During his most recent tenure with the Minnesota Timberwolves, President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders has now called the shots for the franchise in the last three NBA drafts. On each occasion, he’s met with the assembled media for a late-night, post-draft recap of how and why new players were added to the Timberwolves roster. And on each occasion, Saunders has exuded a distinctly different temperament. Taken together, they reflect the upward trajectory of this gradually compelling basketball team.
Two years ago, Saunders was dispirited and unabashedly buffeted by events. He acknowledged that his first three plausible scenarios were voided by the choices of the teams ahead of them. His tone was apologetic, and he could not surmount his disappointment enough to avoid damning the player he did choose first, Shabazz Muhammad, with faint praise.
Last year, Saunders was ebullient. He obviously had gotten the player he wanted, teenager Zach LaVine, with the 13th overall pick. He conceded that the incredibly raw but incredibly athletic LaVine was a risk to become a bust, but he was honestly beguiled by his potential, claiming that “this guy has an opportunity to be a home-run type player.”
Last night, Saunders was serene. For the first time in the now 27-year history of the franchise, the Timberwolves had the top pick in the draft. For most of last season and into the early spring, Saunders had coveted center Jahlil Okafor, a gifted offensive force in the low post for Duke. There was also some persuasive analytical evidence that guard D’Angelo Russell was a phenomenal all-around talent deserving of consideration as an elite prospect.
But over the last few weeks, Saunders joined a near-consensus of NBA draft experts in the belief that 19-year old center-forward Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky was the most complete player in the draft. By taking Towns, Saunders made a choice that was safe, sound, and inspirational all at the same time.
Coupled with the trade Saunders engineered with Cleveland last summer that brought eventual rookie-of-the-year Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota, the Wolves now have two cornerstones with superstar potential — the most reliable, if maddeningly elusive, blueprint for championship contention in the NBA.
No one knows how much of that stratospheric potential will be realized by either player, of course. But for now, in terms of personnel acquisition, Flip Saunders has aced his assignment of rebuilding this franchise to the point where there is genuine hope for the future. He knows it. And last night he bathed in the serenity of that self-satisfaction.
From his new perch on the aerie, he readily conceded that two years ago on draft night, he came down to address the media “with my tail between my legs,” and then slyly noted that the players he acquired that night — Muhammad and center Gorgui Dieng — “didn’t turn out so bad.”
But the better contrast in mien is the Saunders of last year versus the Saunders of last night. In June of 2014, before the Wiggins trade, with Kevin Love in limbo but obviously heading out the door, and with Saunders having controversially named himself head coach just a few weeks earlier after the resignation of Rick Adelman, there was a rescue-mission desperation to Flip’s ardor for LaVine. Using a lottery pick on a phenomenal athlete who couldn’t even get off the bench for his college team seemed straight out of the MacGruber playbook, something that felt ingenious and ridiculous at the same time. It was certainly a ploy that, internally and externally, required a sales job, which is how phrases like “has an opportunity to be a home-run type player” get uttered.
Last night, a serene Saunders could dispense with the clutter of qualification. He called the selection of Towns, “a home run.” No brag, just fact. The words were succinct and the tone was certain enough that if Okafor or Russell or another hotshot does happen to mount a more successful career than Towns, Saunders won’t be second-guessing himself.
A KAT scan
Let me begin this more detailed parsing of Karl-Anthony Towns with my usual draft-column caveat that I do not follow the college game and rely on the received wisdom of others until I have a chance to watch the rookies in NBA competition. That said, the facts in Towns’ personal history and the near-unanimous plaudits of evaluators I most respect make this choice easy to endorse.
The facts are that Towns has excellent size at just under seven feet and a physique that is the right blend of bulk for low-post jousting and springy sinew for quickness away from the basket. He was raised in a family that loved him and the game of basketball enough to pave a court for him out in the yard. He is smart enough to have passed his junior year of high school via a correspondence course. In interviews he is well spoken and polite without being stiff and rote.
In short, there are no red flags that indicate Towns will personally jeopardize his chance to become a superstar.
As for his basketball skills, it was heartening to hear Saunders say that Towns was most of all chosen for his defense, which was the most glaring of many deficiencies for the Wolves last year. Specifically, Saunders called Towns the best pick-and-roll defender in the draft, and if that is accurate it will represent an enormous upgrade in a vital aspect of the modern NBA for this franchise.
Having Kevin Garnett around to mentor a pupil as promising and apparently willing to learn as Towns is another sweetener for this pick.
Another positive attribute from the scouting reports that was emphasized by Saunders is Towns ability to run in transition. He has a quick start and a high motor that will suit a team that has the athletic Wiggins on the wing, a creative floor general in point guard Ricky Rubio, the relentless offensive hustle and finishing ability of Muhammad and the trailing three-point capability of Kevin Martin. And in the half-court, that quickness can be utilized in pick-and-roll offense with Rubio as teams contend with Wiggins, Muhammad and Martin in various combinations on the wing.
Saunders and others have also praised Towns versatility. He can be a legitimate presence as both a center down low and a power forward who can step out and hit the midrange jumper. Given the long-term uncertainty of the Wolves’ front-court contingent — the health of Nikola Pekovic, the age of Garnett, the danger of Dieng being a “tweener” with weaknesses at both center and power forward — this flexibility is a blessing.
