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The early returns for Timberwolves rookie Andrew Wiggins are mostly positive. The 19-year-old's defence is sound, but his offensive bursts are still inconsistent. He knows he has a lot to learn. And as Timberwolves teammate and fellow Canadian Anthony Bennett tries to repair his reputation, the two have bonded in their struggle, David Ebner reports from Minneapolis.

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Drafted by Cleveland but traded to Minnesota, Andrew Wiggins is learning the ropes in his first seasons in the NBA. (Caroline Yang/For The Globe and Mail)

Andrew Wiggins is in the air. Wiggins, the celebrated No. 1 draft choice playing in his 10th NBA game, has shaken off a New York Knicks defender, bolted to the basket and sprung upwards. Samuel Dalembert, the Knicks’ 6-foot-11 centre, slides into the lane to dissuade the attack. Wiggins, his back arched, clips his left hip on Dalembert’s right shoulder, so that when he tries to slam the ball home, it ricochets off the rim and the Knicks retrieve it. Wiggins falls to earth.

This is the purgatory between prodigy and superstar.

It is a Wednesday in mid-November, a few minutes into a game between the Knicks and the team on which Wiggins has landed, the woeful Minnesota Timberwolves. This frozen north is where the Canadian kid, all of 19 years old, is to marshal his considerable promise. It is all about repetitions. Dribbling drills. Shooting drills. And under the bright lights of a game, it’s often a schooling at the hands of older, stronger opponents. There are also doubters – scouts who question whether, for all his physical gifts, Wiggins has the drive needed to deliver on what has been foretold.

So far the returns are mostly positive. As a defender, he has fared well guarding some of the most potent scorers in the National Basketball Association. On offence his bursts of energy come and go. A lot, immediately, rests on him: The Timberwolves have been ravaged by injuries to veterans, and along with the off-court trappings of incipient stardom – Adidas commercials, fashion spreads in GQ magazine – have come enough sterling performances on the floor to win Wiggins the season’s first rookie-of-the-month award in the Western Conference, for his play in November.

A couple of days after the Knicks game, teammate Anthony Bennett scores a career-high 20 against the San Antonio Spurs. Like Wiggins, Bennett is from Toronto and was a No. 1 draft pick one year earlier – a rare arrival of two top picks in a single place. The next night, it’s Wiggins’ time to shine: 29 points in a loss to the Sacramento Kings.

“Man!” Kings centre DeMarcus Cousins says afterwards. “I like Wiggins.” Cousins knows the grind: a No. 5 in 2010 with obvious talent but a reputation as a head case, now finally emerging as a full-blown force. “I told him after the game, he’s going to be a special player,” Cousins says of Wiggins. “And I like Anthony Bennett as well. He took a lot of heat his first year. He stuck with it, kept his head high. I like both of them. They’re going to be something special.”

(Caroline Yang/For The Globe and Mail)

'Couldn’t ask for a better position'

Andrew Wiggins

Forward No. 22
Games 21
Minutes per game 30.1
Field Goal% 0.4
Rebounds per game 3.9
Points per game 12.4

Anthony Bennett was born in 1993 and Andrew Wiggins in 1995. They were raised 30 kilometres apart in the Toronto area, Wiggins in Vaughan, and Bennett first at Jane and Finch in the city and then in Brampton. They are both children of immigrants. Their mothers arrived from the Caribbean when Toronto was a much more homogeneous city: Marita Payne, Andrew’s mom, in 1970, and Edith Bennett in 1980. The boys grew up after Toronto had transformed into a mosaic, and professional basketball – the Raptors and Vince Carter – was making its mark.

Bennett and Wiggins have played together before, having first met in the summer of 2010, when Anthony was 17 and Andrew 15. They helped win a bronze medal for Canada at the under-17 world championships in Germany.

