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New Timberwolves trauma: A troublesome draft night

Yet again the franchise endured a star-crossed series of events during Thursday’s draft.

Shabazz Muhammad meets with Commissioner David Stern after being selected by the Utah Jazz as the 14th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. The Timberwolves obtained Muhammad as part of a trade..
REUTERS/Keith Bedford

Let’s begin with the usual caveat whenever I write about the NBA college draft: When it comes to evaluating the players being drafted, I’m operating on received wisdom and otherwise wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Life is short enough that you pick your spots, and I mostly ignore the college game.

Even so, there is a lot to talk about after yet another star-crossed series of events for this Minnesota Timberwolves franchise during Thursday night’s draft.

First of all, many people are unhappy with the first player chosen by the Wolves, UCLA swingman Shabazz Muhammad. The analytics-oriented fan site Canis Hoopus, where the main contributors do their homework and take this stuff seriously, are almost universally apoplectic. But more significantly, new President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, who chose Muhammad, is hardly thrilled with the way the scenario developed.

The way Saunders described it in a brief press conference after the first round had concluded on Thursday, the Wolves were reduced to operating with their fourth of four planned-for scenarios. They had three priority players they could reasonably hope would be available at the ninth overall pick, but all of them were taken. They thus exercised option four, which was to trade down from the ninth slot in exchange for the 14th and 21st overall picks. Muhammad was among the players the Wolves had targeted for the 14th pick, but even here, Saunders intimated that he wasn’t their first preference among this second tier.

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Muhammad comes with a gaggle of red flags. A year ago, he was by consensus the top high-school basketball player in the country, but his freshman year at UCLA was plagued by weight gain and attitude problems that ranged from a selfish disinclination to pass or defend, to being visibly upset that a fellow teammate sank the winning shot in a big game. He also doesn’t have the pure outside shooting stroke that Saunders claims is a top priority in improving the team this off-season, and may not be quick enough to play shooting guard, the position where the Wolves most need assistance.

Saunders acknowledged all of this in fairly candid fashion, and said he knew this would be an unpopular pick. Unlike his immediate predecessor, the much-maligned David Kahn, who was loath to admit even the most obvious inadequacies, Saunders conceded he had been buffeted by circumstance. Kudos to him for that honesty. On the other hand, he apparently couldn’t avoid being buffeted by circumstance.

Saunders didn’t exactly damn Muhammad with faint praise, but calling him a “natural scorer,” a “gym rat” and someone who would play “with a chip on his shoulder” because of the way his fortunes had fallen, weren’t the ingredients of an exultant endorsement.

I will defend Saunders to a certain extent here. In a series of interviews in the days and weeks preceding the draft, he correctly surmised that the Wolves’ greatest need was a shooting guard with size to replace the woefully overmatched duo of 6-2 Luke Ridnour and 6-0 J.J. Barea at that position. The players he most coveted, Victor Oladipo (who went second overall to Orlando) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (the expected choice, who instead went eighth overall to Detroit), seemed from the usual thicket of scouting reports to be the players who best fit that criteria.

(Many of the critics last night were bemoaning Saunders’ decision not to draft C.J. McCollum of Lehigh with the ninth pick. But McCollum stands just over 6-3 and would perpetuate the curse of undersized shooting guards in Minnesota. On that basis, as one who abhorred Ridnour and Barea at shooting guard the past two years, I endorse bypassing McCollum. Of course I felt that way, for similar reasons, when the Wolves bypassed Stephen Curry three years ago, and Curry is now regarded as one of the most dangerous shooters in the NBA. If McCollum approaches Curry’s productivity with a similar skill set, Saunders and I are mistaken.)

Muhammad not problem, but symbol of problem?

 Maybe my ignorance of college ball contributes to this perception, but I never believed this draft was going to be a significant factor in the fortunes of the Wolves anyway. As regular readers know, I’m bullish on keeping the roster relatively intact and seeing what coach Rick Adelman can do when he’s not coping with injuries to his top two players, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, and to 6-7 shooting guard Chase Budinger, who is a near-perfect fit for Adelman’s ball-and-player-movement offense.

But the status quo will be more expensive this year, requiring the matching of expensive offers for restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic, and the re-signing of Budinger, who is an unrestricted free agent. It will also require Adelman being excited enough about the prospects of the team to overcome any qualms and concerns he has about his wife, who suffered through undiagnosed seizures last season.

These factors will have more of an impact on the 2013-14 season than would the drafting of an Olapido or Caldwell-Pope, never mind a Muhammad. After all, the pros and cons on Muhammad seem reminiscent of the chatter about Rashad McCants, the Wolves’ top pick in 2005, who started only 12 games and averaged a titch over 17 minutes per game his rookie season. On Thursday night, Saunders was already saying it was unlikely that Muhammad will be a starter as a rookie.

In the grand scheme of things, what should most concern Wolves fans about the drafting of Muhammad on Thursday is that he seems the antithesis of a Rick Adelman player: He hasn’t demonstrated an ability to handle the ball, survey the court for open teammates, get himself open by moving without the ball, and committing to both individual and team defense.

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Back in March when Saunders was first rumored to be in the running to replace Kahn, I wrote a column against the idea, on the grounds that as a successful former coach, Saunders would have forceful and possibly competent ideas about how to improve the team that nevertheless would disrupt the near-autonomy Adelman enjoyed over personnel decisions. Losing Adelman would be a much bigger blow to this franchise than screwing up the ninth, or 14th, overall pick in the draft. And doing both would get the nascent tenure of Flip Saunders as Wolves POBO off to a truly dreadful start.

Note: I’ll have another, probably briefer, off-season column next week in response to Andrei Kirilenko’s weekend decision about returning to the Wolves next season or declaring himself a free agent, plus more draft and roster talk. As always, comments welcomed and debates fostered.