CHICAGO – Fresh on the job, Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves’ new president of basketball operations, worked the room when NBA executives, coaches, scouts and 60 prospects in the June draft gathered in Chicago for three days last week.
And it was a big room.
By day in a sprawling four-gym complex on the city’s rough west side, the Wolves’ former coach renewed old acquaintances after a year out of the league and chatted up other teams’ decision-makers, setting the groundwork for trades as the June 27 draft approaches.
By night at a downtown hotel, he lined up appointments with agents and with his six-member staff interviewed a long list of candidates they’ll consider selecting with two first-round and two second-round picks.
Two weeks after he replaced the fired David Kahn, Saunders has met for two days with coach Rick Adelman, contacted every player on his team’s roster and immersed himself in preparations for a draft that is soon approaching.
“A lot to get done in a little time,” he said while he kept one eye on draft prospects’ workouts that ran two days from morning to late afternoon.
He and former college teammate Kevin McHale also had seven weeks to prepare for the draft when he was hired by owner Glen Taylor the first time around, 18 years ago.
Those preparations brought a teenager named Kevin Garnett to Minnesota with the fifth pick in the 1995 draft.
“Now if we can just do that again,” Saunders said playfully.
He met with Adelman at Target Center over two days the week before the Chicago combine, which Adelman did not attend because, well, after nearly 30 years in the league, he chooses not to do so.
Saunders said he didn’t think Adelman needed to attend because he’ll see players on video and meet with those prospects the team brings to Minneapolis for individual workouts in the coming weeks.
“He’s got more important things to deal with right now,” he said.
Adelman and his wife, Mary Kay, consulted with doctors at Rochester’s Mayo Clinic after the season ended about her seizures that caused Adelman to miss 11 games in January.
Saunders said he expects Adelman to coach next season.
“I just assume going forward that everything is fine until he tells me otherwise,” Saunders said, “and I don’t anticipate that happening.”
Checking in with Love
Saunders said he has had eight to 10 conversations with two-time All-Star forward Kevin Love, who, at Saunders’ request, will represent the franchise at Tuesday night’s draft lottery in New York.
He also has spoken by phone once and exchanged text messages with Ricky Rubio in Spain and has had basketball operations staff send third-year forward Derrick Williams game video and scouting reports, hoping both will help make him more a student of the game while Williams heals from the same jaw surgery Love had in 2011 to repair his bite and breathing. Williams had the surgery on Wednesday.
“Nowadays, players think texting is talking, so if we count that, I’ve reached every one,” said Saunders, 58. “I’m a hybrid, I do both: I text and I also call. There’s nothing like talking to somebody in person, if you can. But it’s not easy to do that always nowadays.”
He also had a Twitter account (@Flip_Saunders) opened when he was doing commentary work for ESPN this past season and has more than 14,000 followers. Saunders said he will continue to tweet some in his new job.
When asked if he will break news on trades and personnel moves via Twitter, he said: “I might do that. The more followers I get, the more I’ll tweet.”
Saunders said he intends to visit Rubio in Florida in early June and hopes to spend time with restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic in Italy right after that, when Saunders attends an annual camp for top European prospects there.
“The main thing with Pek is, we want to let him know how important he is, how much he fits in Adelman’s system,” Saunders said, alluding to contract negotiations starting July 1 in which another team likely will set Pekovic’s market price.
Until then, he will prepare for a draft in which the Wolves most likely will pick ninth or 10th, if they don’t get lucky in the lottery for the first time in franchise history.
Saunders will also work the phones — he estimates he and his staff have fielded as many as 300 calls already — exploring trade options as he and Adelman seek to balance the roster and add three-point shooters around Rubio. They have targeted a bona fide shooting guard and another big man as their two biggest needs.
Assessing draft targets
In Chicago, the Wolves interviewed everyone from potential No. 1 overall pick Ben McLemore of Kansas to Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michigan’s Tim Hardaway Jr., Providence’s Ricky Ledo, Kentucky’s Archie Goodwin, North Carolina’s Reggie Bullock and Marquette’s Vander Blue — shooting guards all — as well as others such as Maryland center Alex Len and UCLA forward Shabazz Muhammad.
(The NBA limits the number of interviews a player can do, and the Wolves’ request to interview Indiana shooting guard Victor Oladipo was denied.)
Saunders said he is “very open” to all possibilities as the draft and the July 1 free-agency period approaches. He said he expects the team to add a “quality” player by keeping its top pick.
“This team has a foundation, but there is a lot of work to do,” he said. “We can get better by developing some players we have, by our good players getting healthier and with an infusion of young talent in the draft and through free agency, by signing new players and the players we already have.”
Adelman turns 67 next month and last season made it clear he feels his job is all about winning rather than developing young players.
“I want to win, too,” Saunders said. “You want to build your team for what you consider long runs, and you do that with a mixture of veterans and young players, a mixture of guys who are developed and are developing. It’s a matter of evaluation and identifying your players and how they fit the way you want to play. That’s what we’re doing right now.”