Bennett went on to one season at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, before the Cleveland Cavaliers made him the surprise No. 1 pick in 2013, a first for a Canadian. Wiggins played one season last winter at the University of Kansas before he was also chosen No. 1 by Cleveland.

LeBron James upended the story. Basketball’s biggest name returned to Cleveland from Miami, and the resulting tremors sent disgruntled Timberwolves all-star Kevin Love to Cleveland, Wiggins and Bennett heading to Minneapolis. The trade unfolded in slow motion over the summer. It was, for Wiggins, an introduction to the business of pro sports. For Bennett, it was a new beginning, after an awful rookie season when he had played poorly, slowed by injury and middling fitness.

Anthony Bennett

Forward No. 24
Games 20
Minutes per game 17.4
Field Goal% 47.6
Rebounds per game 3.9
Points per game 6.8

The Timberwolves had missed the playoffs 10 consecutive seasons, and over that decade lost more games, 520, than any team in the NBA. Love indicated he wanted out and fans soured on him. The new arrivals were introduced in late August at the Minnesota State Fair alongside another athletic rookie, 19-year-old Zach LaVine, and newly obtained veteran Thaddeus Young from Philadelphia. It was a pristine summer day –sunny, 22 C. Bennett ate fried alligator – tastes like chicken, he concluded. Wiggins whirled on carnival rides.

On the Wolves, family is paramount. After the fair, everyone went to dinner at the house of coach Flip Saunders. His son Ryan is an assistant coach. Two sons of retired coach Rick Adelman, for whom Saunders took over, are also on the team’s staff. This is a milieu Wiggins and Bennett know well. Wiggins is one of six kids, Bennett the youngest of three. The party was a good one. Ribs were cooked. Wiggins’ parents and Anthony’s mother were there. It was a salve, the end of a summer in limbo.

“It was just long,” says Wiggins of the lead-up to the trade. “Not really knowing where you’re going to end up.”

In November, Wiggins sits beside Bennett for an interview in a small, cinderblocked room at Target Center in Minneapolis. Despite the team’s losing ways, both relish the chance to play and improve.

“We couldn’t ask for a better position,” Wiggins says.

“Like he said,” Bennett adds, “we’re in the best situation we can be.”

The young 2014/2015 season marks a new era for the Timberwolves -- a new coach and two potential Canadian superstars. (Caroline Yang/For The Globe and Mail)

'To be a pioneer'

The name Minnesota is derived from a Dakota Sioux word meaning “cloudy water.” This is the land of lakes and the headwaters of the Mississippi. The Minneapolis region is home to 3.5-million people, about the same as Seattle and larger than anywhere in Canada but Toronto and Montreal. Like much of Canada, it gets cold – in mid-November, the wind chill pushed the downtown temperature to –20 C.

The state has forged singular talents: Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Prince, the Coen brothers. “Minneapolis gets a reputation for being earnest or Midwest,” said writer and musician Jim Walsh in 2005, but it’s “sophisticated, too.” In sports, there has been less success. The Twins won World Series in 1987 and 1991, and the Vikings – the most popular team in the state – lost four Super Bowls long ago. On ice, the North Stars lost more than they won and decamped for Dallas; the Wild, who miss the playoffs more than make them, are on a recent upswing.

The Timberwolves languish. There’s talk the team is cursed. Two versions: Target Center is built on a Native American burial ground, or Joey Two-Step, a fired employee from the early days, cast a hex on his way out the door. There was a single sparkling era, from 1995 through a Western Conference finals appearance in 2004. It began when Kevin Garnett was a 19-year-old rookie and Saunders a first-year NBA head coach. Saunders was fired in 2005, and Garnett was traded not long after.

A full circle begins to form. In November, Garnett, now of the Brooklyn Nets, talked about becoming a Timberwolves co-owner when he retires. And Saunders has a rare second shot in Minneapoolis to shape a top talent. He shares a birthday with Wiggins: On Feb. 23, Saunders will hit 60 as Wiggins turns 20.

