I was packing up and making a pit stop on my way out of Target Center late Thursday when I ran into Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, headed home after a long and eventful NBA draft for his franchise. Chitchat topic No. 1 was Ricky Rubio, the teenage point guard and Spanish sensation that the Wolves snared with the draft’s fifth overall pick.
Concerns about Rubio’s ability to buy his way out of his Euroleague contract by next season, thereby freeing him to play in the NBA, intensified in the anxious minutes-turned-hours after the selection. For those watching the draft telecast on ESPN, his facial expressions and body language weren’t … right. By the time Rubio spoke with Twin Cities media in a conference call, it wasn’t just his ability to execute a buyout that loomed — it was his interest in even doing so once he learned he was bound for Minnesota.
Taylor acknowledged the issue and, like new president of basketball operations David Kahn a short while earlier, didn’t minimize its potential impact (more than embarrassment, veering toward disaster), at least in terms of fan relations and marketing ambitions. But this sort of initial reaction to the Upper Midwest — which ranks somewhere between learning you need to re-take a colonoscopy and inadvertently touching wet gum under a theater armrest — is old news to Minnesotans.
Remember “Disco” Darrin Nelson dragging his feet when the Vikings took him (over Marcus Allen) in the 1982 NFL draft? Nelson was only from California — Rubio’s from Spain. When a reporter played word-association with him at the NBA draft headquarters in New York, the 18-year-old’s instant response to “Minnesota” was “too cold.”
So Taylor sounded undeterred as he briskly left the building. “We’re going to try to get him, his mother and his father in here tomorrow [Friday],” he said. Good idea: Bring the Rubios in on a day the temperature was forecast to hit 91.
Then this dropped in my e-mailbox just before 9 a.m. today: “Timberwolves to Introduce 2009 First-Round Draft Picks Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington at Press Conference.”
Uh-oh. Or if you prefer, Ay caramba! Had the Wolves, and Kahn in his first draft as the team’s basketball boss, crossed the Rubio-con?
My word-association reaction, at that moment, was: “Typical Wolves.” The obvious theme seemed to be all too familiar, that the more things change for that franchise, the more they remain the same. Kevin McHale? Kahn? What’s the difference? For the Wolves, it never has been just a draft — it’s been an adventure.
Last year, many of the team’s fans went to bed excited about the selection of USC guard O.J. Mayo, a highlight-reel sort of talent. They woke up the next morning to learn that Mayo had been traded for UCLA power forward Kevin Love, a position already competently filled by Al Jefferson. The move turned out OK (Love has legit skills and was a tenacious rookie rebounder), but still … Prior to that, there were other surprises and too-clever-by-half maneuvers, notorious enough that we can skip details and merely drop names: Ndudi Ebi. Brandon Roy/Randy Foye. Rick Rickert. William Avery. Isaiah Rider. Luc Longley.
Still, landing the second-most hyped player in Thursday’s event, with star potential allegedly second to none, only to find out that he can’t or won’t play the following season for Minnesota would rank way up there on a draft-gaffe scale. So too, it seemed, would Kahn’s decision to select — immediately after Rubio, literally five minutes later — another point guard, Syracuse’s Flynn. Invoking respected precedents such as Boston (which used Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson in a similar backcourt tandem) and Detroit (Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars) only made Kahn sound eerily like McHale (“they’re guards,” he always would say, dismissing “point” and “shooting” labels).
Also, know that rookie point guards in the NBA almost always have a rough go of it; they have massive responsibility for running their team’s offense, heavy oversight from their head coaches and, usually, the biggest physical hurdles in strength and size to scale. So not only had the Wolves neglected needs at other spots on the court, they drafted two guys who will require time to show their “A” games — and one on top of the other.
But then Kahn came down from the draft bunker to explain things, and some of the doom, gloom and sarcasm began to lift.
Kahn: “Nobody here tonight, myself especially, will be banging his fist on the table, saying ‘He must be here!’ It’s a very complicated matter. We need to understand that we’re not in control of the situation vis a vis the buyout. … I think it’s too early to worry about that. But I said this to the agent [Dan Fegan] tonight: If any team in this league can afford to wait a year, dare I say two, it’s us. Y’know? It’s us.”
It’s not as if the Wolves, in Kahn’s expressed ambition of chasing a championship, are going to vault from 24 victories last season to 45 to 50 in 2009-10, with or without Rubio on board. If the kid does not arrange a buyout — his DKV Joventut club holds a $6.6 million clause, which could be negotiated down — he would stay in Spain but still develop as a player in worthwhile ways. The Wolves hold his NBA rights indefinitely, so if Rubio’s desire to play at the game’s highest level is real, only the worst sort of stare-down could force Minnesota into blinking and trading him. Meanwhile, Flynn — who sounded excited enough to climb through the speaker phone for his first Wolves workout — would soak up the minutes not needed for Rubio.
Mostly, though, Kahn came with a voice of reason that kept some of Thursday’s urgency in perspective.
“Like I’ve said, this is just step one,” Kahn said. “We simply can’t make decisions right now, in my opinion, that harms our chances of making this team all it can be, say, a year from now. I knew that there was no way you could complete the team tonight. We would need a lot more. Even if we picked a three-man or two-guard with the sixth pick instead of Jonny Flynn, we’re still not there yet. We have a ways to go, but I hope that tonight is a first important step toward putting together a young solid nucleus that, in many cases and some of these players, has a chance for greatness.”
Time, as always, will tell. But for the moment, it at least afforded Kahn the chance to crack wise about some other Midwest NBA market that drafted two spots ahead of the Wolves Thursday. “I don’t think it’s a destination problem,” Kahn said, suggesting the buyout was Rubio’s real snag. “I believe he would have been more than happy to play in Oklahoma City. And with all due respect to Oklahoma City …”