Eight teams that will pick in the 2013 NBA Draft before the Minnesota Timberwolves in a year where the incoming college talent is either spread out or sparse, depending on who you ask. Following a Draft Lottery bereft of any surprises, president of basketball operations Flip Saunders and the rest of the front office can tailor their evaluations to a now locked-in first-round spot, the No. 9 overall pick, and subsequent selections.
This year’s class isn’t perceived to contain the depth of those past, where names like Joakim Noah, Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitizki and Tracy McGrady were available eight picks in. Immediate help via the draft will likely come to the Twin Cities in niche form.
But that’s just fine, Saunders said, because the Timberwolves’ needs are many.
“I think it’s the opposite of thin,” Saunders said of the talent pool he and his staff are about to delve into. “I think it’s balanced. No, you don’t have an Alonzo Mourning, a Patrick Ewing, a Shaquille O’Neal or a Derek Rose. You don’t have that one player that singlehandedly might change the face of your franchise. But even below us, I think you’ll see a player taken at 12 that some might take at six. Some players are gonna slide.”
The NBA’s poorest 3-point shooting team a year ago, Minnesota requires a perimeter threat or two. Some hefty help in the low post looks like the next-highest item on Saunders’ priority list. The only spot the team’s new general manager won’t look at seriously is point guard – the Timberwolves already have enough of those in supply to maybe even deal one this offseason.
“I think the only position we really have a log jam is at point guard,” said Saunders, who inherited a group that went 31-51 last season. “When you win 31 games, you put pretty much everything on the table.”
The popular move is for Saunders to snag a shooter, someone who can come off the bench and work alongside step-out power forward Kevin Love in hopes of bettering Minnesota’s 30.5-percent 3-point clip of a year ago.
The draft appears better stocked at the shooting guard position than small forward to achieve this end.
With Indiana’s Victor Oladipo likely off the board before the Timberwolves pick, Lehigh product C.J. McCollum might be the next-best available option. The senior shot 51.6 percent from 3 as a senior, but that came on just 64 attempts in a season cut short Jan. 5 by a broken left foot.
A preseason all-American, McCollum was NCAA Division I’s leading scorer at the time of his injury. But there’s another caveat: he primarily manned the point at Lehigh but projects as an off-guard in the NBA.
Saunders didn’t get a chance to interview McCollum at last week’s NBA draft combine in Chicago but said he was looking forward to bringing him in for pre-draft workouts. The former Timberwolves coach has spoken highly of Oladipo, who would provide a better-rounded and less liable presence on the perimeter should he slide to ninth.
A true shooting guard with a 33-inch standing vertical leap, Oladipo scored 13.6 points per game and made 44.1 percent of his 68 3s in leading Indiana to the Sweet 16. His outside game is complemented by a keen ability slash and finish at the rim.
“We were the No. 1 worst in the league in 3-point shooting, so obviously that’s a weakness we have,” Saunders said. “It’s going to improve with Love being back in the lineup (from a hand injury that cost him most of the season), that’s one thing. Then you look at the fact of being able to spread the floor and get the rest of the offense started.”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is another backcourt possibility. The 20-year-old out of Georgia is built more like a prototypical professional two with a 6-6 frame — McCollum and Oladipo are listed at 6-3 and 6-4, respectively. Caldwell-Pope put up 225 3-point attempts as a senior and knocked down 37.3 percent of them.
If Saunders prefers to use Minnesota’s top pick on a longer wing instead of an undersized shooting guard, UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad or Russian prospect Sergey Karasev might be the way to go. Muhammad was a 37.7-percent 3-point shooter after a year of college hoops, while Karasev shot 49 percent from beyond the arc with Eurocup organization Sergey Karasev.
Muhammad stands 6-6, while Karasev’s listed at 6-7.
“Ideally, you’d like to have a shooter with size,” Saunders said. “But we might not be able to get that.”
The possibility of re-signing unrestricted free agent small forward Chase Budinger, who shot 36.3 from long distance in his first three NBA seasons before suffering a season-ending knee injury last year, will influence how many shooters the Timberwolves pursue in the draft.
A more unconventional route would be to firm up the frontcourt first. A lot hinges on the status of center Nikola Pekovic, who emerged as the team’s leading scorer in the wake of Love’s absence but has a player option entering the final year of his current contract.
If Saunders is able to lock up Pekovic, he could bring in a road-blocking big man like Alex Len (Maryland), Rudy Gobert (France), Cody Zeller (Indiana), Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga) or Trevor Mbakwe (Minnesota) for mop-up duty. If negotiations aren’t going well with Pek by the time of the draft, the center position becomes an even bigger point of emphasis.
“When you look around the league … you have to have size in order to compete in the West,” Saunders said. “You’re always looking to see if you can find that guy. There’s going to be some movement on our roster, I have to think, trades or something at some point. We really don’t have, per say, a big that protects the rim. You’d like to have a rim protector if you can find one.”
Saunders has two first-round picks at his disposal — Nos. 9 and 26 overall — and two more second-round selections. During Tuesday night’s media conference call following the lottery, he brought up the idea of trading both picks to try and glean a higher first-round slot but said that wasn’t a high possibility.
“It’s not like football where it’s easy to move picks up and down,” Saunders said. “You can try, but it’s so difficult with the salary cap … you really just can’t do that.”
Saunders didn’t rule out the path of trading a name or two off the current roster in order to jockey for better draft position.
What the Timberwolves certainly can do — starting next week with players expected to be drafted in the second round — is host in-person workouts and interviews, pour over film, stay in touch with Pekovic and Budinger, and hash out a plan of attack for next month’s draft
It will be Saunders’ first as team president, and it’s a particularly pivotal one with a strong returning core surrounded by gaps that need plugging.
“Right now, teams are in draft mode,” Saunders said. “Their thing is to go through and evaluate players who they fall in love with and who they don’t fall in love with or, if you fall out of love with a player, you’re more apt to make some trades. We have some players that are going to intrigue us.”