Amid the swirl of endless Kevin Love trade rumors, you might have forgotten something: There’s an NBA draft to be held Thursday night, live from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
The Timberwolves, barring a trade that deems otherwise, will select 13th overall in a draft that — rightly or not, we won’t immediately know — has been proclaimed as the deepest in years.
It’s a night that could proceed unexpectedly because of Kansas center and potential top pick Joel Embiid’s broken foot and European prospect Dario Saric’s decision to stay over there for at least the next two years.
Wolves President of Basketball Operations and coach Flip Saunders suggests his team needs to be particularly nimble this year, probably both of the unknown and potential Love trade talks.
Depending how the evening unfolds, here’s three potential players — two of whom Saunders knows well because of his Big Ten allegiances and friendship with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo — who could wear a Timberwolves cap Thursday.
In addition to being a next-generation Kevin Love of sorts, Michigan State senior forward Adreian Payne is a leaping, jump-shooting contradiction as well.
He is a prospect both relatively young to the game and yet old among his draft peers. He’s also a paradoxical talent whom Spartans coach Tom Izzo calls a “freak of nature” and “almost a little guy in a big guy’s body.”
At age 23, he is as more than four years older than other players eligible for Thursday’s draft, but his future also still intrigues scouts because he didn’t start playing the sport until he was in eighth grade. He occasionally looked, during his first two collegiate seasons, like he had never played at all.
“I wasn’t good, I wasn’t that good when I first started, I know that,” Payne says now. “It took a lot of time.”
Now he is a different player and person, transformed in his game by what he calls Izzo’s “polishing” these past four years and in his heart by a two-year friendship he struck with Spartans fan and cancer patient Lacey Hollingsworth. She died in April at age 8 after Payne carried her in his arms at Michigan State’s senior night and watched her cut down the net at March’s Big Ten tournament.
“That changed me a lot,” Payne said.
An above-the-rim leaper with a massive 7-4 wingspan, Payne considers himself all grown up in two ways.
He compares himself in some respects to Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, as a power forward with an interior-defense mentality and offensive-perimeter skills that makes Payne one of the draft’s few real “stretch” power forwards.
“He really does defy what most people would stereotype big guys as,” Izzo told Michigan State’s website last season.
Payne, with help from Izzo, has made himself into a deft three-point shooter and possible lottery pick. He did the latter with a 41-point NCAA tournament game in March while he unknowingly finished the season fatigued by mononucleosis.
“I’m diverse, I can do a lot of things,” Payne said. “I’m more mature, I can handle myself, but I feel I have a lot of room to go. I haven’t been playing the game that long. I don’t know everything about the game. Look at me now: I became a great player. Just imagine what I can do if I have more time?”
On draft night, prospective NBA players stand on the podium wearing a ball cap that represents their newly designated team and speak in generalities about how they have waited all their lives for this moment.
When UCLA freshman guard Zach LaVine gets there Thursday night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, he can speak in specifics.
LaVine remembers riding along in the car when he was a mere child while his father tossed out questions and he’d provide answers, as if his dad were an NBA general manager in a draft-preparation interview.
“Just getting me prepared,” LaVine says now. “I was probably 6, 7, 8. He said if we’re going to go through this process the way we are, we’re going to work really hard, so he prepared me for every aspect of it. He’d give me a lot of different questions and correct me on them, and I would just answer anything that came into my head. I feel like I’m really prepared now.”
Now NBA executives and scouts must answer the big questions: Just how prepared is a 19-year-old who might be the draft’s fastest and most athletic specimen? Even his freshman season at UCLA provides as much mystery as evidence.
He split time with Bryce Alford, son of Bruins coach Steve Alford, during a single, inconsistent collegiate season, but now has intrigued scouts with athleticism and a skill set that includes the ability to run the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds and hit a softball 355 feet.
A springy 6-5 combo guard with loads of what they call “upside” in the industry, LaVine considers himself part Russell Westbrook, part Steph Curry, part Jamal Crawford.
At least he doesn’t think too highly of himself …
“I’m not saying I’m there yet, I’m not saying I’m close to their games,” said LaVine, who grew up in Washington state. “But I feel like I have a little of Russell Westbrook’s driving ability and athleticism, Stephen Curry’s ball-handling skills and ability to shoot off the dribble and then Jamal Crawford’s shiftiness. I feel if I put those three people in my game and continue to work on my game, I’ll have a really good career.”
Like every other NBA draft prospect who attended last month’s Chicago combine, Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris underwent testing that measured everything, including weight, body fat, hand width and length, wingspan, standing reach and height in both his bare feet and sneakers.
He probably wishes there was a way they could have measured his will.
Harris measured 6-2½ inches without shoes, two inches taller with them — numbers that could cause some concern among NBA scouts who prefer their shooting guards a few inches taller.
“It’s good we don’t play barefoot,” Harris said.
He said that line with almost a grin, but made it clear he wasn’t joking about a detail that potentially could cost him money.
He’s exactly the kind of two-way player — a streaky shooter at one end of the court and relentless defender at the other — that Wolves President of Basketball Operations and coach Flip Saunders seeks to add to his team.
That is, if those missing inches don’t really matter.
“I don’t think it’s funny,” Harris said. “I don’t know what was going on with that. I wouldn’t say my shoes are too big. I don’t think I had two-inch soles in my shoes.”
Harris considered entering the NBA draft after his freshman season at Michigan State a year ago but decided he wasn’t ready. Now, at age 19, he is.
“I thought about it, but being 18 years old I knew I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. “I became more mature on and off the court. I just look at things differently and you know, I was ready to make this decision rather than second-guess myself.”
Now he must convince an NBA team that, with a nearly 6-7 wingspan, he plays bigger than he stands.
“I played against bigger guards in the Big Ten all year and all day, I hold my own,” Harris said. “I know this is a different level and I may not be a typical size for an NBA ‘2’ guard, but I’m going to go out there and compete. It might not look good, but I’m going out there and I’ll compete no matter how tall I am.”
Harris was a star wide receiver at his Indianapolis-area high school as well.
“I love his football background, he brings toughness,” Saunders said. “People say he’s too small, but he has really long arms and he plays big. The other thing is he’s only 19. He’s still really young yet.”