Timberwolves fans await Thursday’s NBA draft wondering just how far new President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders might stretch to select a coveted player from Indiana University.
The answer, as improbable as it seems, might be nowhere at all.
Yes, of course, he’ll probably have to move both heaven and Derrick Williams — and perhaps more — to rise from the ninth pick into the top four or even top two so he can draft Indiana shooting guard Victor Oladipo.
Or he just might keep the Wolves right where they’re at and choose instead Oladipo’s college teammate, big man Cody Zeller.
Everybody knows the Wolves desperately want shooters and a guard who stands taller and stronger than 6-1 shooting guard Luke Ridnour. They are needs that likely have Oladipo, Kansas’ Ben McLemore and Georgia’s Kentavio us Caldwell-Pope atop Saunders’ wish list.
That’s why they could trade their other first-round pick — No. 26 overall — to Brooklyn for third-year guard MarShon Brooks on draft night.
And if Saunders does that deal or if Caldwell-Pope is gone before No. 9, might he choose a player he projects as an NBA “stretch four,” a power forward who, just like two-time All-Star Kevin Love and Williams, stretches defenses with his outside shooting?
“We’re going to take the best player,” Saunders said. “When it comes down to it, you have needs and you want to try to meet those needs. But if there’s somebody you feel [will] be a top-type guy, you take him. People haven’t done that and they’ve missed out.”
Saunders specifically mentioned the Portland Trail Blazers, who in 1984 selected big man Sam Bowie over a guy named Michael Jordan because the team had just drafted promising shooting guard Clyde Drexler the summer before.
He also recalled Kansas star Paul Pierce falling from top-three consideration to a No. 10 pick by Boston in the 1998 draft after guys such as Michael Olowokandi, Raef LaFrentz and Robert Traylor went ahead of him.
“If you think somebody — and I’m not comparing them — has a chance to be a really good player in this league for a long time, you have to go with that, even if it’s not one of your needs,” said Saunders, who added he doesn’t see a top-ranked player falling like that this time around. “And you have to reform your roster a little bit.”
In addition to their need for a starting shooting guard, the Wolves could use another center both to back up starter Nikola Pekovic in case they don’t guarantee Greg Stiemsma’s $2.5 million salary for next season by July 17, and as insurance if Pekovic signs a restricted free-agent offer sheet with another team that is just too rich for them to match next month.
Zeller is a 7-footer, but Saunders is adamant that Zeller isn’t a center but rather a skilled, freakishly athletic player — bouncy like his older brothers Tyler and Luke, both of whom either play or played in the NBA — who’s best utilized running the floor and facing the basket out on the floor with the ball.
He might have been a top three-pick in last summer’s draft after an impressive freshman season, but this year he could drop out of the top 10 after a lousy performance against Syracuse’s long and athletic front line in an NCAA tournament loss and too many nights such as the one when Gophers forward Trevor Mbakwe outmuscled him when the then-No. 1-ranked Hoosiers lost at Williams Arena last winter.
He also could go as high as No. 2 to Orlando. That’s how unpredictable this year’s draft is.
“I don’t worry about it at all,” Zeller said when asked about speculation that he could have been a top-three pick last year. “We had such a talented team and I’m a team-first kind of guy, so seriously I couldn’t care less what my draft status was throughout the year as long as we were winning. I’m going to end up in a good spot no matter what.”
He’s also going to end up playing in a different fashion that he did at Indiana, where Hoosiers coach Tom Crean asked him to be a center who played with his back to the basket.
“He’s going to play totally differently here,” Saunders said. “Anyone who’s looking at him as a center [in the NBA] is not evaluating. He can really shoot the ball, but that’s not something you really got to see from him at Indiana.”
Zeller apparently impressed with his perimeter skills and ability to run the floor at a solo Target Center workout two weeks ago. After that workout, Zeller smiled and said he could see himself beating opponents and Ricky Rubio up the floor for alley-oop dunks and layups.
“My quickness, speed, agility as a big guy,” he said, listing his attributes. “That’s what I’ve been doing in the Big Ten and that’s what translates in the NBA.”