With the Minnesota Timberwolves in town Wednesday night for a much-anticipated matchup with the Toronto Raptors, all eyes were on Minnesota’s rookie sensation and Toronto-native Andrew Wiggins.
In this exclusive interview, Sportsnet’s Dave Zarum sits down with Timberwolves general manager Milt Newton to talk about the Kevin Garnett Effect, why Anthony Bennett needs to learn to let go, and why you won’t see Andrew Wiggins in a Raptors uniform anytime soon.
Dave Zarum: The city is buzzing with Andrew Wiggins in town. You guys obviously know how talented he is, and trading a player like Kevin Love to get him is proof of that. What were your expectations for Andrew, and is he meeting them so far?
Milt Newton: It’s an on-going process, and it will continue to be so. But we saw superstar potential in Andrew, and at every level he’s played he’s been the best player. And as we see him progressing we believe we can see that happen with him at this level in the NBA.
He’s had some really great games to this point, and the thing we like about him is that he’s very coachable, cares about his teammates, and always rises to the occasion—he’s had some of his best games against some of the best players in the league. So that’s given us vision of ’Drew in the future once he understands what it takes to be a pro in this league, how to have that confidence on any given night that you can be the best player on the floor.
DZ: Is conquering that mental aspect going to make or break his superstar potential?
MN: The one thing that every rookie, or second- or third-year player needs to understand is exactly what it takes to be successful in this league. We just added Kevin Garnett to our team, and for us he’s going to have a tremendous effect on Andrew and how he prepares for the game, takes care of his body, and all the different things that will allow him to play in the league for 20 years and be a multiple-time all-star and eventually a champion.
DZ: Looking back on the trade with Cleveland, I think it’s going to prove to be a great move for Andrew’s sake, if it hasn’t already. Do you think it helps for a young player like him to be on a team with longer-term goals where he can play through his mistakes?
MN: Yes, I think it helps in the long-term—for us and for him. It has allowed him to play substantial minutes early, but we also see him as the face of this basketball team, so if he’s going to assume that responsibility then what better way to get him indoctrinated from his rookie year into our organization? He’s getting minutes that most rookies don’t have the opportunity to receive early on to be able to establish themselves like Andrew has. But he’s also playing because he’s the best talent on our team and he knows what to do between the lines, so it works out for all of us.
DZ: With the constant hype around Wiggins it can be easy, perhaps, to forget that there’s another extremely talented Canadian on your roster. He’s struggled thus far in his career, but do you see still see Anthony Bennett as a future impact player? What’s the key for him going forward?
MN: Anthony’s one of the more talented players I’ve seen—explosive, real strong and physical—kind of like Larry Johnson was back in the day on the Knicks. He jumps out of the gym. The thing that we focus on and tell him is that he has to let those things in the past go. Let it go.
Anthony holds on to certain experiences, and when he first came into the league it wasn’t a particularly positive one, and I think that led to the injuries and his weight problem. But what we told Anthony from Day 1 is that this is a totally different experience for you. We’re in your corner and are going to do everything we can to help you develop into the player we think you can be. But he has to have a short memory. If you make a mistake, if you have a bad shooting game, have a bad practice, move on and get ready for the next one. Know what you have to do to improve, but don’t let it linger, which seems to happen a lot.
When we made the trade to bring him here, we told him from the start: “This is your opportunity to grab this position and run with it,” and he got hurt right away. He can’t really catch a break right now, it seems. But the kid is incredibly talented and I believe once he’s healthy and he gets his body right, his true ability will come to the surface.
DZ: I’d imagine having a guy like Garnett around helps that process for someone like Bennett.
MN: Definitely. I think Kevin being who he is, he wants to be considered the best teammate ever. He’s a wealth of information, and when he shares that information and becomes a sounding board for Anthony, it can do nothing but help him. I’ve already seen various conversations between those two that will help Anthony.
You know, I thought Anthony did a tremendous job getting his body into basketball shape over the summer. When he first came to training camp, for the first 3-4 days we were saying he was arguably the best player in camp. Then he hit a lull and went down from there, so it’s a situation of getting him back to where we know he can be.
DZ: Do you think there’s an intimidation factor for the young guys—particularly rookies—in approaching an established icon like Garnett?
MN: It’s funny, because you’ll hear a lot of things said about Kevin that makes him out to be this monster. But he really isn’t! One thing he’s very protective of is his teammates, and I think from day one when he came in and said what he said to the team, they knew he was the type of teammate who can help them. So they gravitated to him right away. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you do something you’re not supposed to he’ll call you out on it like a good teammate should. But on the other hand he’ll do everything he can to help and I think the guys understand that.
DZ: Shifting focus a bit here onto your opponent, what are your thoughts on the Toronto Raptors this season and how Masai Ujiri has gone about building his team?
MN: Masai is one of my best friends; we’ve spent a lot of time together in Africa with Basketball Without Borders. I think he’s done an outstanding job. He has a great basketball mind—a forward thinker—and he’s done an excellent job with this basketball club, so I think those guys are going to be just fine down the stretch.
DZ: So I take it that by now you heard his comments about wanting a Canadian on the team, and hinting that it could be someone like Andrew Wiggins. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s not the first GM who’s expressed that feeling—whether publicly or not. Has your phone been ringing off the hook all year with teams asking about your young star?
MN: No, Andrew’s a rookie and he’s going to be here for a very long time. But that’s something to be expected in the NBA. Sometimes it’s voiced publicly, which is not allowed. Sometimes it’s voiced behind closed doors. But, you know, we landed [in Toronto] and came to the hotel and there’s already a crowd out there waiting for him. I mean, it’s good to be considered a big superstar in your hometown, and for ’Drew there’s no way around it. And that’s something that we understand and we expect.
DZ: Do you think there’s value in bringing in a hometown guy? If a kid from Minneapolis was available would you take him over a comparable player from, say, Louisville?
MN: I get the appeal, but you go for the best player, period. If you go for a born-and-bred guy and he can’t play then you’re in trouble. You always go for the best player.