Finally, two-plus years later, at the end of another losing season devoted to developing young players, Wolves fans are starting to see the real Chase Budinger.
Is it too late?
In Wednesday's overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Budinger scored a season-high 22 points. He made nine of 14 shots overall, three of six three-pointers, including a clutch shot from the corner with 6.6 seconds left in regulation that forced the overtime.
It was Budinger's seventh consecutive game scoring in double figures. He connected on multiple three-pointers for the first time this season.
"It's just fun to play, that's all," Budinger said. "Just being on the court, competing, and playing."
Budinger has spent much of his time here slowed by injuries and rehab. Acquired in a trade with Houston before the 2012-13 season, the Wolves thought they were getting an athletic forward who could hit the three-pointer, move without the ball, slash to the hoop.
On Nov. 9, 2012, Budinger was the hero, cutting to the hoop, taking a pass and scoring the game-winner in a victory over Indiana. But the next night, in Chicago, Budinger tore the meniscus in his left knee. That was the start of two years of frustration.
Budinger had surgery and was out until March. But even when he returned, he wasn't himself. Following a summer of hard work, Budinger felt he was back. But he started feeling pain in the same knee as training camp approached.
The result: Surgery, again. By the time the 2013-14 season had finished Budinger had missed the majority of two seasons. Even when he was playing, he didn't feel right.
And then, this season, Budinger found his playing time limited under a new coach and a team full of young players who needed playing time to develop their games.
Until, ironically, injuries intervened.
With depth depleted by a slew of injuries, coach Flip Saunders started giving Budinger significant minutes nine games ago.
The result: Budinger has scored in double figures in eight of those games, and in that stretch has averaged 12.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 53.5 percent shooting.
"He's got his confidence," Saunders said. "He was able to stay with it. He was able to keep on playing through. Some guys, especially veterans, might have given up on it. Said, 'This is kind of a lost season.' But he kept on shooting, kept on working on his game. And when an opportunity came, he took advantage of it. He's extremely professional."
Many of those increased minutes have come at power forward as injuries have at times forced Saunders to go with a small lineup when he goes to the bench. The 6-7 Budinger isn't a natural for the position, but he has done his best. That has meant more bumps and bruises on the defensive end; after the New York game March 19, Budinger remarked his elbows were sore from overuse from trying to move Knicks power forward Andrea Bargnani.
But on offense, it's possible that being guarded by other big forwards — who don't close out as quickly on the three-pointer as small forwards do — has given Budinger the window to find his shot.
To Budinger, though, it's all opportunity.
"It's just playing time," he said. "I mean, I've been in this league long enough to show I'm an NBA player. I've just been able to prove it these last couple games, just by getting the opportunity. … I'm a shooter. I've been working hard on it lately. Being able to get more shots up in games, that's helpful."
But what about the future? Budinger has a $5 million player option for next season. Wednesday neither Saunders nor Budinger wanted to comment on whether he will be back. But he has ended this season proving to others — and to himself — that he'll be playing somewhere. That's what persistence will get you.
"You have to do that to stay alive in this league," Budinger said. "If you don't, it goes by in a flash and, the next thing you know, you're out of the league."