Projecting UCLA forward Kevin Love’s career arc and potential impact on the local NBA franchise dominated the really, really late-night conversations at Target Center on Thursday, the few that came after the Timberwolves — long past most of the daily newspapers’ deadlines — acquired Love in an eight-player deal that cost them USC guard O.J. Mayo, the player they had chosen third overall several hours earlier in the 2008 NBA Draft.
But for me, the fun came from researching (i.e., Googling), projecting and speculating about the potential impact of the Wolves’ two second-round picks.
Oops, better make that one second-round pick. The Wolves grabbed Nikola Pekovic, a 22-year-old big man from Montenegro, with the No. 31 pick (first selection in the second round). Then, three spots later, they seemingly snared Kansas guard Mario Chalmers. But about an hour after that, they officially shipped Chalmers’ rights to the Miami Heat for two future second-round picks and cash.
Oops, better make that no second-round picks. Pekovic won’t be playing in Minnesota or anywhere else in the NBA next season and probably the season after that. He is an accomplished Euroleague player who recently signed a lucrative two-year contract with Panathinaikos in Athens, Greece — ESPN.com reported its value at $4.5 million euros — so he won’t be in a hurry to hit the NBA to pay for groceries.
So much for all that pre-draft hype about the Wolves holding “three of the top 34 picks,” as if that guaranteed help both in quality and quantity for a team that went 22-60 last season. Instead, they will be adding the draft’s No. 5 player to a squad that looks decidedly different from, though not necessarily better than, last year’s dismal mix.
Love, from all available reports, is a unique player, a skilled, aggressive, semi-big man (6-foot-8) with a nice mid-range jump shot and superior passing ability. He might not have a natural position in the NBA, however — not quick enough, perhaps, at small forward, yet not burly enough at power forward. In sheer star power, he quickly could be eclipsed by Mayo, a terrific athlete with charisma and a big reputation who, just by showing up in a highlight reel, was an instant hit with Wolves fans who attended the team’s draft “party.” If that happens either short-term or long-term — if this plays out the way some other regrettable draft night swaps have, like Brandon Roy-for-Randy Foye in 2006 and some would say Ray Allen-for-Stephon Marbury back in 1996 — Love, the Wolves and vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale all will hear about it.
A rogue’s gallery of players
That’s just Second-Guessing 101, though, a cheap and easy way to assess the Wolves’ boom-or-bust performance in past first rounds. Tracking their second-round efforts takes this to a whole other level, offering up a rogue’s gallery of players and no discernible selection strategy at all.
If the first round of the draft has been a minefield for the Wolves through the years, the second round historically has been one part funhouse, one part landfill. The best second-rounder in franchise history remains its first: Villanova guard Doug West, who was a solid piece on those early, awful Minnesota teams before his career got derailed by alcohol problems and a trade to the Grizzlies. West ranks fourth in club history in points, fourth in free-throw attempts, third in steals, second in games started and third in minutes played.
In 1994, the Wolves drafted and soon thereafter cut Howard Eisley, who made it to two NBA Finals with the Utah Jazz. Forward Craig Smith was a second-round pick in 2006, a player who bulldozed his way into fans’ hearts as a rookie but dropped in effectiveness last season. Beyond that, the team’s second-rounders who showed, eh, a little something are countable on one hand, including guard Bracey Wright (2005), forward Andrae Patterson (1998), swingman Mark Davis (1995) and guard Chris Smith (1992).
That leaves … everybody else. From Gary Leonard four spots ahead of West in the inaugural draft through Marlon Maxey (1992), Igor Rakocevic (2000), Loren Woods (2001), Marcus Taylor (2002), Rick Rickert (2003) and Blake Stepp (2004) — washouts all — right up to unproven Chris Richard (2007).
But oh, the comic relief: Rakocevic, the equivalent of a college walk-on in his short stint in Minnesota, hitting a three-pointer and earnestly yanking his jersey to show his “heart” like a shorter, paler Kevin Garnett. Woods, the tightly wound big guy who showed more ferocity in a profane, high-volume coaches’ office tirade after a game than he ever demonstrated in competition. Rickert rocketed through three stages of notoriety with the Wolves, for a) leaving the Gophers to turn pro too early, b) benefiting from McHale’s and former coach Flip Saunders’ state-triotism to be drafted at all, and c) getting slugged by Garnett in a summer pick-up game.
Lost in the skyway
None of them, though, topped Gordon Malone. A lanky, low-wattage character from West Virginia, Malone was the Wolves’ 1997 second-rounder, drafted in large part to court his agent, Eric Fleisher, the same guy set to negotiate Garnett’s first mega-contract. Malone never made it past training camp, though. One day, he wandered off from Target Center in the downtown Minneapolis skyway — and got lost. Another day, he glanced at the Wolves’ exhibition-game schedule and remarked to a teammate, “Man, we play a lot of NBA teams in the preseason, don’t we?”
As for this year’s second-rounders, trading away Chalmers could sting the Wolves at some point. While the deal with Miami was structured such that the Heat actually chose him at No. 34, he might have been worth a look from the local club. With Kansas, the point guard was named Most Outstanding Player in this year’s NCAA Final Four, hitting the three-pointer that sent the national championship game into overtime to set up the Jayhawks’ victory over Memphis. A least one draft analyst, ESPN.com’s John Hollinger, crunched his numbers to rank Chalmers’ as the 11th best pro prospect in the draft — clearly, way higher than any NBA team had him — but in Miami, the need for a point guard and a talented ensemble (Dwyane Wade, Michael Beasley, Shawn Marion) could boost Chalmers’ chances for success.
Besides, he would have been a Minnesota legacy pick as a cousin to both long-ago second-rounder Chris Smith and to Lionel Chalmers, the Clippers guard thrown into the Sam Cassell-Marko Jaric trade in 2005.
Pekovic, meanwhile, was described by someone during the draft telecast as a “mid-lottery talent.” McHale said of him: “He’s just a brute. He’s 6-11, 260 and he really puts the wood on you.” That suggests a double dose of risk: If Pekovic proves to be nowhere near that good, the Wolves will have yet another big guy stashed in Europe while providing no actual help.
Let’s not forget Loukas Mavrokefalidis, the lumbering product of the Czech Republic who was another 2006 second-rounder. “Big Luke,” McHale’s pronunciation-wary handle for him, was supposed to have spent the past two seasons developing into a legit NBA player. But Jim Stack, Minnesota’s general manager, said in the wee hours Friday that Mavrokefalidis signed with the famous Greek team Olympiakos for money rather than opportunity, and spent the most recent season playing little and showing less. From the sound of it, he isn’t in the Wolves plans.
Then again, Pekovic might be the real thing but decide that he doesn’t need the NBA on his resume. The Euro game feeds its players’ bank accounts and egos like never before — beyond the current sweet exchange rate, euro to U.S. dollar, the international teams don’t take big tax bites out of the players’ salaries and typically pick up housing and other expenses. So this pick could wind up like Portland’s 1986 selection of Lithuania’s massive marvel, Arvydas Sabonis. The Trail Blazers had to wait nine years before the 7-foot-3 Sabonis, by then heavier and slower, brought his altered game to the NBA.
Pekovic is said to be so good that virtually any NBA team that held the 31st pick — the first spot not bound by the first round’s salary scale, allowing for a fatter rookie contract whenever he comes over — was going to grab him. “One of the most interesting things,” McHale said, “was the amount of calls [from other teams] we got on No. 31.”
That, at least, is something that never before has been said about a Wolves second-round pick.