Saunders returned to Minnesota last year as team president, and installed himself as coach last spring. He sees the opportunity for this young Wolves to upend the team’s history. “To be a pioneer always means something more, to be the first,” Saunders says. “To be the first to get to the NBA finals. Maybe to be the first to win a championship.”

In his first half-dozen games, Wiggins has impressed, showing his value as a defender and scoring as many as 27 points in a game; Bennett is gaining confidence with his smooth mid-range shot. (Caroline Yang/For The Globe and Mail)

'It’s going to take some time'

Anthony Bennett hangs from the rim. He has taken a pass from veteran teammate Corey Brewer and thrown down a thunderous two-handed dunk, kicking up his legs so that, for a moment, his back is parallel with the floor a couple metres below.

The dunk looks good but makes little difference. The score in the third quarter is 91-62, the visiting NBA champion San Antonio Spurs demolishing the Timberwolves. The home team is severely undermanned, missing four of its regular five starters.

If Bennett and Wiggins had remained in Cleveland, their roles would have been more modest, while Minnesota provides a rapid, generally humbling apprenticeship in the NBA. The gulf in experience is a canyon. Tim Duncan, the Spurs’s No. 1 draft pick in 1997, plays his 1,499th game against Minnesota. It is Wiggins’s 11th, and Bennett’s 62nd.

Amid the trouncing, Bennett found his game, scoring a career-best 20. Much as he savours dunks, his best weapon is a sweet stroke from mid-range, his accuracy surging from his rookie year when he scored an abysmal four points a game.

The mood afterwards is muted. “I was confident,” Bennett says of his game. “I wish we got the win, though.” He’s received a text message from his mom: “Good game.” They always exchange words, before and after he plays.

Bennett slides on his Balenciaga arena high-top sneakers, dark green pebbled calfskin – $625. He loves shoes and credits a teammate, rookie Glenn Robinson, with the counsel on the Balenciagas, a brand also favoured by Wiggins. “Learning from my man right here,” says Bennett, pointing to Robinson beside him. “He’s the fashion king.”

The NBA is a fraternity, despite the fierce competition. Players know how tough it is, how potentially fleeting, how elusive the brass ring. Calvin Booth, the Wolves director of player programs who suited up for eight teams in his decade-long career, is an in-house mentor. “How quickly he’s been able to bounce back,” Booth says of Bennett, “it’s been impressive.”

While Wiggins was born in basketball – his father Mitch played in an NBA final – Bennett came to the game as a teenager, after his mom moved the family to Brampton when he was 10. He is quiet, but teammates know another side. “He comes off like he’s shy but he’s not shy,” says Brewer, who calls Bennett the “music man” for his extensive music catalogue. And on the court, Brewer declares, “once he gets more playing time he’s going to show people why he was the No. 1 pick.”

The Spurs players see the difficulties ahead for Bennett and Wiggins. “Eh, it’s tough,” point guard Tony Parker says after the game, his feet in an ice bath. “Especially playing with a young team, you know?” A Frenchman, Parker arrived in 2001, when the Spurs already ranked among the best. “Bennett, you know, he’s playing with more confidence, it looks like. He’s always had a pretty good shot. So we’ll see. It’s going to take some time.”

Wiggins pays attention to style. On draft day he wore a a floral print tuxedo jacket with a classic birdseye weave. “I’m going in with a bang,” he told GQ. (Getty Images)

'That’s the good stuff, right there'

Andrew Wiggins is being primped. A couple hours after a practice, a makeup artist brushes his nose. An assistant cleans lint off his black Adidas T-shirt. Kamp Grizzly, a small Portland film company, is shooting a promo of Wiggins for an Adidas magazine project.

Stars can make a fortune. Kevin Garnett has earned more than $300-million in his career in salary alone. Wiggins is just getting started: His salary this year is $5.5-million, while his Adidas deal is worth more than $2-million. “It’s a lot of money for a rookie,” says Donald Dell, the big-time sports agent who helped broker Michael Jordan’s earliest contracts.

