When the Minnesota Timberwolves dispatched star Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers, in return for young Canadians Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, a chorus of commentators belted out predictions of an ugly season ahead, loss after loss after loss.
No one forecasts the young Timberwolves will be a true force in the NBA's difficult Western Conference but as the training camps begin on Monday, the prospects for Minnesota appear to be at least better than mired at the bottom of the league.
The team will stumble, often, but just as often the Timberwolves are poised to be an electric show, sprinting up and down the floor, a solid defence, and a transition offence full of highlight reel dunks and showtime alley-oops.
Milt Newton, the team's general manager, likes to note the entire roster, minus one player, from last year's 40-42 team is back, along with the new additions, back-to-back No. 1 draft picks, Bennett and Wiggins, and veteran Thaddeus Young from Philadelphia.
Here is one example of the team's potential potency. The Timberwolves have the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 6 ranked players in steals last year, and bring in the NBA-ready defence of Wiggins. The team appears set to run the floor, with the pillar of fourth-year point guard Ricky Rubio (No. 2 in steals) orchestrating the attack.
Minnesota could be what the Phoenix Suns were last year. The 2013-14 Suns were widely predicted to finish dead last, and nearly made the playoffs.
"We're going to win our share of games," Newton said in an interview. "I believe we're going to surprise a lot of people. If we compete in practice, and we play as a team and we play hard, the sky's the limit for this team."
The loss of a star such as Love – like the departure of Kevin Garnett seven years earlier – would usually gut the team's fans. However, enthusiasm in Minnesota is reinvigorated, off a low. The Timberwolves were fourth-last in attendance last year and the team's season ticket base of 7,400 cratered to 6,000 this summer. The arrival of Wiggins, Bennett and Young propelled a one-week record sale, for Minnesota, of 300 full season tickets in late August.
To stoke the excitement – after a late-August debut at the state fair; Bennett ate alligator – the Timberwolves stage on Monday at midnight a "Dunks After Dark" at Minnesota State University, where the team will hold training camp. Modelled after similar events at colleges in the United States, the otherworldly leaping ability of Wiggins, and fellow first-round pick Zach LaVine, will be star attractions.
The question remains, as Sports Illustrated put it last week: How good is Andrew Wiggins?
The consensus is Wiggins is an immediately dangerous defender and soon an all-star defender, so fast, laterally, left foot to right, long arms, and if he miscues, so quick to recover on a feint, and in general difficult to get any sort of a good jumper off of. On offence, like all young players, he needs work, especially shooting and ball handling.
Wiggins is a likely starter, possibly splitting time between small forward on the wing, and shooting guard.
How much floor time Bennett sees is another question. After a poor rookie season, but a promising summer, Bennett looks as if he'll slot in behind power forward Young, 26, who scored 18 points a game last year (and was No. 3 in steals). Bennett, 21, seeks redemption this year, having played well in Las Vegas at NBA Summer League and, according to Newton, has worked out like a fiend.
"He's put his body through gruelling workouts, mentally knowing that he can make one more step, when he's tired beyond belief," said Newton of Bennett, who last year was lambasted for subpar fitness.
"A lot of people may have forgotten what type of player he is," Newton said. "He will remind people of that shortly."
It will be fun to watch back-to-back No. 1s – both from the Toronto area – on one team. It is a rare incidence, top picks together, but not for these two men. Bennett and Wiggins have often played together. As teenagers, they were on the elite club team CIA Bounce. Another time, in the Nike Hoop Summit, a high school all-star game, Wiggins and Bennett led Team World to a rare victory over Team USA, in April, 2012. Wiggins, at 17 the youngest player on the floor, was arguably the best of all the prospects, and Bennett drained a long three-pointer to seal the win.
The future of the so-long-woeful Minnesota Timberwolves, at least in part and perhaps largely, rests on the shoulders of two Canadians who have surprised skeptics before.
"They will dictate who plays, and how much they play," Newton said. "If any one player comes in to camp and is totally dominating, chances are that's the player that is going to be playing early, and playing often."