVine has probably made the biggest developmental jump out of any of the young Timberwolves. Last year, the "Zach LaVine at point" experiment didn't go as well as some (read: most) would have liked, but that was probably doomed from the start. LaVine is a shooting guard, and he likes to shoot. Why force him to change his mentality? It was valuable, though, to give him reps at the one, and that's because now he has better vision and passing ability to aid him become a more efficient player in his quest to get buckets. Now that he has his head on straight and has eliminated the deer in the headlights look he donned on a few occasions last season, he really has emerged as a really good NBA player. Once deemed a D-League project, LaVine has been providing valuable scoring off the bench, good for third on the team with 14.7 points per game. He's shown his all-around improvement by also averaging 3.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds. He's also a stellar 90% from the free-throw line. One area of concern, though, are his numbers with Ricky Rubio on the floor. He shoots worse percentages overall and from the 3-point line with Rubio on the floor as opposed to Rubio off the floor. Not a huge area of concern, but something to keep an eye on.
Yes, the veterans are valuable to this team (not sure why Tayshaun Prince is getting so many minutes, but oh well); however, the young "pups" are just as much, if not more, responsible for the Timberwolves being right on the cusp of playoff positioning. The vets are needed to provide guidance and to be steady rocks when the young guys hit rough patches, but letting Towns, LaVine, and Wiggins run wild on opposing teams is as good a strategy as Minny can roll out right now. They need those fourth quarter minutes. They need those tough lessons. They need to succeed with high stakes to make the jump. That's how this team will grow, and that's how the Timberwolves will return to playoff relevancy sooner rather than later. Oh, and just a friendly reminder: Lavine, Towns, and Wiggins are all only 20 years old. Their age might suggest that they're the Timberpups, but their play confidently shows that they've matured to Timberwolves.