On the practice court, there’s a quick photo shoot. What’s your pose, the photographer asks, invoking the iconic Nike Wings poster, Jordan’s arms outstretched, a basketball in his right hand. Wiggins suggests his arms crossed in an X in front of his chest, two balls palmed, framing his face. “It’s not my pose,” he says humbly – just a pose he’s used for shoots before.

Wiggins is comfortable. “It just another day for me,” he says. “You get used to it.” There’s been a spotlight on him since he was 14. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he played a game in college. He had a two-page spread in GQ in November. “The new kid,” read the caption.

When he was drafted No. 1, he dressed boldly: a floral print tuxedo jacket, with a classic birdseye weave. Modern, too – skinny pants, short on the ankles, and sockless. “I’m going in with a bang,” he told GQ of his draft-day style. It might seem too calculated – Wiggins has a personal stylist – but he’s gravitated towards fashion. “Always have to look good,” he says.

The men who have come before approve. “Back in the day,” says Wolves general manager Milt Newton, himself finely dressed, “when you had Dr. J and Magic, they came to the arena nicely tailored. That’s the good stuff, right there.”

To Chris Rivers, an Adidas manager who works closely with Wiggins, comportment counts. “They have to listen,” Rivers says. “There are 12-year vets who are pros – but not professionals.”

Earlier this fall, an Adidas commercial for the NBA’s new swingman jersey played on the word wingman. The director had an idea and Wiggins embraced it. The spot shows Wiggins, in his Wolves uniform, shooting hoops, and in runs his swingman, in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. Wiggins looks over. The swingman freezes, and retreats. “I guess,” the chastened swingman says, “I missed the biggest sports story of the summer.”

“That was fun to do,” Wiggins says, “You have to have a sense of humour about certain things.”

Wiggins (left) at 19 is two years younger than Bennett. They were raised 30 km apart -- Wiggins in Vaughan and Bennett in Brampton.(Caroline Yang/For The Globe and Mail)

'A baby on its stomach'

Wiggins and Bennett are wobbling. One goes through a series of exercises, courtside after practice, and then the other. First: stretches with blue rubber bands. Next, standing on the left leg, the right leg extended behind, back parallel with the floor, lifting a weight in the left hand. Then, the opposite. Last, five pushups, slow.

This is part of the apprenticeship: turning athletic bodies into NBA bodies, built to last. The work is conducted under the watch of Koichi Sato. Raised in Japan, Sato is director of sports performance. On Wiggins and Bennett, he exercises small muscles, strengthens them, which helps prevent injury – Bennett struggles with various ailments – and increases stamina.

One idea is reflexive core stability, where the body subconsciously anticipates movements and prepares muscles and joints for quick shifts. Other notions are adopted from a Prague doctor, Pavel Kolar, who promotes concepts based on the movement of babies called “dynamic neuromuscular stabilization.”

Sato, after practice, is on his stomach on the floor in the hallway, demonstrating the infant poses he puts Wiggins and Bennett in. Sato elevates his chest and head, and rests his weight on his forearms. There’s a tendency for adults to use back muscles for support. “If you put a baby on its stomach,” Sato says, “they’ll use their arms. It’s the most efficient.”

The next day, after another practice, the veterans are done. Flip Saunders oversees one of his favoured drills for young recruits. Toss a 10-pound medicine ball in the air, rebound it, then leap again, dunk it – the ball barely fits through the hoop. Repeat five times. Then, with a basketball, same thing.

Bennett is cheering on Gorgui Dieng, a second-year centre from Senegal. “Yeah, D!” Bennett shouts. “You got it! Push. Push. Push.” Next it’s Bennett’s turn – AB to his friends. At centre court, Brewer whoops it up: “Yeeaaahhhh, AB!” Bennett hangs on the rim as he puts down his last one.

