After watching Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell drop 25 points on his alma mater in the first half Jan. 6, Flip Saunders harkened back to his sandlot hoops days growing up in Cleveland.
"If I was playing a pickup game," Saunders, the former Golden Gopher and current Wolves coach and president, told KFAN 100.3 last week. "I’d take him (first)."
There’s plenty to fancy about a 6-foot-5, 193-pound combo guard prospect who can score at will, weave passes through defenses like a sewing needle through microfiber, and instincts beyond his 19 years of age. But in a draft featuring two dominant big men, the likes of whom Saunders says only come along every 15 years or so, the Timberwolves probably won’t take Russell with the No. 1 overall pick.
That honor will go to either Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor. "Can you afford to pass on someone like that, that has a chance to maybe be a dominating player, whether it’s on offense or being a multidimensional player, whatever it is?" Saunders asked. "So even though a guard can be dominant from that perspective, you’ve got a better chance of finding someone that can kind of offset the guards than you can find a big guy that’s maybe a multi-skilled type player."
That won’t stop Minnesota from giving Russell a good look, though.
The Louisville, Ky., native is a dominant scorer who averaged 19.3 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting, connected on 41.1 percent of his 3-point attempts and is a handful in pick-and-roll situations. He might be an even better passer, having averaged five assists per game and run Buckeyes coach Thad Matta’s intricate offense to perfection.
Russell is the kind of flex guard who can be transcendent in today’s NBA, a la Stephen Curry and James Harden. Even in years past, Saunders’ best teams as a coach came with a powerful scoring option at the point — Stephon Marbury, Sam Cassell, Chauncey Billups.
Russell, for his part, says he doesn’t favor one spot over the other. Supremely confident, he also agrees with Jerry West’s assertion Russell could one day beat out Okafor and Towns as the Class of 2015’s top player.
"I’m the best player in the draft," Russell, who won the inaugural award named after West as college basketball’s top shooting guard, told reporters at last month’s NBA Draft Combine.
This from a kid who originally expected to spend four years in Columbus. Whereas Okafor and Towns were blue-chip prospects from the outset, Russell made his name during the course of one sterling collegiate season, rising up draft boards as it progressed.
"I can’t say I planned to be a one-and-done," Russell told NBA TV at the combine. "I came in ready to unpack my bags and do what I can do to help the program."
Three years at Montverde Academy — a boarding school in Florida — helped season Russell, pitting him in practice against Joel Embiid, Florida’s Michael Frazier and Kasey Hill and Kentucky’s Dakari Johnson. A year after graduating, Russell received the West Award, Big Ten freshman of the year recognition and first-team all-American accolades.
Ohio State finished sixth in the rugged Big Ten, lost in the conference tournament quarterfinals and fell 73-58 in the NCAA tourney’s second round.
Russell does have his weaknesses, including a tendency to loaf on defense and less-than-exemplary strength. Furthermore, the Wolves don’t have much room for him, having just signed point man Ricky Rubio to a four-year extension early last season.
The Lakers are expected to take whichever center Minnesota doesn’t, leaving the 76ers and Knicks to try and decide between Russell and fellow top-tier guard Emmanuel Mudiay.
Drafting Russell would likely mean trading Rubio. Saunders has said on the record that’s not at all likely.
But he won’t soon forget those dazzling 20 minutes at Williams Arena, or neglect Russell’s star as Saunders and the front office evaluate Russell and, they hope, meet with him for a private workout and/or interview (he already met with Minnesota at the combine).
"I think right now, the way he played that first half against Minnesota, if every game he played like that, there’d be no discussion," Saunders said.