This time last year, Flip Saunders’ offseason had just started when he put the wraps on his second draft as the team’s president of basketball operations.
This time around, after an eventful Thursday night that left him bleary the next day, he says he already has done most of the heavy lifting.
The NBA’s free-agency period begins Tuesday night, but don’t expect Saunders to go out hunting with checkbook in hand.
For starters, the Wolves are in no position to be big spenders, beyond two internal moves: Signing 39-year-old free agent Kevin Garnett to a new contract and signing European prospect Nemanja Bjelica, drafted by predecessor David Kahn in the second round five years ago.
Just as important, Saunders likes the results of draft night Thursday: The Wolves selected Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns with the first overall pick and then nabbed hometown hero Tyus Jones in a secondary move that possibly overshadowed the highest draft selection in franchise history.
“I’m actually, right now at this point, pretty comfortable,” he said.
Pretty comfortable and pretty giddy after Thursday’s maneuverings left his team with what he calls clearly the draft’s best player and another pure point guard whom Saunders believes resolves the need for a dependable backup to starter Ricky Rubio.
The Wolves now are even younger than they were a year ago, when they started last season with a roster decidedly split between veterans and youth and finished with but 16 victories and the league’s worst record — but best draft-lottery chance — after sustaining injury after injury.
“When you can keep a guy 39 years old on your team, you can keep the average up a little bit,” Saunders said. “If you take the mean, we’ll be about 19.”
Yet he claims his Wolves aren’t as young as it seems. He maintains this season still will see a “blended” team of youth and experience like last season started out, if veterans Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger and Rubio all remain healthy.
“We still do have some veteran players who’ve played significant minutes and have achieved great success in this league,” Saunders said. “Our young guys, sometimes what you don’t know sometimes is good. You can sometimes perform maybe beyond what’s expected of you. Because of talent that we have, that’s something we’ll be able to do.”
The Wolves are expected to sign Garnett for a 21st NBA season sometime after July 8 and before training camp begins in October. Garnett made $12 million last season. An educated guess at a new deal: As much as $8 million a year, perhaps on a two-year deal that includes an out-clause after the first season for each side. Saunders would like to bring utilitarian and cost-efficient forward Robbie Hummel back as well.
Saunders won’t discuss Garnett specifics because, per league rules, no NBA team can talk contract with Garnett or any free agent until 11 p.m. Tuesday. But he also speaks as if Garnett’s presence in the coming season is a certainty.
“Listen, he wanted to come back to Minnesota; I think that’s an indication of where his heart is,” Saunders said. “That’s all I’ll say.”
Saunders shopped for a veteran point guard before the draft but said he’s no longer in the market either through trade or free agency, not after moving into the first round and drafting Jones, who turned 19 last month.
The Wolves still could bring back Lorenzo Brown on the cheap as a fourth point guard, but Saunders declared himself “pretty comfortable” with Jones and natural shooting guard Zach LaVine as backups behind Rubio, who missed much of last season because of a severely sprained ankle that required April surgery.
“If we hadn’t gotten Tyus, I would have been more apt to go out July 1 and get a veteran point guard,” Saunders said. “I don’t feel that’s a big pressing need right now.”
Instead he will sign Garnett and likely Bjelica as well. Drafted 35th overall in 2010, Bjelica plays like a guard but in a 6-10 power forward’s body. He was named the 2015 Euroleague’s MVP this past season and, at 27, wants to move to the NBA.
His presence would give the Wolves more outside shooting, perhaps their greatest need. His forthcoming arrival might be one reason why Saunders said he doesn’t feel a need to add shooters to a roster that numbers 12 players with Garnett, Hummel and Brown unsigned.
“I do think if he was a player in the draft, he’d be a top-10 pick,” Saunders said of Bjelica, who is from Serbia but has played most recently in Istanbul. “We’ll see what happens.”
Bjelica’s signing would leave the Wolves overloaded with big men. “You can always make room,” Saunders said.
It also would further energize a team and its fan base that has buzzed since Thursday’s draft moves. The team opened Target Center on Saturday so clamoring fans could seek out open season-ticket locations.
The Wolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, but that could change — if not this season, then next — because of an upgraded roster and new $26 million practice facility.
“Our players, they see what’s going on, they see what’s changed,” Saunders said. “I look at where we were a year ago and where we are today, and the future is bright and clear and it’s sunny right now. That’s what we’ve got to keep building on. That’s why I’m personally excited and I think why our fan base is excited: They know where we’ve been, and they know where we’re going.”