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First two NBA Draft picks face off Friday in Las Vegas

(John Autey, Pioneer Press) Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns goes between the legs on a dunk during the Minnesota Timberwolves summer league practice Wednesday at the Target Center in Minneapolis.

By Marcus R. Fuller

St. Paul Pioneer Press

Timberwolves assistant Ryan Saunders was among hundreds of spectators who couldn’t get into the 3,000-seat gym to see last year’s featured NBA Summer League matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

“I was trying to get in the gym, but it was so crowded that I kind of just stayed off to the side,” he recalled.

This time, Saunders will watch from the bench.

Minnesota’s summer league team, coached by Saunders, will open at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas today against the Los Angeles Lakers, a game that will pit top pick Karl-Anthony Towns against No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell.

Towns and Russell have superstar potential and are strong candidates for rookie of the year, so the schedule might be starting with its most anticipated game.

“Me and D’Angelo are great friends; we’re like brothers almost,” Towns said after the Wolves broke minicamp on Thursday. “We’re both with the same agency (CAA Sports). We’ve been with each other this whole summer with this draft process. Every step we’ve mostly taken with each other, so it’s been awesome to see him succeed. Can’t wait to go out there and compete.”

The players first met as seniors in high school, when Towns’ St. Joseph Metuchen (N.J.) lost to Russell’s Montverde Academy, 79-70. Towns had 22 points and 11 rebounds; Russell 24 points and seven assists.

“He came out with the W,” Towns said. “But this whole summer, we’ve been working out together tremendously every day, weight lifting every day, living with each other every day. So it’s going to be cool to go out there and compete.”

Wiggins vs. Parker was a more intriguing matchup because they both played small forward. There also was heavy debate about which of them should go No. 1 overall.

A similar matchup this year would’ve been Towns vs. former Duke center Jahlil Okafor, but the Lakers picked Russell instead, and Okafor, picked third overall by Philadelphia, and Towns aren’t scheduled to meet in Vegas.

Today, Towns could battle inside with the Lakers’ 6-9 forward Julius Randle, a fellow Kentucky alum who left after his freshman season in 2014. Randle fractured his tibia in the regular season opener last year, but he’s expected to today against the Wolves.

“Julius and I worked out this summer together at Kentucky,” Towns said. “I think people forget how good he was.”

Apple Valley native and former Duke point guard Tyus Jones will probably draw the assignment of defending Russell. They were two of the best floor leaders in college basketball as freshmen last season.

“It’s not about individual matchups; I’ve never been big on those,” Jones said. “It’s always about winning. That’s how I approach the game. That’s how these guys approach the game.”

Saunders planned Thursday to talk to former Ohio State forward Sam Thompson about Russell. Thompson is now Towns’ teammate with Minnesota in Vegas.

“They’re young guys with a lot of potential and talent,” Thompson said of Towns and Russell. “They can do a lot of things on the court, and they’re mature beyond their years. They’re similar in the respect that Karl can do things you don’t expect (centers) to do, and D’Angelo can do things you don’t normally expect guards to do.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.