LOS ANGELES – Timberwolves rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are four games away from the end of an introductory season more demanding than whatever they might have imagined.
Each player met with coach and chief basketball executive Flip Saunders this week to discuss the season that soon will be over and the summer to come. Each told Saunders nobody could have prepared their young legs and young minds for the midnight flights and seemingly endless travel that concludes their road schedule with back-to-back games Friday against the Lakers in Los Angeles and Saturday in Golden State.
Never mind that each just turned 20 years old, too.
By late Saturday night, they will have played four games in five nights — all in different cities — for the second time this season (and the second time in three weeks as well).
“Like I tried to explain it to Coach,” LaVine said, “one day you got off the plane in New Orleans at like 4 in the morning. The next morning, you had shootaround at 10:30 and then the next day we flew out to, like, Mexico. It’s just a grind on you. You don’t understand it unless you’ve been through it. I definitely did not understand it.”
The season was such a grind and such a blur that the details have become jumbled in LaVine’s mind: The Wolves flew into New Orleans from Mexico City almost at dawn on a Thursday after a late-night game there the night before and then had a Friday morning shootaround for a game that night, only 48 hours after they last played Houston.
“You just take it day by day,” Wiggins said. “That’s where treatment comes in, eating right, treating your body well. Some days it’s difficult, but you wake up ready to compete in another game.”
Wiggins has played all 78 games and is within four games of reaching a goal he set to play all 82. LaVine has played 73, logging more minutes (23-plus a game) than he could have imagined when the season started.
Wiggins hit the proverbial rookie wall months ago, when he said he felt tired nearly all the time, and played his way through it, all the way likely to Rookie of the Year honors after the season ends Wednesday against Oklahoma City at Target Center.
LaVine leaned back on the bench during a timeout in a game recently struggling to catch his breath and remarked to Saunders that he was tired.
Saunders doesn’t ever remember a player saying it to him like that quite before.
“I’m pretty tired,” LaVine said after Wednesday’s 116-91 loss at Portland, the second part of back-to-back games after the Wolves lost Tuesday in Sacramento. “I’m one of the best in-shape people and even I get tired sometimes.”
Still, he and Wiggins — each a teenager only weeks ago — have carried the Wolves staggering to the end of a season marred by injuries to veteran starters Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin. Wiggins scored 29 points Wednesday and is averaging 24.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in his past nine games. LaVine scored 18 points and had six assists at Portland. He has started 13 of the past 14 games at point guard and is averaging 18 points, 5.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds during that stretch.
“They at least fought through some things,” Saunders said after Wednesday’s game.
“They were tired, but they fought through the second half, into the fourth quarter. There’s light at the end of tunnel here for them, so they’ve got to try and finish strong here.”
Both rookies are days away from getting some rest, at least for a little while.
“This summer will be huge for them,” Saunders said. “To get to the next level for both of them, it’s going to take strength. Getting stronger, it’s the progress that’s going to take them from kids to making them grown men.”