The Timberwolves franchise had long had a reputation of making terrible draft choices, and that was even before David Kahn’s horrendous stint as general manager from 2009 to 2013, when he passed up a chance to select players such as DeMarcus Cousins, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and instead drafted busts such as Wesley Johnson, Jonny Flynn and Derrick Williams.
But it seems Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, General Manager Milt Newton and the rest of the scouting and coaching staff have finally started making the right draft picks and trades.
The latest player to emerge as a contributor is guard Gary Neal, who was traded here along with a second-round pick, from Charlotte, for Mo Williams, Troy Daniels and cash considerations.
Since coming to the Wolves, Neal has averaged 13.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists in seven games, and the 30-year-old has looked like a veteran leader who could stick around. Neal is a free agent after this season, but he said Saturday night, after he scored a season-high 27 points in a 121-113 victory over Portland, that he would love to stay here.
Saunders talked about the deal for Neal.
“A lot of people questioned whether we were going to keep him, but I said from the beginning he was a guy that we traded for that we liked,” Saunders said. “We wanted him to come in and we were hoping it could be a long-term-type situation, but we’ll wait and see.
“What I like about him is not just can he make shots, but defensively he’s locked in and strong. He knows how to play. He has a good influence in the locker room, along with [Kevin] Garnett and some of our other veteran players, with the young players, and he has a pedigree. He was in the San Antonio system, won a championship, knows the commitment there is to win, and is willing to share that with teammates and willing to do what he needs to do when he gets on the floor.”
The list of players Saunders and the Wolves have added this year that are looking like they could contribute to a winning team includes Neal, Garnett, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. And Payne — if you take the word of his college coach, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo — could be a real sleeper.
Then there are the second-year players who look like they’re going to be quality players for some time in Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Saunders acquired both in the 2013 NBA draft by dealing away the No. 9 pick to Utah (Trey Burke) for two first-round selections.
Muhammad, who is out for the rest of the season, was averaging 13.5 points and 4.1 rebounds off the bench before he injured a finger. Dieng, meanwhile, is leading the team in rebounding at 8.5 per game.
Trade turned out well
Meanwhile, the trade with Cleveland has turned out to be one of the best the state has ever seen, as the Wolves gave up All-Star Kevin Love — who will be a free agent this year, had a history of being hurt and didn’t want to stay here — for Wiggins, Bennett and, through the Thaddeus Young deal, Garnett.
Love, 26, is being paid $16.7 million this season and will be a free agent at the end of this year looking to make even more money. Meanwhile Wiggins, who just turned 20, is being paid $5.18 million this year and is signed through 2018. Wiggins, who is going to be the Rookie of the Year in the NBA, is averaging 18.0 points over his past 42 games. Love has averaged 16.6 points in that same span with the Cavs.
Saunders’ pick of LaVine was questioned when the 19-year-old UCLA guard was taken 13th overall, but there’s no question that LaVine’s potential is sky high. He is averaging 7.5 points, 3.0 assists and 2.1 rebounds in 20.5 minutes per game.
The acquisition of Garnett not only gave the team a big push on the floor, but has packed Target Center, leaving Saunders to say these are some of the best regular-season crowds he’s seen in his over 10 years in two stints with the Wolves.
In my opinion, Wolves fans are more excited now than they have ever been.
U players impress
Gophers football coach Jerry Kill was asked about who has surprised him in spring practice so far, and he said Hank Ekpe, the sophomore defensive lineman from Lewisville, Texas, and the brother of Gophers junior defensive lineman Scott Ekpe, could be an NFL draft pick if he continues to improve as he has so far.
He also spoke about walk-ons, saying that Noah Scarver, a tight end from Minneapolis Washburn who transferred here from Montana, and Jeff Borchardt, a wide receiver from Wayzata, have both looked good.
Kill touted the instincts of Everett Williams, a linebacker from Mansfield, Texas. He also said sophomore Drew Wolitarsky has looked good coming back from an ankle injury. One area of the team that seems to have some depth is running back, where Kill said he has seen good things from freshman Rodney Smith, junior Rodrick Williams and freshman Jeff Jones from Minneapolis Washburn.
• Mick Tingelhoff and Fran Tarkenton were each other’s best friends as teammates with the Vikings, so it’s no surprise that Tarkenton will present Tingelhoff when he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer.
• Gophers pitcher Dalton Sawyer, who pitched seven no-hit innings against Creighton on Sunday, was a reliever for the Gophers in 2014. He was 6-4 with six saves and a 2.62 ERA in 21 appearances. Sawyer, a 6-5 lefthander from Waconia, is ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the Big Ten by Baseball America.
• Freshman point guard Tyus Jones is going to be a legend at Duke after his absolutely stellar play against North Carolina this season. In the Blue Devils’ two victories over the Tar Heels, the former Apple Valley star totaled 46 points on 12-for-26 shooting, including hitting four of nine three-pointers and 18 of 19 free throws. He also had 15 assists and 13 rebounds in the two games.
• The PowerShares tennis series will come to Target Center on April 29, with players such as John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, Michael Chang and James Blake participating. Tickets are on sale now.
• Former Gophers hockey coach Doug Woog was honored this weekend with the Cliff Thompson Award from the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association for outstanding, long-term commitment to the sport of hockey in Minnesota. Woog was surpassed by Gophers coach Don Lucia for career victories at the University of Minnesota on Friday when the Gophers beat Ohio State 4-2.
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