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Timberwolves’ rookies proved they belong in team’s plans

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie (20) and forward Keita Bates-Diop (33) high five in the second quarter against Oklahoma City Thunder at Target Center in Minneapolis on Oct. 5, 2018. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Josh Okogie noted one big difference between the start of his rookie season and the end of it last Saturday in Denver.

“I’m a little more sore, I can tell you that,” Okogie said.

Call those growing pains. The Timberwolves’ first-round pick experienced plenty of growth this season, developing as a defender, play-maker and decision-maker over the course of his first NBA campaign.

“I think I’m a better player now, smarter player” Okogie said. “I think I’ve improved in a lot of areas.”

Most who watched him would agree, a positive for a franchise that hopes to grow into a consistent contender. The fact that Minnesota had two such rookies, both of whom appear capable of playing in NBA rotations for the foreseeable future, is reason for optimism.

Don’t forget about Keita Bates-Diop.

Okogie was the first-round pick who, thanks to a sudden trade request and major injury, spent much of the season in the starting lineup. He played in 72 games, including each of the Wolves’ final 58, and earned a spot in the Rising Stars Challenge at the all-star break.

“I didn’t have much expectations coming in because I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” Okogie said. “There was a lot of things I couldn’t control. But I think if I did have expectations, I think I definitely exceeded them.”

Okogie was tasked with guarding some of the NBA’s best wings and, for the most part, answered the call. He famously limited James Harden during the reigning MVP’s trip to Target Center and challenged the likes of Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook.

“I think in the NBA, the biggest thing is just finding your opportunity,” Okogie said. “When you do find it, you want to make sure you’re ready. I think I did a good job of staying ready.”

They came for Bates-Diop, too, but later. The wing spent much of the season’s first half in the G-League, playing 16 games with the Iowa Wolves. When he was in Minnesota, he was initially glued to the bench. But he used that time wisely by studying teammates such as Luol Deng and Dario Saric.

With injuries to Robert Covington and Deng came increased opportunities for Bates-Diop. The Big Ten Player of the year as a junior at Ohio State stuck in the Timberwolves’ rotation by doing much of what he did with the Buckeyes, serving as one of the team’s better perimeter defenders and doing all of the little things offensively.

Bates-Diop said his rookie of the year was about supporting star players Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Derrick Rose. “We try to make things easier on them,” he said. “Defensively, guarding one through five, I think that’s where I’m going to make my mark.”

Okogie started to make his mark late in the season. In one 10-game stretch, he averaged 12.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 34 percent from 3-point range after plowing his way through the proverbial rookie wall.

At first something of a bull in a China shop, flying around 100 mph, he evolved into a player who takes his time to read the game and react to what’s unfolding in front of him.

Asked what he learned this season, the 20-year-old guard responded, “How ready I was.”

“Obviously being in college, you always idolized everybody, saying I want to be just like this one day,” Okogie said. “Then you get there and you just don’t know … how much better you have to be until you actually get on the court. I think I’ve done a good job of kind of adjusting and proving I belong.”

Bates-Diop clearly feels the same. Where does his confidence stand heading into the offseason?

“It’s pretty high right now,” he said.

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