Draft preview: Wolves likely to avoid major draft-day trade

MINNEAPOLIS — Like so many Minnesota Timberwolves’ contests last season, their route in this year’s NBA Draft carries an aura of predictability.

The franchise’s injury woes and shortcomings of 2012-13 rang as apparent as its needs entering Thursday’s draft, where the Timberwolves have two picks in each round.

The difference: there’s hope here, hope that was nowhere to be found with Kevin Love and several of his mates sidelined. Hope that a familiar face can lead a fresh regime to better personnel decisions than his predecessor. Hope that whatever name commissioner David Stern reads off after “with the ninth (probably) pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select” will make a bigger difference than so many squandered selections the past decade.

But the draft’s as much of a game as the on-court clashes it’s meant to populate, and a wide-open field this year only muddies the edges of what seems like a clear picture.

“There’s good players in this draft,” said president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, hired last month to take over for fired David Kahn, “but, right now, there’s not impact players.”

Flip’s oft-reiterated definition of an impact player is one that projects as an all-star within his first two or three years in the league. That’s not a requirement, nor an expectation, given Minnesota’s spot in the draft order.

But good, good enough to fill at least one of the Timberwolves’ gaping personnel holes, is a must.

It’s a simple enough list of needs, one that’s been chewed, swallowed, regurgitated and reexamined several times over on this website, in your local newspaper, and throughout the blogosphere. Unless an irresistible trade offer or overall talent are available, Minnesota’s expected to draft an outside shooter with the ninth pick and a center with the 26th. Georgia shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lehigh combo man C.J. McCollum are the two most likely candidates to go first.

McCollum will be in New York City for the draft, which begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN. Caldwell-Pope was invited but opted not to attend.

Smaller by about 3 inches, McCollum oozes confidence. “I feel I can play alongside anybody,” he said following his draft workout with Minnesota.

Despite his NBA-prototypical 6-foot-6 frame, Caldwell-Pope’s more mellow, downright nervous at times. “I’m just hoping for the best,” he said after his session in the Target Center’s Lifetime Fitness center.

With the 26th pick, the Timberwolves are still perceived to be interested in a long, tough big man that can spell center Nikola Pekovic and be a thick layer of interior defense. Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams and Brazilian Lucas Nogueira are possibilities, with several other centers jostling for position outside the lottery.

Saunders didn’t mince words earlier this week: he planned on drafting at ninth and 26th.

“As I’ve said all along, depending how much you want to give up, you can always move up,” Saunders said, “but usually that price, a lot of times, gets to be steeper and steeper the closer you get to the draft.

“We’re not gonna deplete our whole talent pool.”

That was early afternoon Monday.

Since then, trade talk has heated up like a June Minnesota afternoon. Gossip’s included dealing Love for Cleveland’s No. 1 overall pick and a couple current assets (Saunders shot that down, according to sources), swapping nine, 26 and forward Derek Williams with Cleveland, Orlando or Washington to move up and get Indiana shooting guard Victor Oladipo, or acquiring MarShon Brooks from the Brooklyn Nets, perhaps for one pick and/or one of the Timberwolves’ many reserve point guards.

Saunders has also stressed the importance of favoring NBA-ready talent over need, which could lead to drafting a small forward like Shabazz Muhammad if the cards fall a certain way. Andrei Kirilenko’s decision regarding the player option on his contract could come Thursday, too, and put more emphasis on the forward spot (though no announcement’s expected until after the draft).

And there are two low second-round picks to make or deal, too. The Timberwolves have struggled mightily to draft effectively after the first round and could certainly stand to unearth a down-the-road role player or two.

The rumor mill will continue to turn right up until 7:15 p.m. Thursday, when Minnesota — barring a trade that sends the ninth pick somewhere else — is scheduled to make its first selection.

Whenever that moment comes, Saunders’ inaugural player transaction will become official.

Not that the former coach and ESPN analyst hasn’t been through this process before, though.

“I approach this draft just like we always have,” Saunders said.

Minnesota’s never had the ninth overall pick before, and their one 26th choice yielded an absolute bust — Ndudi Ebi in 2003.

It was in picking names like Ebi and passing on names like Stephen Curry that former presidents Kahn and Kevin McHale before him developed a reputation for botched drafts.

But cornerstone point guard Ricky Rubio (fifth overall, 2009) and Kevin Garnett (fifth, 1995, when Saunders was coach) are products of Minnesota’s selection process, too. So is Love, courtesy of a draft-day trade in 2008.

Saunders couldn’t have asked for a more pivotal offseason during which to take over. What transpires Thursday is only a part of the equation.

There are players to re-sign, namely restricted free agent Pekovic, who could receive a qualifying offer as soon as Thursday, according to reports. There are free agents to chase, too; there’s no draft prospect, not even in the top five, that’s going to turn fortunes in the Twins Cities so exponentially that more experienced pieces won’t be necessary.

But aside from an introductory press conference, a bevy of media appearances and a whole lot of handshaking, this is Saunders and his staff’s first true test.

It’s always best to start off with a victory.

“We’re not gonna make a decision in five minutes,” Saunders said. “Our decision is being made through the film we’ve evaluated, the background checks. Some guys have been rated higher, and they’ve gotten bumped down because of red flags. That could be medical, it could be character. It could be age. It could be their style of play — they just don’t fit. It could be their basketball IQ. All of that is kind of played into where we think guys are going to fit in with us.”

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