Next, Wiggins. “Get up, Wigs!” Brewer yells. “Here we go, here we go,” chants Saunders. “That’s three, that’s three.” From the bench courtside, Bennett, all smiles, lets out a roar of encouragement: “Aarrrgggghhhhh!”

“You’ve got to explode,” says Ryan Saunders of the aim. “We want him to use his gifts.”

Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, greeting Wiggins, treats his players like family. (Caroline Yang/For The Globe and Mail)

'The world is in his hands'

Wiggins’ critics – and they have been vocal since his college days in Kansas – do not doubt his gifts. What they question is his intensity, whether he has the sustained drive, the win-at-all-costs commitment of such transcendent stars as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

They see him make stirring plays, then seemingly disappear at other points of the game, or sustain excellence in one contest, then fade out the next. This week, he finally delivered in back-to-back games, capped by 23 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Portland. “Wiggins looked like the No. 1 pick tonight,” Saunders said afterwards. Still, stats geeks, weighing overall impact, rank him low against this year’s NBA players and against 19-year-olds of the past – the likes of James, Garnett, Anthony Davis. Critics wonder whether Wiggins has what’s required to be not only good but great.

But he is young, and quiet, and watching. “Sometimes when you’re quiet,” says Wolves assistant coach Sam Mitchell, who was NBA coach of the year in 2007 with the Toronto Raptors, “you’re listening – and you’re learning.”

Wiggins plainly has a lot to learn. His coach has devised a drill in practice, dubbed the Wiggins Drill. It’s a five-man fast break, no defenders, six times up and down the floor. Usually, a different player scores each time, but in this one, Wiggins has to score all six times.

“His mindset has to be that no matter what, you’re always running,” says Saunders, who well knows that Andrew’s mother, Marita Payne, won two sprint relay medals for Canada at the 1984 Olympics. “I want him to know every time, whether it’s a make, miss or whatever, that you’re sprinting.”

As a defender, Wiggins is more advanced. He relishes guarding the NBA’s best, using his quickness and athleticism. “He enjoys playing defence,” observes Knicks rookie head coach Derek Fisher. “That’s a skill in itself.”

Wiggins’ father Mitch, a role player on a stacked Houston Rockets team in the mid-1980s, was defence-oriented as well. Former teammate and Wolves broadcaster Jim Petersen remembers a cerebral player, with the mind of a coach. “Mitch was always like that,” Petersen says. “How to stop Michael Jordan. How to stop Clyde Drexler.”

Mitch, watching a game from the stands, considers where his youngest son stands. He is obviously biased but believes Andrew will be a top-15 two-way player in the NBA – by the end of the year. “How many players play defence?” Mitch says.

Young Wiggins’ 29-point performance against the Kings gives him – for a week or so anyway – the rookie scoring lead against rival Jabari Parker of the Milwaukee Bucks, the No. 2 draft pick and another 19-year-old against whom Wiggins has competed in high school and college.

In the Kings’ locker room, Rudy Gay knows the expectations. Gay played more than six sesasons in Memphis – the first at age 20 – before bouncing through a bad spell in Toronto and landing in Sacramento. “I played a lot,” says Gay of his start, “and it helped me. It’s not easy. They get to make mistakes and learn on the fly. That’s what you want from the future of your franchise.”

As winter grips Minneapolis, the Wolves occupy last place in the Western Conference. Top veterans, including Spanish guard Ricky Rubio, are sidelined with injuries. Wiggins and Bennett, the faces of the future, are carrying a load now. They have each other for support. During Bennett’s hard year in Cleveland – and Wiggins’s at-times-challenging one at Kansas – Bennett often sent words of encouragement to his friend.

“Always giving me advice,” Wiggins says, their Toronto backgrounds forging bonds. “Everyone knows each other. A lot of mutual friends.”

“Just telling him to keep going,” Bennett says. “Pretty much the world is in his hands.”

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