New Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders can’t exactly define what he calls the “It Factor” that some NBA draft prospects possess and so many don’t.
But, in basketball as in art …
“Certain guys, when you walk in the gym, you can just tell,” he said. “How they handle themselves and how they handle the ball, shoot the ball, how they go about their footwork. I know we’re into [statistical] metrics and analytics and everything these days, but it’s just one of those things where you know it when you see it.”
Saunders enters Thursday’s NBA draft with a shooting guard atop his shopping list, and this year there are supposedly two players — Indiana junior Victor Oladipo and Kansas freshman Ben McLemore — who have “it,” whatever that is exactly.
Maybe enough so that Saunders would move heaven and perhaps even Derrick Williams to scoot from the draft’s No. 9 pick into the top five for a chance to select one of them.
Oladipo is the basketball junkie who, through his diligence, developed an offensive game to accompany his defensive DNA. By doing so last season, he turned himself into a lottery-pick talent whom Saunders gushed about all last winter while commentating for ESPN, so much so that he says it’d be disingenuous to hush his praise now.
McLemore is the fluid athlete with such a pure shooting stroke from deep that many, including McLemore himself, compare it to that of Ray Allen, the NBA’s career leader in three-pointers.
Oladipo is the fast-riser up draft boards, a driven two-way player who now owns a jump shot to go with his iron will. He could go as high as No. 2 to Orlando.
“I don’t see him stopping or getting satisfied,” Indiana teammate Christian Watford said. “His elevator goes a lot higher than a lot of guys.”
McLemore was once considered a potential No. 1 overall pick who now could fall as far as 5 or 6 because of unconvincing draft workouts and scouts’ concerns that he didn’t assert himself offensively often enough last season at Kansas.
“He wasn’t a get-the-ball, go-one-on-one type of player,” Kansas teammate Jeff Withey said of McLemore. “That’s not what we do at Kansas, and he never got to show that. Yeah, he’s a nice guy, but he’s also a little pit bull when he has to be.”
Watford calls Oladipo, 21, a “gym rat” and this little-known fact proves his point: Oladipo is on his second all-access swipe card that enables him to come and go from Indiana’s gym as he pleases.
“In an apartment, Indiana, it’s after midnight,” he said, describing a life that’s about to change significantly. “You just got done watching a playoff game, Warriors, West Coast game, East Coast time. You got to get up at 9:30 but there’s just something about you that wants to get in the gym. So I get up and go. Just swipe the card … but I had to get another one. I had to swipe the first one like six times because it stopped working.
“I just want to be the best basketball player I can possibly be. I stay in the gym, live in the gym. I might just get a bed cot, I don’t know yet.”
Oladipo stands a fraction over 6-4 in his sneakers — not big by NBA shooting guard standards — but has a long wingspan and a determination that enables him to play bigger than his height.
He made it from suburban Washington, D.C., to Indiana because of his defense, and then transformed himself from a shooter who for two seasons didn’t want to shoot the next shot because the last one didn’t fall into one who believed a missed shot wasn’t normal.
“All my life, from when I was a little kid, defense was all I could do,” he said. “I didn’t have the skill package. For me to get on the floor, I had to guard the team’s best player and I had to play defense. I feel like that’s what got me this far. I’m not going to lose that. At the same time, I’ve grown and done a pretty good job getting better at the offensive end. I just need to keep that going.”
McLemore, 20, attended three high schools — one in his hometown of St. Louis, the others in Virginia and Texas — and was ruled ineligible by the NCAA his first season at Kansas because of issues over his prep transcripts.
He tantalized scouts with that sweet jumper and elite athleticism and puzzled them with his inconsistency and seeming lack of drive that Oladipo so clearly possesses.
At last month’s Chicago draft combine, he promised to live up to speculation that he could become the first shooting guard since David Thompson in 1975 selected No. 1 overall, then declined to face competition in predraft competition and reportedly disappointed Phoenix and Orlando executives with his conditioning.
“Coming from nowhere, coming from nothing, just the opportunity to get the No. 1 spot is a blessing and I’m going to work for it,” he said then. “I think I can be pretty special. I think I can have a big impact in the NBA, especially with my size, shooting ability, my athleticism. Being a humble person, I’m just going to go out there and play the game I love.
“That’s what I live for — why enter the draft? — to be on a big stage.”