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Flip Saunders lays down his marker on Timberwolves’ first-rounder Zach LaVine

Unlike last year’s almost apologetic draft, Minnesota’s president-coach crowed about the future of the UCLA benchwarmer he selected.

Zach LaVine hugging NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number thirteen overall pick Thursday night.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders came down to address the media after the first round of the 2013 NBA draft last year, he admitted he had been buffeted, if not overwhelmed, by circumstance.

The three scenarios Saunders had envisioned for drafting a player with the ninth overall pick had been exhausted, he explained, prompting him to trade that slot in exchange for the 14th and 21st overall choices. He seemed almost apologetic about Shabazz Muhammad, taken at 14, acknowledging that he didn’t address the team’s primary needs at the time, and correctly surmising that it wouldn’t be a popular choice with the Wolves’ die-hard fan base.

By sharp contrast, after the first round of the 2014 NBA draft Thursday night, the media was treated to an upbeat Saunders taking ownership for the direction and tenor of this woebegone franchise.

The player he had just chosen, Zach LaVine, was, like Muhammad, a raw, offensive-oriented gym rat who left UCLA after a checkered freshman season that produced more warning signs than signal achievements. But Saunders wasn’t apologizing for LaVine, and didn’t seem to care whether the choice was popular or not.

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The superlatives rolled without hesitation throughout the course of the nine-minute press conference. Saunders referred to LaVine as “the best athlete in the draft,” and said he “has the ability to be an elite two-way player.”

Asked to contrast this draft progression with last season, he replied, “It was a good scenario. A couple of things had to go our way.”

By the time ten teams had chosen, LaVine was the top player on their wish list, having been ranked seventh overall by Saunders and his staff in terms of what the team needed.

But the most significant thing Saunders said about choosing LaVine spoke to matters of context and ambition. “Sometimes you have to try and hit a home run. Some players that are ready-made, they are only going to be doubles hitters. This guy has an opportunity to be a home-run type player.”

Having appointed himself head coach to go with his duties as POBO — and even part-owner — Saunders is both the mechanic and the guy behind the steering wheel of a franchise that is about to lose its superstar, Kevin Love, at some point within the next year. After a decade out of the playoffs with an increasingly dwindling and skeptical fan base and a septuagenarian owner who has intensified his commitment to the franchise in the past couple of years, it is as good a time as any to take a calculated risk on a stud athlete with apparently enormous potential. 

The red flags in the gamble

To further Saunders’ baseball analogy, when you swing mightily for a home run instead of trying to make contact and smack a double, you are much more likely to strike out and head back to the dugout looking like a fool. Under Saunders’ predecessor, David Kahn, the Wolves struck out on draft night much more often than not — only one of his four lottery picks is even still with the team, a horrendous botch of the only cost-effective method to dramatically improve your ballclub.

The danger is that LaVine joins the long and infamous list of Timberwolves draft busts, which under Kahn included Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams, but extends back to Ndudi Ebi and William Avery under Kevin McHale. The red flags are there — otherwise it wouldn’t be a gamble.

(For the record, I don’t regard LaVine’s profane reaction to being drafted by the Wolves—he muttered “f— me” and put his head down on the table in front of him—as a big deal. He’s 19 years old and the Timberwolves have earned their reputation as an NBA gulag due to cold winters, terrible luck in the draft lottery and notoriously bad personnel decisions. He has a sufficient supply of good sense and shrewd advisors to now wax ecstatic over his status. Besides, draft night reactions are overrated. A few years ago, Ricky Rubio was clearly flummoxed at being drafted by the Wolves. Recently, he called out Love for lack of leadership. That same draft night, Flynn gave the best accounting of himself in an initial media phone call that I have ever heard, and is now toiling in parts unknown outside the NBA.)

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This is as good a time as any to repeat my annual draft-recap caveat that I don’t follow the college game and won’t profess to offer any “expert” analysis beyond received wisdom and situational logic. But it doesn’t require a genius to notice that LaVine couldn’t crack the starting lineup of his college team, and scored just 8 total points in three NCAA “March Madness” tournament games, part of a season-long regression as the competition stiffened on UCLA’s schedule.

Then there are the most basic of player statistics — height and weight. LaVine drapes just 181 pounds on a frame that stands between 6-5 and 6-6, one Saunders expects to grow out to 6-8, given that LaVine only turned 19 in March.

