MINNEAPOLIS — Don’t expect a new front office regime to empty the contents of the melting pot that is the Minnesota Timberwolves roster.
But take caution against the notion that Flip Saunders and his staff hold international talent as highly-regarded as their predecessors did.
“I don’t care where he’s from,” said Saunders, who replaced Kahn as the organization’s president of basketball operations early last month. “If he can play, whether he’s from New York City or whether he’s from Moscow, Russia, it doesn’t really matter.”
It’s with an eye for certain skills rather than ethnicity, then, that Saunders travels to Treviso, Italy, this week for the 11th annual Adidas EuroCamp, a three-day showcase featuring some of the top international prospects in this year’s NBA Draft. He’s taken a similar approach when checking out players from the world over on American soil.
Not that Kahn wasn’t after specific skill sets. But he took several steps to emphasize international scouting when crafting teams.
His reasoning: seasoned, more mature European professionals are more likely to make an immediate impact in the NBA than a one-and-done rookie from Kansas or Kentucky.
“I was a big proponent of it and thought that it was a necessary step in helping the team here become more competitive over time,” Kahn said last summer when asked about international scouting. “I think it’s imperative to have a handle on what’s over there just as you have a handle on the college side.”
Kahn’s logic worked in specific cases, but not on the whole. Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic have blossomed into stars, but in the former general manager’s time making personnel decisions, the Timberwolves went 89-223.
Injuries and missed draft picks hurt Kahn’s cause. But Minnesota’s scouting is no doubt on a different trajectory in the wake of his firing.
“I drafted (Kevin) Garnett as a high school guy, and there’s probably no one person I had at his age that is prepared mentally to play, maybe, than he was,” said Saunders, the Timberwolves’ coach from 1995-2005. ”
Garnett was 18, and I was ready to make him our captain at 19 years old.
“They’re good because they’re good players, not because of where they played.”
Saunders made his position even more clear last month when he fired international scouting director Pete Philo, the former director of EuroCamp.
But none of it means an overseas name won’t be added this offseason to a roster that currently includes five — six if you count Jose Barea, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico.
Centers Rudy Gobert and Lucas Nogueiera and small forward Sergey Karasev top the list of potential Minnesota need-fillers in the June 27 draft. The class features a number of other international big men that project in the second round and could be viable options to back up Pekovic, assuming the Timberwolves are able to retain the unrestricted free agent.
With both the No. 9 and 26 overall picks, drafting a shooting guard in the first round is Minnesota’s most popular option. Should Saunders opt to take a small forward high and further shore up the Timberwolves’ shooting deficiencies — they were last in the league in 3-point shooting and 25th in scoring last season — Karasev’s a prime candidate.
The 19-year-old represented Russia in the 2012 Olympics and scored 16.1 points per game in Eurocup play this past season. His most notable number: 49 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Croatian Dario Saric and Greek Giannis Adetokundo also rank as first-round-level small forwards on most mock draft boards.
None of them will be in Treviso this Saturday, Sunday or Monday, but Saunders watched Karasev work out in Las Vegas last Friday and apparently liked what he saw.
“Kerasev (sic) reminds you of a smaller (former Bulls star) Tony Kukoc,” Saunders said via Twitter (@Flip_Saunders). “Lefty slight build smooth with ball.”
Both Draft Express and NBAdraft.net predict the Timberwolves will pick Karasev with their second first-round pick.
Saunders will get a chance to see Gobert, a Frenchman, and Nogueiera, who’s from Brazil and played pro hoops in Spain, this weekend.
Gobert’s considered one of the top centers in this draft class behind Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Maryland’s Alex Len and offers sheer size in the paint with a 7-foot-2 frame and 7-8.5 wing span. His biggest knock is a lack of mobility, but that’s not always a make-or-break area for a team after a rim protector like Minnesota.
Noguiera emerged as one of Liga ACB’s top rebounders and shot blockers this past season, averaging 3.3 blocks per 40 minutes played. Standing 7 feet with a 7-5 wingspan, he moves a bit better than Gobert, according to scouting reports.
With two second-round picks, an international big man could serve as one of Minnesota’s later selections. Frenchman Mouhammadou Jaiteh participated in a group workout at the Target Center last week, and Bojan Dubljevic (Montenegro) is scheduled to join about 45 other international draft hopefuls at EuroCamp.
Serbian shooting guard Nemanja Nedovic is on the roster as well, and could be a second-round selection at a position where the Timberwolves are very thin. Draft Express has them taking him with the No. 52 overall pick.