MINNEAPOLIS — Even a brief film session illustrates the Minnesota Timberwolves’ overwhelming lack of a high-scoring, perimeter-threatening shooting guard.
But a quick, comparative glance through the 2013 Western Conference playoff ledger reveals a crucial, albeit secondary, personnel need this offseason.
In the purest sense of the phrase, a big man.
“When you look at guys up front on teams out west, you’ve got (Tiago) Splitter and (Tim) Duncan in San Antonio; you look at Memphis with (Marc) Gasol and (Zach) Randolph, the Clippers have Blake Griffin,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said after the NBA Draft Lottery. “You have to have size in order to compete in the West. You’re always looking to see if you can find that guy.”
One of those guys is already on the roster but needs to be re-signed in order to avoid losing him to another bidder. But aside from restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic, there’s not a true center around that Saunders feels can eat minutes off the bench and force opposing teams to think twice before driving inside the lane.
The obvious choice would be for Minnesota to snag a shooting guard with the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, now less than a month away, and pick up a post later on, maybe even in free agency. But the Timberwolves’ reserve paint problems make their draft-day decisions a little less straightforward. So does the top of a class featuring several promising two-guards but fewer bigs.
If it was to use the first of two opening-round picks on a center June 27 in Brooklyn, N.Y., there’s a chance Minnesota could bring in top-10 prospects Alex Len or Cody Zeller. The Timberwolves have the 26th selection, too, in the first round and could hope for an off-guard with some upside to last that long.
Behind Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, whom most think will go the Cleveland Cavaliers No. 1 overall, Len ranks as the second-best post dweller on the majority of mock draft boards. Standing 7-foot-1 with a 7 foot, 3.5 inch wingspan, he averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds for Maryland this past season.
But the Ukrainian’s also somewhat of a wild card, having undergone ankle surgery in May that will keep him out of all pre-draft workouts. Despite his absence, Draft Express and Sports Illustrated both have him going to Charlotte with the No. 4 pick, but CBSsports.com’s mock draft has him sticking around until Portland picks 10th.
Zeller, though, is fully healthy.
The younger brother of Cleveland big man Tyler Zeller scored 16.5 points and pulled down 8.1 rebounds per game with Indiana as a sophomore. Considered a top-10 lock after his freshman season but deciding to return to Bloomington, his name’s been attached to the No. 11 spot occupied by Philadelphia or a possible destination in Portland, which has the 10th pick.
However, CBSsports.com and hoopsworld.com’s Steve Kyler and Alex Kennedy predict the Timberwolves will take Zeller at No. 9.
Saunders’ most-mentioned desire in a center is shot-stuffing prowess. Len has a sizeable edge on Zeller in that department; he averaged 2.1 blocks per game last season, while Zeller had 1.3.
“We really don’t have, per say, a big that protects the rim,” Saunders said. “You’d like to have a rim protector if you can find one.”
One could be available later in the first round if the NBA’s worst outside shooting team plays it safer and takes a shooter with its first pick. Brazil’s Lucas Noguiera, Frances’ Rudy Gobert, Kansas’ Jeff Withey and Steven Adams top a list of centers that have a good chance of remaining after the lottery picks are up. Both Withey and Adams are scheduled to work out for the Timberwolves between now and the draft, likely next week.
Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk, Duke’s Mason Plumlee and Louisville’s Gorgui Deng are predicted to go in the middle of the first round and could be viable options, too.
Minnesota held two days of open group workouts and another private one last week. The post talent present projects in the second round, where the Timberwolves have two picks, or rookie free agency. Big men DeWayne Dedmon (Southern California), Mouhammadou Jaiteh (France), Derrick Nix (Michigan State), Jared Berggren (Wisconsin), Jackie Carmichael (Illinois State), Jamelle Hagins (Delaware), Mouphtaou Yarou (Villanova) and Gregory Echenique (Creighton) all performed in front of Saunders and coach Rick Adelman.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good shot blocker,” said Dedmon, who only played one year of high school basketball. “Somebody gives me an opportunity, I’m definitely gonna show them what I can do.”
Berggren, a Minnesota native, has similar aspirations. “To make it in the NBA on any team would be a dream come true,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been working for and dreaming about since I was a little kid, and now for it to be a possibility — especially if I can make it on the home team, here — that would be, like I said, just a dream come true.”
Saunders also has said he likes local connection Trevor Mbakwe, a low-second-round prospect from the University of Minnesota.
The Timberwolves’ plans at center, of course, hinge primarily on their ability to re-sign Pekovic — Saunders has all but promised it — and what moves, if any, they can make via trading draft picks. Should they package their two first-round selections and get closer to the top five, the talent available and need at shooting guard pretty much negate the idea of taking a post player that high.
But Saunders has said that doesn’t look like a great possibility. So assuming there’s no change in draft order, guards C.J. McCollum, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Tim Hardaway Jr. look like the best Minnesota can do with the ninth pick.
Unless Saunders decides to roll the dice and take a center.