INDIANAPOLIS – It didn’t take those usually knowledgeable Indiana basketball fans long — mere minutes — before they directed “Overrated!” chants toward Timberwolves rookie Andrew Wiggins during Tuesday’s preseason opener at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
By the time his team walked out convincing 103-90 losers to Indiana, new Wolves coach Flip Saunders used any other word but that to describe the centerpiece of August’s blockbuster Kevin Love trade and his first real NBA debut.
On a night when the Wolves sat two likely starters as well as two other rotation players, Wiggins stepped up with a 32-minute, 18-point, three-block performance that provided a glimpse of the franchise’s newfound future, particularly when he shared the floor late in a lost game with fellow youngsters Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Glenn Robinson III and Gorgui Dieng.
Wiggins shot 4-for-11 from the field in a game in which he and his teammates shot just 37 percent and trailed by as many as 21 points early in the fourth quarter. He also reached the free-throw line for 10 shots and showed glimpses of the defensive force Saunders expects him to become.
“You could see today when you watch him, he’s always going to get two or three ‘aahs’ a game,” Saunders said. “You know, ‘Ooh-aahs’ by what he does. You can see he’s not just an athlete. He’s skilled. He can get his shot when he wants. He made a couple threes (2-for-2), he got to the free-throw line (8-for-10). The more he plays with veteran guys, the more he’ll improve.”
The Wolves played without injured Kevin Martin and Anthony Bennett and resting veterans Nikola Pekovic and Mo Williams, which gave Wiggins and his young teammates an open stage to both fail and deliver tantalizing glimpses of what they can become.
Wiggins did so alternately Tuesday, getting his step-back jump shot blocked early in his introduction to the pace of an NBA game and then later impressing defensively with his long arms and those three blocked shots.
“He covers a lot of ground,” Saunders said. “Today, he was actually better than I thought he’d be.”
He was certainly better than, well, overrated.
“That’s part of the game,” Wiggins said of chants he claimed not to hear so much. “People are going to talk. You’re going to have people who love you, people who hate it. Playing college ball at KU [Kansas University], going to K-State, Iowa State, Oklahoma, all the fans get on you. I’m used to it.”
He played a preseason opener with the kind of intensity some NBA scouts questioned about him before last summer’s draft, when Cleveland made him the first player selected before trading him to the Wolves in August.
Wiggins started at small forward alongside veteran Corey Brewer, who played shooting guard with Martin out injured.
“That’s a lot of length,” LaVine said. “They’re both about 6-9, 6-8 with tremendous arms. Andrew’s, he’s active. He’s got like a 7-foot wing span at 6-8. I mean, he’s going to turn into a really, really good defender.”
Ups and downs
With the game well out of reach, Robinson and LaVine teamed up for an impressive alley-oop dunk in the fourth quarter. Robinson did the passing and LaVine did the dunking, with a one-hander on a night when both players noticed and struggled at times to adjust to a faster pace of play.
“He’s athletic,” Robinson said. “I trust him.”
LaVine made three of 11 shots from the field while playing some at both guard positions. Fellow point guards Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea each made one of six shots. So, too, did forward Robbie Hummel.
“Zach had a rough night tonight,” Saunders said. “As I told him, ‘You got your butt kicked.’ That’s part of it. The best thing in the NBA is to come back two days later and see what you have. It’s a tough position to play.”
•Dieng delivered a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double in 29½ minutes and did so while playing the entire fourth quarter with five fouls. Ronny Turiaf started the second half at center because Dieng already had four fouls by then.
“He allowed some post-ups down deep,” Saunders said of Dieng. “He’s better than that.”
• The Wolves likely will have only optional workouts at home Wednesday, essentially their first off day since they opened training camp.
• Tuesday’s game was a homecoming of sorts for two in the Wolves’ party:
Assistant coach Sam Mitchell played for the Pacers for three seasons in the early 1990s .
And training-camp invitee Kyrylo Fesenko played for them for about three months in 2012.