The Timberwolves swung five successive draft-night trades last summer, using the 20th pick they had acquired from Utah to move down repeatedly for a host of players and other picks they shuffled away again and again until all that remained was four hunks of cash and two second-round picks including UCLA guard Malcolm Lee.
Lee was that night's 43rd overall pick, a 6-5 combo guard who impressed David Kahn and his scouts during pre-draft workouts with his size, athleticism, ability to defend multiple positions and something else:
Lee spent three seasons playing for Ben Howland at UCLA, the once-upon-a-time legendary championship program that in nearly a decade under Howland became something of a factory that produces overachieving NBA guards.
Howland arrived in Westwood from Pittsburgh in 2003 and installed a system rooted in fierce man-to-man defense and methodical offense that produced five guards drafted in the NBA's first round every year from 2005 to 2009.
"We've all done all right," Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook said.
They've done all right probably because UCLA -- the basketball power that John Wooden built long ago -- historically gets a better brand of athletic talent because of its tradition and prime location, talent that often doesn't fully flourish until it gets to the NBA's open-court game.
"The last time I walked Bruin Walk, that's a pretty nice place to go to school," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said about the UCLA campus nestled in the hills of west Los Angeles.
They've done all right also because Howland demands defense, a relatively rare, accomplished skill that enables a smoother transition to the NBA.
"I always thought I was a good defender, and then I got to UCLA," Lee said. "You find out fast if you don't play defense, you don't play there."
Westbrook's potential realized
Nobody has done better from a group that also includes Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Jrue Holiday and Darren Collison than Westbrook, whom draftniks considered a fairly major reach when precocious Seattle General Manager Sam Presti took him fourth overall in 2008 right after O.J. Mayo and right before Kevin Love.
Most draft experts that year had Westbrook pegged no higher than 12th or 13th overall, well down the list from Arizona's Jerryd Bayless.
Presti saw something else in Westbrook: a freakish athlete who somehow got forgotten in two seasons at UCLA on a deep roster that included the likes of Afflalo, Love, Collison, Josh Shipp, Luc Mbah a Moute and even guys named Michael Roll and Alfred Aboya.
He played mostly shooting guard during those two seasons while Howland put the ball in the hands of Collison, who played all four seasons with the Bruins. When Westbrook declared for the draft after only two collegiate seasons, NBA scouts weren't exactly sure what he was, other than potentially very talented.
"I think a lot of guys who went to UCLA were not able to do what they're capable of doing," Westbrook said. "Once they're able to get away, they get to expand their games."
Sure, everybody can see that now.
The Wolves saw that first-hand on Saturday night, when Westbrook once again helped beat them with a 35-point, six-assist night that followed his 45-point game in a 149-140 double-overtime victory over the Wolves in Oklahoma City last month.
Westbrook has received criticism for being too much a shoot-first point guard, particularly when he has a guy named Kevin Durant on his team. And yet he might be as much a league MVP candidate as his even more athletically freakish teammate.
"I really take issue with people who take shots at him because of the way he plays or the shots he takes," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said of Westbrook. "There isn't one player who's all the same. You don't clone anybody to be John Stockton. He is who he is. He's pretty darn good, and he can take over a game. If they're really down on him, he can come over here. I'll let him play."
Getting their chance in the NBA
Howland's UCLA teams made three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 to 2008. The 2008 team that included Westbrook, Collison and Love went 35-4 but lost to Memphis in a Final Four semifinal and never quite reached the team success that its players achieved individually in wealth and acclaim in the NBA.
"I know for me, that year we were all playing with each other it wasn't a one-man show," said Collison, Indiana's point guard who has missed four games because of a sore groin entering Monday's game against the Wolves. "We were playing team ball. When we got the opportunity and got our own thing in the NBA, we all just kind of branched out."
Holiday, too, has flourished in an NBA game after he arrived at UCLA with much prep acclaim but impressed only enough in one season there to be the 17th overall pick in 2009, 11 picks after the Wolves took Jonny Flynn sixth out of Syracuse.
"I was only there for a year and I didn't touch the ball, didn't get a chance to show what I can do," said Holiday, who has started the past 182 games for Philadelphia and is establishing himself as a proven on-the-ball defender at point guard. "Once you get here, it's a lot more open, a lot more freedom. I don't want to say you experiment, but you get to see more, you get to feel the game more at this level."
And that is one reason the Wolves kept Lee through all their wheeling and dealing last summer and then signed him to a completely guaranteed three-year, $2 million contract, rare for a second-round pick.
"You knew right away he can defend at this level and defend two or three positions," Adelman said. "We like him a lot. He needs time, but you look at the guys who came up the way he did [at UCLA], a lot of those guys have done pretty well."