MINNEAPOLIS -- As NBA debuts go, this one was lovely.
Minnesota rookie Kevin Love had 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes and Al Jefferson had 21 points and 10 rebounds to help the Timberwolves to a 98-96 victory over the rebuilding Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.
"It's the start of my dream, to tell you the truth," Love said. "It was a dream to play in college, but this is something I've been working on my whole life, to get into the NBA in big arenas like this, big crowds and getting our first win."
John Salmons scored 21 of his 24 points in the second half and rookie Jason Thompson had 18 points and 10 boards for the Kings, who nearly rallied to steal the game in the closing minutes.
The Kings had two chances to tie or take the lead in the final 33 seconds, but Kevin Martin missed two open 3-pointers, and Salmons' put-back at the buzzer was off the mark.
Spencer Hawes had 12 points and 14 rebounds and Martin added 17 points on 5-for-19 shooting for the Kings.
"If Kevin has any type of game at all, we beat this team by 10," coach Reggie Theus said.
Minnesota coach Randy Wittman showed a lot of faith in the fifth overall pick from UCLA who was acquired with Mike Miller in a draft-night trade that sent O.J. Mayo to Memphis. Though Love didn't get the start, he was inserted with the offense growing stagnant in the fourth quarter, and immediately made a difference.
With the Wolves clinging to an 81-80 lead, Love threw down a dunk to get the crowd going, then made a pretty little baby hook shot and converted the three-point play to give Minnesota a 90-84 lead with 6:17 to go.
Not to say there weren't some rookie moments.
He left to a nice ovation with 3:40 to play, shortly after botching an offensive play call. As he came to the bench, Wittman looked at him with arms raised and Love simply replied, "I didn't even realize."
"Kevin Love played great for his first game as a rookie," Wittman said.
Theus was equally pleased with his first-round pick.
The Kings surprised many by taking Thompson out of little-known Rider with the 12th pick in the draft. He was the first college senior taken, ahead of bigger names like Georgetown center Roy Hibbert, Kansas guard Brandon Rush and LSU forward Anthony Randolph.
"I thought Jason Thompson played extremely well, made a few mistakes defensively, but overall played big, like big guys are supposed to do down around the basket," Theus said.
All in all, the Kings had to be encouraged with the first game of a new era. Minnesota is about a half-year ahead of the Kings on the rebuilding path, having traded cornerstone Kevin Garnett to Boston in the summer of 2007.
The Kings shipped lynch pin Mike Bibby to Atlanta during last season and completed the dismantling this summer by sending Ron Artest to Houston for Bobby Jackson, Donte Greene and a first-round draft pick.
"We're proud that we hung in there," Salmons said. "We never gave up, we kept fighting. That's an encouraging thing. Definitely built some character today."
In his first 10 minutes of action, Love had seven points, seven rebounds and two assists to give the Wolves a 56-49 halftime lead. It was a nice rebound from his 1-for-10 shooting night in a preseason game against Chicago last week.
"People are going to have to realize that for a rookie, there's always ups and downs. Nobody's ever perfect," Love said. "There's going to be some growing pains and there's going to be times when I'm down. But in the times that I'm up, I'm hoping people are by my side and the times that I'm down, I hope people still got my back."
The Love clan was in the house for Kevin's first NBA game, including his uncle and Beach Boys founder Mike Love. ... Minnesota was a paltry 11-for-22 from the free throw line. ... Hawes started for Brad Miller, who served the first of a five-game suspension for violating the league's drug program. ... Minnesota PG Sebastian Telfair served the first of a two-game suspension stemming from a gun charge in 2007.