In the spring of 2004 Cole Aldrich was a 15-year-old fan who watched the Timberwolves reach the Western Conference finals.
It left an impression.
“Watching KG and those guys make it that far was exciting,’’ he said. “And now, to be a part of the organization I grew up watching is really special.’’
Aldrich, on vacation, was talking from Italy. He and his wife were about to go have dinner. Make that a dinner/celebration. Aldrich, 27, has agreed on a three-year, $22 million contract with the Timberwolves, making him a part of the team he grew up watching. Contracts can’t officially be signed until July 7.
“You always kind of think it’s a possibility,” said Aldrich, who played for the Los Angeles Clippers last season. “But you never know. I’m just excited about the opportunity to be back home.’’
The former Bloomington Jefferson star and Kansas center never completely left. Minnesota has always been home. Since 2013, he has lived in Plymouth during the offseason.
After watching much of the rest of the NBA spend the first two days of the free-agency bargaining period diving into the deep end, the Wolves finally got their feet wet.
And, given the current financial climate, at a relative bargain.
In Aldrich the Wolves get an efficient player who adds to the team’s bench and should fit in well in a three-man rotation with Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng. Aldrich averaged 5.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 13.3 minutes backing up Cippers starter DeAndre Jordan.
The numbers aren’t off the chart, but they speak to a player who makes the most of his minutes. ESPN.com had Aldrich ranked as the 18th-best free agent in this class. Here is some of what ESPN’s analytics expert, Kevin Pelton, had to say:
“According to Basketball-Reference he and [Hassan] Whiteside were the only two players in the NBA to average better than 12 points per 36 minutes (14.8), 12 rebounds 36 minutes (13.0) and three blocks per 36 minutes (3.1).”
Aldrich made it to the state tournament with Jefferson, was part of an NCAA championship team at Kansas. He was drafted with the 11th overall pick in 2010 by New Orleans, and his rights were traded to Oklahoma City. In the time since, Aldrich has paid his Development League dues while making NBA stops with the Thunder, Houston, Sacramento, New York and the Clippers.
But, wherever he was playing, he always came home. Jeff Evens, who coached Aldrich at Jefferson, said Aldrich would always come back to the school during All-Star break and work out with his team. “He’d come back and run with us,” Evens said. “It’s a pretty big thrill for our kids to be on the floor with an NBA player. He’s pretty good to his high school team. He hasn’t lost touch with his grass roots.’’
And he hasn’t lost touch with a work ethic he said he got from his parents.
“My dad is a sheet-metal worker,” he said. “My mom does home care for elderly people. They taught me those values, to continue to work through the highs and the lows.’’
Aldrich said he hasn’t talked specifics about his potential role with Tom Thibodeau, Wolves president of basketball operations and coach. But he’s certain he can fit in well with Towns or Dieng. “I’m a guy who likes to get down in the paint, defend and rebound,’’ he said. “Set screens, do whatever I can to help the team win.’’
And, perhaps, get the team he watched in the playoffs back in 2004 get back there again. “There is an unbelievable amount of talent on this team,” he said. “They’re known around the league as a bunch of scrappy guys, talented. And Coach Thibs is going to give that extra boost to get us to the next level.’’
The Wolves are still about $10 million away from reaching the NBA’s salary cap floor. They continued Sunday to pursue big man Pau Gasol while much of the rest of the league waited for Kevin Durant to decide his future. The Wolves still need a wing shooter and a power forward who can stretch the floor, particularly in a small-ball lineup, such as New York free agent Lance Thomas.