What are the downsides of the Towns pick? Well, Kentucky was so dominant last season that he only logged about 20 minutes per game, perhaps putting his endurance as a teenager tossed into the NBA’s 82-game grind into question. And there is always the caprice of injury or other unforeseen circumstance marring the rosy picture.
In other words, Towns becoming at least a functional NBA starting big man is as close to a sure thing as you can get. The likelihood is that he will become much more than that.
The hometown kid
As if the drafting of Karl-Anthony Towns wasn’t enough positive juju for the long-suffering local fan base, the Wolves traded their two second-round draft picks and a second-rounder in 2019 to Cleveland for the right to take Tyus Jones of Duke — and Apple Valley — with the 24th pick of the first round.
At first blush, this smacks of the craven parochialism that has dogged the Wolves franchise since its inception. Sons-in-law of two separate owners have filled prominent front office jobs more often than not. The sons of the past two coaches, Adelman and Saunders, were among the assistant coaches last season. And of course Saunders, assistant coaches Sam Mitchell and Sidney Lowe, and Kevin Garnett are all former components of past Wolves teams who have returned to the fold. Trading up to take an undersized kid from the Minneapolis suburbs seems to fit the mold.
It goes without saying that Wolves owner Glen Taylor hopes the hometown kid can put a few more fannies in the seats — after the bait-and-switch fiasco surrounding the acquisition of Garnett last season, one can’t be too cynical about attendance-fluffing.
But there are also good basketball reasons for this maneuver. Jones won a national championship his only season in college as a preternaturally mature “coach on the floor.” He was a natural leader on a big stage and flourished under pressure.
As a capable ball-handler and unselfish distributor at the point guard position, he also fits a specific need on this Wolves roster. Yes, at 6-1 he is undersized and not especially athletic by NBA standards, but the Wolves did not have to pay a high price to get him — on the contrary, Taylor has a habit of selling second-round picks and Saunders claimed before the draft that the team was more likely to pick Europeans or other foreign-born players in the second round because they could be “stashed” in international leagues.
By contrast, Jones is an immediate roster option and potential asset. Taking him with the 24th choice in the first round is in the neighborhood where most draft experts projected him to go.
Besides, the way the Wolves fortunes have suddenly turned, it is possible they have a win-win situation where the hometown kid can actually help this franchise.
The parameters of hope
Lest anyone start thinking about the Wolves in the playoffs next season, let’s do some reality checking. The most promising players on the roster were both born in 1995. The point guard with the highest salary and longest term contract is a historically inaccurate shooter. We have already mentioned the jumbled deficiencies in the front court, which are complicated by the presence of Adreian Payne, who was acquired for a future first-round draft pick but proved to be woefully inconsistent and willing to roll his eyes at his coach when getting instruction.
Aside from Kevin Martin, there is not an established three-point shooter on the roster, and Saunders has not been the kind of coach whose system nurtures three-point shooting. And yet the ability to spread the floor and score from long range is a fundamental component of success in the modern NBA.
Meanwhile, the Western Conference is brutally competitive. At least two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year — Oklahoma City (who were riddled with injuries) and Utah (who came on strong in the second half last season) — are expected to be much improved. OKC won 45 games last season. Utah won 38. The Wolves won 16. And we haven’t even talked about the eight playoff holdovers.
Necessary time will need to be spent not only on maturation, but sorting out roles and playing time for personnel. There is a logjam in the backcourt and on the wing. Last season, Wiggins was a much better player at the shooting guard position, especially when Muhammad could be the team’s small forward. Muhammad’s size and aggressiveness forced opponents to guard him with their most rugged wing stopper, allowing Wiggins less resistance — and wear-and-tear — on offense. This is important because Wiggins works so hard as the Wolves wing stopper on defense.
But pairing Wiggins and Muhammad means Martin comes off the bench. Will the veteran accede to this role, or pout and return to the horrible defense that marked his career until a semblance of competence and effort last season?
Then there is LaVine, a favorite of Saunders, who is beguiled by his upside. Does he play shooting guard, his best position, at the expense of minutes for Martin, Muhammad or Wiggins? Does he play point guard, where he is grossly inept at both ends of the court, and rob time from Jones while sabotaging the team?
All of these things are potentially troubling, but if Wiggins and Towns flourish in a manner that approaches their full potential, it will feel like nit-picking. For a change, the big picture for the Wolves is bright. Indeed, not since the 2004-05 team was favored to win the Western Conference has optimism for the Wolves seemed so credible.
Wiggins and Towns are under favorable contracts that will bind them to the Wolves at least through 2019 for Wiggins and 2020 for Towns (and that’s worst-case scenario with both opting out after their qualifying offers are exercised). During that period, the salary cap will skyrocket as a result of the lucrative new media contracts, and now-questionable deals with Pekovic, Chase Budinger and Anthony Bennett will come off the books.
We’ll find out about LaVine, Muhammad, Jones, Dieng and Payne. Better yet, we’ll find out about Wiggins, Towns and Rubio.
For now, let’s allow Flip Saunders the last word: “I couldn’t be happier right now in the direction we are going in all aspects of our organization.”