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When I asked LaVine about his weight during his draft night phone call with the media, he likened himself to Allen Iverson and emphasized his quickness. This wasn’t reassuring on a number of levels. Iverson played at 165 pounds but was also only six feet tall and was rugged enough to absorb a phenomenal amount of punishment. Among the litany of praise Saunders offered in support of LaVine was his “physicality” and “aggression.” But if he grows to 6-8 without bulking up, he is the second coming of Corey Brewer, who is as physically aggressive as his body limitations allow, which translates into a lot of gambling on defense and early leak-outs in transition on offense.

The most concentrated nesting ground for Wolves fans who do their homework by knowing and applying advanced analytics to the collegians and overseas amateurs available on draft night is at the website Canis Hoopus. And, as is normally the case, the consensus there is that the Wolves fared poorly, to the point of near-idiocy, in the draft. (The biggest detractor may be the founder of Canis Hoopus, a longtime user of analytics who rarely writes at the site anymore but tweets under the name Wrath of Zod.) The main Canis Hoopus story on LaVine called him the third-best player on his college team and said he “showed little in the way of actual basketball skills” during his year at UCLA.

Pottery Barn rules

Without belaboring the issue with spilt-milk specifics, it is useful to point out that Canis Hoopus and other analytics-oriented pundits have consistently outperformed the Timberwolves front office in their assessment of potential performance, so no one should pull out the old “bloggers in mom’s basement” canard. For those who care about advanced numbers and follow the Timberwolves but not the college game (like me, for instance), they are a valuable resource.

That said, however, Saunders had a pretty good draft last year by most any standard. Muhammad, whose choice made the analytics folks apoplectic, did indeed lack court vision or defensive quickness, but was a tireless worker who proved he could score in the low post at the NBA level and was a voracious rebounder. And Gorgui Dieng, taken with the 21st overall pick (a choice met with approval over at Canis Hoopus), was chosen for NBA All-Rookie Second Team, signifying him as one of the top ten first-year players.

More to the point, draft choices are the place where NBA executives are most accountable for their decisions. The process is utterly transparent in that everyone knows who is available and where in the queue a team lines up to make the selection. The pottery barn rule — if you break it, you own it — applies to every botched choice.

This literally applies double to Saunders this draft season. Last year, he concentrated on building the team around the wishes and virtues of coach Rick Adelman, signing Adelman favorites Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger to large contracts while knowing that whoever he drafted was unlikely to get much playing time, given Adelman’s win-now philosophy.

This season, if Saunders the POBO blew it by drafting LaVine, Saunders the coach will share in the consequences one way (playing him) or the other (sitting him).

Momentous uncertainty

Meanwhile, the status of Kevin Love remains a spectre that darkens the horizon on the 2014-15 season. Saunders steadfastly ignored the chance to trade Love — who has unofficially declared he will utilize his option to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season — as a means of moving up the ladder for a better draft position before Thursday night. And while there is still a good chance that Love will be dealt over the summer, especially as the intrigue surrounding free agent superstars Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony is resolved, the possibility of an awkward continuation of Love’s tenure with the Wolves likewise wouldn’t be that surprising.

Saunders has said he won’t trade Love unless it improves the team, a noble sentiment that doesn’t square with current reality. There is no reason to believe Love is bluffing in his desire to test his value on the open market, a point at which the Wolves will receive nothing in return. It is fair for Saunders to think such an outcome will hasten the inevitable rebuilding process — a “lance the boil” approach. But don’t pretend any change involving Love’s status is going to be a net plus for this franchise, because it beggars common sense.

Once again, the second choice made by Saunders on draft night — on Thursday it was Glenn Robinson III with the 40th overall pick in the second round — was less controversial and more consonant with the analytics crew. As the discussion swung from Robinson to the general status of the team during this second draft night press conference, Saunders let it be known that Ricky Rubio would spend time with a shooting coach in California this off-season, and that Alexey Shved would be given more of a chance to play point guard this coming season, with obvious ramifications for last year’s combo guard, J.J. Barea.

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Just listening to the names of Shved and Barea, millstones that are the primary property of Kahn and Adelman, respectively, plus the reality of Love’s eventual departure, makes one hope that Zach LaVine is indeed a home run choice. Otherwise Wolves fans will be echoing the rookie’s unfortunate slip of the tongue throughout the 2014-15 campaign.