Prior to Monday’s exhibition opener against New Orleans, Timberwolves coach Chris Finch warned against overanalyzing anything that took place in the preseason — particularly in Game 1 of it.
He noted even past staffs he’s been a part of have been caught overvaluing certain performances and trends.
But any such messages will always fall on deaf ears. The Timberwolves, in their rawest form, were back Monday, topping the Pelicans 117-114 in a game where the rotational players built a lead as big as 24 points. Here were the biggest takeaways from the impressive performance that doesn’t count for a single thing.
D’Angelo Russell said he trained this offseason as if this was a contract year — and for his purposes, it is. Currently with two years left on his deal, Russell is in search of a massive extension next offseason.
He played like a financially motivated man Monday. Russell shined offensively, scoring 19 points on 6 for 10 shooting, including three made triples. He’s been known to do that throughout his career.
More notable was the pace with which Russell played. He pushed the ball up the floor at every opportunity, creating countless transition opportunities for Minnesota. That is what Timberwolves coach Chris Finch has said is Russell’s primary responsibility in this offense, and he took care of it Monday.
Russell was also a vocal presence on and off the court. When he wasn’t in action, the point guard still made sure he was heard from, constantly chatting up his teammates on the bench as well as communicating with those in action.
The buzz around Anthony Edwards early in training camp has been that the second-year standout is paying more attention to the defensive end of the floor. Finch has pumped Edwards’ off-ball cognizance and general aggression on the defensive end.
But it’s always difficult to differentiate coach speak from reality, regardless of how honest Finch has been to date.
If Monday was any indication, Edwards’ defensive improvement appears to be more fact than fiction. He tallied two blocks and two steals, serving as a weak-side playmaker.
Edwards was active and engaged on that side of the ball. If that continues into the regular season, his all-star goal may be more attainable than most assume.
Most regular season rotations tend to fluctuate between nine and 10 players. Finch has said the Wolves have 14 guys they’re comfortable putting in action, which means the competition for playing time will be stiff.
Monday provided hints as to which players are currently the frontrunners for spots in the rotation at the start of the preseason. Eleven players appeared in the first half. The starters were Russell, Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jaden McDaniels and Josh Okogie. They played anywhere from 13 (McDaniels) to 22 (Edwards) minutes. The first six off the bench were Taurean Prince, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Naz Reid and Jordan McLaughlin.
The likes of Jake Layman, Jaylen Nowell and Leandro Bolmaro seem to be fighting an uphill battle to playing time.
The Timberwolves will sport perhaps the smallest roster in the NBA this season. They have one legitimate power forward on the roster in Vanderbilt.
The lack of size raises questions about the team’s general ability to rebound. The Pelicans — playing without key bigs Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas — exposed that potential weakness in the first quarter Monday. New Orleans dominated on the offensive glass, grabbing five offensive rebounds within the game’s opening minutes.
The Timberwolves will likely need to win fans back, a common theme in recent years and a byproduct of the team’s nearly two decades of futility.
And while there do seem to be reasons for intrigue with this team — from its improved play under Finch to close last season, Edwards’ potential stardom and the chance to see the healthy core of Russell, Towns, Edwards, McDaniels and Co. together for an extended period of time, the Timberwolves appear to have yet to grab the attention of local fans.
Target Center’s lower bowl was sparsely populated Monday. Yes, it’s the preseason, but it was also the first chance to catch a glimpse of this year’s team, and few took advantage of the opportunity to do so in person.