The Timberwolves’ decision to trade Dario Saric and the No. 11 overall pick to Phoenix so they could move up and draft Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver at No. 6 on Thursday night reminded me of something I learned in my years as a general manager of the Minneapolis Lakers: The draft is a crapshoot.
The thought of several pundits was that the Wolves made the trade to draft Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, but the Cleveland Cavaliers grabbed him at No. 5.
New Timberwolves President Gersson Rosas had said he was unconcerned with picking for position but was instead focused on getting the best player available, and Culver might have been that.
But it is surprising that a team with Andrew Wiggins at shooting guard, Robert Covington at small forward and Josh Okogie, their first-round draft pick last season, coming off the bench, would draft another wing player instead of picking a point guard. North Carolina’s speedy Coby White was available at No. 6 and instead was picked by the Bulls one selection later.
There is a lot of uncertainty at that position for the Wolves. They have Jeff Teague under contract for this season but he becomes an unrestricted free agent next year. And while all indications are that the team will try and retain restricted free agent Tyus Jones, there’s no guarantee he’s returning.
Culver could turn out to be a great pick, but Rosas and the Wolves will be second-guessed if he can’t replace Saric’s production. Saric was a big piece of the Wolves deal sending Jimmy Butler to the 76ers, and he averaged 10.5 points on 45.4% shooting, including 38.3% on three-pointers, to go along with 5.5 rebounds in 68 games last season for the Wolves.
Hoops fans in the Twin Cities got a chance to see Culver play with Texas Tech at U.S. Bank Stadium during the Final Four.
Against Michigan State in the semifinals, he scored 10 points on 3-for-12 shooting to go along with five boards and two assists. In the national championship game against Virginia, he had 15 points but needed 22 shots to get there, and added nine rebounds and five assists.
A lot of draft analysts had Culver as a top-five talent, but how he fits in with the Wolves remains to be seen.
Early days of the NBA
When the Lakers franchise came to Minnesota, I was working as a sports editor and a sportswriter for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. My friend, the late Max Winter, was involved with those clubs and put me in charge of making draft selections and bringing in players.
You might wonder how someone can be drafting for an NBA team while working for a newspaper.
Well, in the early days of my career, newspaper employees were paid very little and they were allowed to have other jobs. My outside job just happened to be general manager of the Lakers.
The draft was altogether different in the early days of the NBA, when they held what they called a territorial draft.
There were three key local guys I selected that helped turn the Lakers into the first dynasty in pro basketball: Hamline’s Vern Mikkelsen in 1949, and the Gophers’ Whitey Skoog in 1951 and Dick Garmaker in 1955.
When we selected Mikkelsen, the Lakers were in the middle of their expansion season and were battling Chicago in the first round of the BAA playoffs while the draft was happening.
When it came to the 1951 draft that netted Skoog, Lakers coach John Kundla told the Minneapolis Star the day after the draft that, “That’s the best list of prospects we ever had. We’ve never had so many big-name ballplayers to work with.”
That’s because we didn’t only get Skoog with the No. 1 overall selection through the territorial draft, but also landed Lew Hitch with the No. 19 overall pick in the second round. They were two great picks.
“I can’t figure out how the other clubs passed him up,” Kundla said. “Hitch is young, he’s tall and he’s a good prospect.”
Skoog averaged 8.2 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 341 career games. Hitch averaged 5.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 414 games.
They both played in over 60 games that season and helped the Lakers to their second NBA title and third pro title, including a BAA title in the 1948-49 season.
There were other parts of the draft beyond the territorial draft, and that found me working with a lot of legendary college coaches such as Hank Iba of Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State), Adolf Rupp of Kentucky and Ray Meyer of DePaul.
Lovellette a steal
The most unusual draft choice I made for the Lakers came when Clyde Lovellette, a great former Kansas center, was drafted even though we had George Mikan on the club. No one else took him because they thought he was going to play for the Phillips 66ers private professional team and not go with the NBA.
That pick was made in 1952, and our franchise had just won its third title in four years.
The Star Tribune ran a story the next day by Glen Gaff which noted, “Minneapolis’ world champion Lakers startled the basketball world by drafting 6-10 Clyde Lovellette, Kansas’ All-American center, Saturday at the National Basketball Association’s annual draft meeting in Milwaukee, Wis.”
Lovellette was one of the greatest of all time, and even though he didn’t play that first year with the Lakers and instead played with the 66ers, we got him to play in the 1953-1954 season. He averaged 8.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and played in 72 games as we won our fifth and final championship in Minneapolis.
He led the team in scoring for two seasons in 1955-1956 and 1956-1957 and even though the club made the playoffs in five of the next six seasons, we lost the finals in 1959 and the Lakers moved to Los Angeles two years later.
Kelly on St. Paul
Tom Kelly, who managed the Twins to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991, said at Joe Mauer’s number retirement ceremony that it’s simply unbelievable the way four kids from St. Paul carved out such gigantic careers in baseball: Mauer and Paul Molitor at Cretin/Cretin-Derham Hall, Jack Morris at St. Paul Highland Park and Dave Winfield at St. Paul Central.
“[Mauer] represented himself, his family, the city of St. Paul, as good as anybody,” Kelly said. “It’s remarkable that you can have Winfield and Molitor and Morris and now Mauer all come out of St. Paul and do such a terrific job for the city as well as themselves.
“Joe is going to be a Hall of Famer just like the other guys, and it is quite a thing.”