Rookie point guard Tyus Jones and his fellow Timberwolves newcomers said hello to the NBA by seeing Oklahoma City superstars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant up close and personal in a 122-99 preseason loss at Target Center.
Believing his team's future really is now, interim head coach Sam Mitchell started two players 19 years old, two 20 years old and 39-year-old Kevin Garnett against a Thunder team remade with new coach Billy Donovan and Durant back after he played just 27 games last season because of a fractured foot.
Jones and No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns — the two teenagers — among others learned just how steep the Western Conference's climb is on a night when Westbrook delivered 14 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds and Durant scored 15 points before each sat down after playing 22 minutes.
Jones started the game in his first real NBA action because the Wolves are being cautious with Ricky Rubio's strained quad.
"It's tough: Tyus in his first NBA game, first start got Russell Westbrook, who we all know looks like he was playing the seventh game of the NBA Finals," Mitchell said. "He has just one motor and that's the thing we're trying to get from our players. We point to guys like that and try to get all our guys to understand that's how you have to play this game. The only way you learn is go out and compete against these guys."
Lesson learned, Jones said.
"I just look at it as any opportunity to get better," said Jones, who missed all five field goals he attempted and had four assists, a rebound and a steal with a minus-28 rating in 24 minutes played. "I've played against a lot of people in my life, but you don't see a guy with the speed Westbrook has every day. You want to go up against the best."
Before the game, Mitchell was asked what he might tell Jones on a night like Wednesday. "Tyus got ESPN, cable," Mitchell said. "I don't have to tell him much. He knows."
He does now.
Maybe next time …
Zach LaVine started at shooting guard, a position Mitchell said Tuesday is his to hold over veteran Kevin Martin unless LaVine gives it away. Wednesday's game was an inauspicious start: Eight points in nearly 29 minutes on 2-for-11 shooting and a minus-18 rating.
Asked if he's willing to live with nights like Wednesday's, Mitchell said: "Yeah, because we know the payoff. Zach still has a lot of learning to do and we understand we're asking a lot of him.
"He has to learn on the fly and get better. He just turned 20. He's still a young player. We understand that. We're going to push him and coach him. There are no shortcuts to becoming good.
"You look at OKC the first two years with Durant and those guys, they didn't look like this. So you have to give these guys time to grow."
Good and bad
Towns showed in his debut he can indeed shoot it with range. He made eight of 12 shots — most of them jumpers — and had 18 points and five rebounds in 28 minutes.
"Karl did some good things, but you could see his youthful exuberance, going for pump fakes and things of that nature," Mitchell said.
"What Karl has to understand is, it will come with time: When to go try to block shots and when to stay at home. That's something you learn from experience. It doesn't just happen overnight."
Towns called his 66 percent shooting, his three turnovers, his exuberance not nearly good enough.
"Definitely some youth showing," he said.
"First game, I'll clean it up. It's easy to clean things like that up when you have a Defensive Player of the Year like KG on the squad."
•Center Gorgui Dieng made six of eight shots and scored 18 points off the bench. "Gorgui has been outstanding the last three days," Mitchell said, "and it just carried over."
•Durant played his first game since February: "I felt great. Once I got on the court, I felt right at home."
•Mitchell praised newcomer Nemanja Bjelica's playmaking after an 11-point, five-rebound, two-assist night in 20-plus minutes but said coaches must work with him on defensive coverages.
•LaVine shot a Foot Locker commercial with Durant in July. "I'm a huge fan of his," Durant said. "He's going to be a really good player."
•Wolves veteran forward Tayshaun Prince was scratched from the game because of dental work.