Former Timberwolves star Ricky Rubio came “home” Friday to a newly remodeled Target Center he almost didn’t recognize and to an introductory ovation that reminded him of “all the love” he said he felt during six seasons spent here.
“It doesn’t feel like I’m here,” he said.
The night before the Wolves’ home opener, Rubio returned to the home he still owns here to visit friend and renter Nemanja Bjelica and his newborn son and also strolled the city he calls America’s most underrated.
Traded to Utah last summer, he did so sporting his new look: a bushy beard, hair grown out and gathered in a man bun at shootaround, a tattooed arm.
“Last night I walking around the city and it felt like I never left,” Rubio said. “It’s good to be back home, but it’s another chapter in my life. I have to move on, and I’m pretty excited about playing for the Utah Jazz.”
It was Bjelica who said he felt emotional about his former teammate’s return.
“He was not just my teammate,” Bjelica said. “He’s a very good friend.”
Before Friday’s game, Wolves young star Karl-Anthony Towns was asked how strange it might feel to see his former teammate wearing No. 3 for the Jazz rather than No. 9 for the Wolves.
“I mean, how strange is it going to be with Ricky with a ponytail?” he asked. “How about that one? It’s going to be different. Ricky was definitely the first one to make me feel comfortable in Minnesota. … Being able to play with him was a huge honor. I became a smarter player. I just learned a lot from him.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau says don’t draw any conclusions from Wednesday’s season opener at San Antonio, where backup point guard Tyus Jones played the entire fourth quarter while starter Jeff Teague sat. He called it an aberration and said Teague will finish “99 percent” of games this season.
“It was the way the game unfolded,” Thibodeau said.
He said he intended to send Teague back into the game with eight minutes left, then didn’t because the group on the floor that included Jones played his team back into the game. When the Wolves took a brief lead with 4:50 left, he decided to ride Jones, Jamal Crawford and others to the finish.
The Wolves finally got their Millsap on Friday. That is, the G League’s Iowa Wolves got Elijah Millsap. He’s the brother of Paul Millsap, whom the Wolves pursued in free agency last summer. The Wolves’ new G League team in Iowa traded the first pick in Saturday’s G League draft and a player to Phoenix’s team for the rights to Millsap, Michael Bryson and the draft’s eighth pick.
Wolves scout Brad Jones is now the Iowa GM and player personnel director Brian Pauga is involved, too.
“They have a good understanding of the league,” Thibodeau said. “It’s important. They put a lot of time into it.”
No place like home
The Wolves played their first game at $140 million remodeled Target Center, which includes a bigger, much better home locker room.
“I think all that stuff matters,” Thibodeau said. “When you’re talking free agents, the contract is the main thing and then it’s who you’re playing with. And then it’s facilities, things like that. This is big for us.”
St. Cloud’s own
Utah guard Nate Wolters’ family and friends traveled from St. Cloud — his hometown — for Friday’s game. The Jazz signed him to one of those new two-way contracts after he played in Turkey and Serbia the past two seasons.
Wolters will remain with the Jazz until its G League team right in Salt Lake City starts practice next week. “It just seemed like a good organization, good coaching staff, good player development,” he said.
• The Wolves’ new locker room has lighted locker nameplates bearing each player’s first and last name, except for one. At Shabazz Muhammad’s request, his simply reads “Bazz.”