INDIANAPOLIS – His future uncertain, Chase Budinger knows now is the time for him to take advantage of the opportunity in front of him.
Tuesday at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, with Shabazz Muhammad on the mend from an abdominal injury, Budinger got his second consecutive start at small forward. With Muhammad out at last two weeks, Budinger figures to get a lot of time to prove to the Wolves and to fans what his body had been telling him more and more lately: that he’s close to being all the way back.
“My body has been feeling better,” he said before Tuesday’s game. “It’s coming back. I’m more comfortable with my athleticism. I’m starting to get some dunks again, some backdoor plays. I’m not scared to jump off my one leg.”
That would be his left leg. Traded here before the 2012-13 season, Budinger came to the Wolves with a reputation as an athletic forward who could jump and attack the rim — he was in the 2012 slam-dunk competition — and hit outside shots.
Then, 23 games into that season, in early November in Chicago, he tore the meniscus in his left knee and had surgery. He managed to return late that season but wasn’t himself. After a summer of working out he felt his game returning, only to find — just as 2013 training camp was about to open — that he had another tear in the same knee and faced another surgery.
Budinger is about a year removed from his second return to action. And, he said, he’s feeling as good as he has since the whole ordeal began. Now it’s time to show it. After this season, Budinger has a $5 million player option for the 2015-16 season. How he plays the rest of this season will help determine his options going forward.
“Listen, he’s going to have the opportunity the next few weeks, to play, to show what he can do,” Wolves coach Flip Saunders said. “As I told him today, after we had our meeting. I said, ‘Hey, just make some shots.’ So we’ll see how he does.”
Budinger’s up-and-down play, perhaps due to his body feeling better some nights than others, needs to be more consistent. And it should be, he said. Because the knee feels good, he feels OK jumping off it. He feels his game is coming back. “This is a good opportunity to get some minutes in and show I can still play,” he said.
Budinger didn’t play particularly well Tuesday night, scoring just three points on 1-for-6 shooting in 25 minutes.
Saunders may have lived most of his adult life in Minnesota. But he was raised in Ohio and grew up a huge Ohio State fan. So he was more than a little thrilled by the Buckeyes’ football championship.
“I was happy [Monday] night,” Saunders said. “Look, everybody’s giving me all kinds of stuff because they say I can’t root for the Buckeyes. Hey, I grew up with the Buckeyes.”
Saunders was a multisport star growing up, and he played both basketball and football at Cuyahoga Heights High School until after his sophomore year, when he decided to focus on basketball.
“We had Ohio State’s old uniforms,” he said. “We used to get the hand-me-downs from the Buckeyes because my coach was friends with [former Buckeyes coach] Woody Hayes. Woody used to come every couple years and speak at our athletic banquets. So we were weaned on Ohio State.”
After taking part in Monday’s practice, Nikola Pekovic (ankle), Kevin Martin (wrist) and Ricky Rubio (ankle) were feeling OK Tuesday. That said, Saunders said not to expect any of the three to be ready to play during the four-game road trip that kicked off here.
But there is a chance the timetable for Pekovic and Martin could be moved up if they work out well in practice early this coming week.