MINNEAPOLIS - As Minnesota Timberwolves president and coach Flip Saunders spoke with Kevin Garnett this summer, there was no doubt in his mind that the motivation and passion was still there, even at 39 years old.
Now that Garnett is returning for a 21st season in the NBA, Saunders says he is counting on the franchise icon to not only be a leader off the court, but a productive player on it as well.
"The last time I saw him this excited entering into a summertime was when we had the ability to get Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell back in (2003)," Saunders said on Friday night, referring to the moves that helped catapult the Timberwolves to the Western Conference finals that season. "He's very committed."
Garnett signed his two-year, $16 million contract on Friday. Even though he only played five games after an emotional return to Minnesota in a February trade from the Brooklyn Nets, Saunders said he expects Garnett to start, play 20 minutes a night and be a difference maker, especially on the defensive end.
Saunders said he also expects Garnett to be able to play in some back-to-backs.
"When he was playing for us, many times he looked like he could play 30 minutes and be effective," Saunders said. "His efficiency rating is pretty high, in the 20s. His big thing is his body just wasn't able to bounce back like it did when he was in his prime."
Garnett's numbers have been in decline over the last few seasons and he readily acknowledges that he is no longer the MVP-winning force he was during his first tour with the Wolves. But in the small sample of games Garnett played here last season, the impact he made on the team's defensive rating was noticeable.
He'll also be counted on to be the mentor for a young roster that includes No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, rookie point guard Tyus Jones and 20-year-olds Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.
Garnett says he's ready for it.
"I'm excited to be part of this process for the future," Garnett said in a statement issued by the team. "I can't wait to build something special with this group of guys. Hopefully I can help, teach, and also continue to grow and learn from the young guys. It should be great. I'm looking forward to it all. The process to greatness starts now!"
The signing leaves one move left for the Timberwolves to make. They have agreed to terms with Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica, and he is expected in town next week to sign the contract and tour their new practice facility.