The first time Flip Saunders conducted a Timberwolves draft, he and former college teammate Kevin McHale had only seven weeks to compile scouting reports, conduct player workouts/interviews and rank the 60 best prospects on a top-secret, ever-evolving list from which they plucked a teenager named Kevin Garnett.
Eighteen years later, Saunders is working off seven weeks’ preparation once again.
This time, though, he is the team’s new president of basketball operations, taking over a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since he coached Garnett and the Wolves to the Western Conference finals in 2004.
His team owns four picks — including two in the first round, Nos. 9 and 26 — in Thursday’s NBA draft, one that’s purportedly deep in talent into the second round but lacks a probable superstar at the top, such as the one 1995 unexpectedly delivered with the fifth overall pick.
“But I’d take something like that,” Saunders said, referring to Garnett’s selection long ago.
Saunders succeeded David Kahn, who on the day his contract wasn’t renewed in April declared the Wolves roster he constructed these past four years the most talented in franchise history by apparently forgetting the 2004 Saunders-coached team that included Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell.
Saunders acknowledges he has inherited some foundational “nice pieces” — two-time All-Star Kevin Love and precocious point guard Ricky Rubio foremost among them — around which to build, but in the next beat cautions that “we have a lot of work to do” with a team that last season again started 6-1 Luke Ridnour at shooting guard.
That process begins in earnest this week with a draft that’s followed four days later by the league’s July free-agency period, in which he calls re-signing free agents Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger his top priorities.
He’ll also know by Saturday whether starting small forward Andrei Kirilenko will exercise a $10 million-plus option for next season or choose to turn down that guaranteed rich payday in hopes of negotiating, at age 32, the final big multi-year contract of his career, with the Wolves or another NBA team.
Saunders enters draft week searching to balance a roster that is overloaded with point guards — five, by his estimation — and power forwards while lacking elsewhere, most glaringly at shooting guard, which just might be the strength of this year’s draft.
Saunders is searching for shooters to place around Rubio on a team that was dead last in the NBA with a 30.5 three-point shooting percentage, while both Love and Budinger missed most of last season because of injuries.
Another big man or two wouldn’t hurt, either, particularly if he can protect the rim.
“We want to get some guys who can make Ricky better,” Saunders said. “If you have guys who can stretch the floor and create more openings for him to penetrate and find those guys, he’s going to be a better player. I don’t know if you can win in the NBA if you don’t shoot threes.”
Shooting guard search
Saunders says he will look to fill both needs through every avenue, namely Thursday’s draft, trades or July free agency, provided the team has any money left under the NBA’s punitive luxury tax after signing unrestricted free agent Budinger and matching any big-money offer restricted free agent Pekovic gets.
If Kirilenko turns away the $10 million, Saunders might even have the money to pursue a free-agent guard such as Dallas’ O.J. Mayo, Milwaukee’s J.J. Redick or Atlanta’s Kyle Korver.
“There are a lot of ways to build your team,” Saunders said.
He will start by trying to upgrade at shooting guard, a position where Ridnour for most of the past two seasons has been asked to defend players six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than he is.
This year’s draft includes two top prospects — Indiana junior Victor Oladipo and Kansas freshman Ben McLemore — expected to be among the first six players selected Thursday.
To get a shot at either one, the Wolves would have to move up from their No. 9 position. Saunders calls the casual fan’s assumption that he can trade his two first-round picks to get into the top five — like NFL teams often do — “unrealistic” with the NBA draft and states flatly that he will not give away former No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams for the right to move up even if he plays the same power-forward position as Love.
Saunders flew to Washington, D.C., two weeks ago to watch Oladipo work out and publicly appears smitten by a relentless defender and self-made lottery pick who Saunders simply has that “it” factor, even if Oladipo doesn’t appear to be the natural shooter like McLemore.
“He has it,” Saunders said, “whatever that is.”
Head of the class
Saunders suggests Oladipo and McLemore are considered their position’s top two prospects “based on their reputation” from a crop he estimates has a half-dozen or more NBA players. Included is Georgia’s 6-6 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who’s probably the front-runner to become the Wolves’ choice if they keep that ninth pick.
Caldwell-Pope is taller than either McLemore or Oladipo — but has a shorter wingspan than Oladipo — in a league where Saunders reminds that teams with big guards win. Miami has Dwyane Wade. San Antonio has Manu Ginobili, and don’t forget those Lakers teams had Kobe Bryant and Chicago Michael Jordan.
“I really believe that two spot has the most depth of any spot in the draft,” Saunders said.
During his junior season, Oladipo transformed himself from just another college player into a top-five pick, even though some “experts” consider this year’s draft the weakest in years because it lacks superstar power at the top.
“That’s people’s opinion,” Oladipo said. “If I let people’s opinions affect me all my life, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. If they think our draft class is not capable of other draft classes, it’s probably true because we haven’t proven ourselves yet. I’m just using it as fuel to prove people wrong. That’s just how life is.”
The “it” factor
Saunders researched Oladipo in case he can strike a deal to obtain a higher pick. He also flew to Las Vegas to watch Russian swingman Sergey Karasev conduct a pro-day workout, although he said the No. 9 spot likely is too high a position to draft a pure shooter and coach’s son who is more small forward than he is shooting guard.
Karasev played on the Russian Olympic team last summer in London with Wolves teammates Kirilenko and Alexey Shved, who are two of five international players on the Wolves’ roster.
Kahn and Wolves coach Rick Adelman constructed this roster with such an international flavor in part because they believed international players are better coached in the fundamentals and raised in a more responsible basketball culture than the entitled American AAU system.
“I don’t care if he’s from New York City or Moscow, Russia, if he can play,” Saunders said. “It doesn’t really matter. Every person is individual. We drafted Garnett when he was a high school guy, but there’s probably no one I’ve had at his age who was prepared mentally to play than maybe he was. I was ready to make him our captain at 19 years old.
“Those are things you can’t teach sometimes. They either have it or they don’t. Ricky has leadership ability. Point guards are not made, they’re delivered from heaven. Some guys don’t get it no matter where they’re from and some guys get it.”
What “it” is, he can’t really define, but Saunders said he knows it when he sees it and Wolves owner Glen Taylor is betting that Saunders, who bought a piece of the team, knows what he sees.
Saunders is confident he does.
When asked if he believes anything other teams’ executives tell him this time of year, Saunders said, “Depends on who they say they like, because if I kind of like them, I know they’re not lying.”