There’s only one way to explain the Timberwolves’ choice of Shabazz Muhammad with their first pick in the NBA draft: Flip Saunders can’t wait to coach again.
Flip’s new job as Wolves decision-maker calls for him to immediately improve a promising roster. His future Hall of Fame head coach is 67. His best player is thinking about beaches. His franchise is desperate for a winning season.
Knowing all that, and craving a pure shooter, Saunders chose a guy with a small forward’s body who doesn’t always play hard, doesn’t display much interest in defense, and averaged less than one assist a game at UCLA. Muhammad makes Kris Humphries look like Magic Johnson.
True, Muhammad can score; the problem may be that he is what is currently termed a “volume shooter.’’ That’s what previous generations referred to as a “ball hog.’’ How’s Kevin Love going to react when Ricky Rubio’s first pass of every possession turns into an 18-foot Muhammad jumper?
Given the Wolves’ needs and predicaments, the only reason to take Muhammad is to chase Adelman into retirement, so Flip can hire himself as head coach.
As of Thursday afternoon, you could have imagined a sleek offense operating at Target Center in Adelman’s system, where the ball moves fluidly among unselfish players. Then Flip drafted a guy who passes about as often and as accurately as Tim Tebow.
“I know it’s not the most popular pick,’’ Saunders said during a candid press briefing. “And I’ve been very critical of him.’’
Outsiders are at a disadvantage when critiquing drafts. Pro teams spend lots of money and time evaluating players. I have no doubt that Saunders and the Wolves did plenty of due diligence before the draft. They could have saved themselves some time by ignoring Muhammad’s high school credentials and watching him face the Gophers a few months ago in the NCAA tournament.
Tubby Smith already had lost his team. The Gophers were limping through the motions, ready for summer. Muhammad was playing for one of the most storied programs in basketball in a great venue in the biggest game of his life.
And he dogged it.
He didn’t hustle back on defense. He didn’t pass. He didn’t seem to care. The Gopher guards, lacking Muhammad’s size, strength and NBA pedigree, took him apart. He scored 20 points, but only by forcing 18 shots, making just six.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this season will be Love’s effort level. He spent way too much of the healthy portion of his 2012-2013 season jogging back on defense.
Now he’ll have company, as two UCLA alums see who can lose the race across midcourt.
With the ninth pick in the draft, Flip could have taken Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum, who is undersized and not particularly athletic but might have been the best shooter in the draft. He would have fit perfectly in the Wolves’ system, improving their three-point shooting while acting as an alternate ballhandler to Ricky Rubio.
McCollum would have been the safest pick. Sergey Karasev, the 6-7 shooter from Russia, would have been the most creative pick at No. 14. I didn’t want to see the Wolves mass their assets to trade to the top of a weak draft, but chasing Ben McLemore, who went with the seventh pick to the Sacramento Kings, now looks like the wisest move.
Thursday night provided Saunders with a chance to separate himself from the Wolves’ sordid draft history. Instead, he took the worst kind of flier. He bet on a one-dimensional, selfish player who may become a less-talented version of another Minnesota athlete who played when he wanted to play.
The Wolves’ second pick makes more sense than their first. Louisville center Gorgui Dieng is one of the most underrated players in the draft, a big man with a live body who can guard the rim, pass, and make the occasional midrange jumper.
As for Muhammad, he and the Wolves have this in common: Both should have considered passing.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is