HOUSTON – The infamous rookie wall apparently behind, Timberwolves rookie Andrew Wiggins has passed the eighth pole and is headed at full speed toward home in an award-winning season.
His 31-point night in Friday’s 120-110 loss at Houston is his fourth 30-point game this season, a franchise record that eclipsed Isaiah Rider’s three 30-point games in the 1993-94 season.
Ten games remain in a season in which the Wolves lost for the 56th time in 72 games, but Flip Saunders watched Wiggins spin between two defenders for a one-handed, highlight-reel slam and posterize Rockets veteran Josh Smith with a two-handed slam.
Two points shy of the 33 that Houston MVP candidate James Harden scored, Wiggins’ performance was the kind of night that will keep hard-charging rookies Nikola Mirotic and Nerlens Noel away in the race for the shiny Rookie of the Year trophy.
“He has had a great year,” Saunders said of Wiggins. “No question he has shown that in this league you have to players like a Harden or someone who can create something out of nothing. That’s what he can do, a kid that just turned 20 years old and doing what he’s doing on a nightly basis now.”
Wiggins confessed months ago that he felt the fatigue of a rookie season in which he will play nearly three times as many games as he played during his one collegiate season at Kansas. But Friday night he declared that thing some call the “rookie wall” behind him even though he has played more minutes than any other NBA player since Dec. 1.
“I feel better than I did before,” he said. “I feel a lot better, a lot fresher.”
In three games since leading scorer Kevin Martin was sidelined because of strained hamstrings, Wiggins has scored 22, 27 and 31 points on 52 percent shooting.
“I’m trying hard because I know this is a time some people shut it down and other people go hard,” Wiggins said. “The last 10 games is where you see what people are made of. I’m just trying to finish hard.”
Harden scored 30 or more points for the 80th time in his career Friday, doing so with a 16-point third quarter. He scored 31 of his 33 points in the first three quarters alone. He made six of his team’s 20 three-pointers and made nine of 10 free throws while Wiggins went 12-for-15 from the free-throw line and made one three.
“He’s a great player,” Wiggins said. “He can score in many ways.”
Saunders watched Harden move one game closer to a possible league MVP season and suggested afterward that he sees some of the same things in his prize rookie, that ability to create something out of nothing.
“The last week, he’s playing at a really, really high level, and he’s doing things I didn’t really envision he’d get as far advanced as he is,” Saunders said. “It seems every time we give him more responsibility, he continues to thrive.”
It’s the kind of development that softens a 16-56 season.
“I didn’t really try to have too many expectations,” Wiggins said of his rookie season. “I just came in and tried to be the best I could be early.”
It’s the kind of development that had highlights of Wiggins’ latest moves up on YouTube before Friday’s game was barely over.
In one, he dribbled right and with perfect footwork spun left to split defenders Trevor Ariza — one of the league’s top wing defenders who shadowed him much of the night — and Joey Dorsey before finishing the play with a one-handed slam.
“I was attacking the basket,” he said. “I was opening things for other people, and my teammates were making plays. I’m learning. I think I did a lot better this game than previous games.”
Bennett eyes Sunday return
Sidelined since Feb. 20 because of a sprained right ankle, forward Anthony Bennett said he remains hopeful he can play Sunday in New Orleans. He said he’ll know more after working out on Saturday.
Without Bennett, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Kevin Garnett, Gary Neal and three others, the Wolves once again played with just eight available players.
Garnett was ill Friday and has been for the past five days. He was not at the arena but planned to meet his teammates at the plane for the flight home.
•Saunders didn’t travel with the team to Houston, but stopped in Cleveland on Thursday instead to visit his ailing father and scout an NCAA region featuring Kentucky and potential lottery picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein. Assistant coach Sam Mitchell ran Friday’s morning shoot.
• Martin didn’t play Friday for a third consecutive game because of what he called strained hamstrings after he played 44 minutes in consecutive games and 37 minutes in a third last week. He said he expects to play sometime next week.
•Forward Robbie Hummel, out since Jan. 25 because of a fractured hand, said he is approaching a return next week as well. Saunders said he wasn’t certain of that. If the Wolves intend to sign Sean Kilpatrick to a second 10-day hardship contract this weekend for guard help, they’ll have to be sure at least four players aren’t available to play for the next two weeks.