MINNEAPOLIS — Finally, Gordon Malone was exhibiting what resembled shades of his West Virginia self.
In 2008, Malone scored more than 35 points in back-to-back games, brushing past helpless defenders and making good use of his 6-foot-11 frame like he did so often in the old Big East.
But this was in a summer, pseudo-street ball league in New York dubbed Pro City, nowhere near the level he seemd destined for when Minnesota picked him 44th overall in the 1997 NBA Draft. Malone never played a minute for the Timberwolves, or any other NBA organization.
His road’s akin to that of most Minnesota second-round picks, historically.
Some stick around for a few years, sure. A couple have gone on to successful careers — with other teams. But 10 second-round picks (that weren’t part of draft-day trades) never cracked an NBA gameday roster.
And only two — one per decade — have played any meaningful minutes in a Timberwolves uniform.
Missing out on second-round sleepers isn’t the only reason Minnesota’s nine-year playoff drought is the longest active one in the league. But it’s a trend that must be quashed, at least once very few years, if a fresh front office staff hopes to turn things around inside the Target Center.
Their first opportunity comes Thursday night.
“Your second-round picks, those are usually project-type picks, someone that probably is not ready,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders said. “I think that’s how we’ll look, and see — at that time — who has the best upside to be a player down the road.”
To expect to nab a sure-fire contributor in the NBA Draft’s final round every year is as naïve as anticipating the ice cream truck man’s arrival in mid-February. A 2013 draft class that thins out substantially after the top five or six may not contain an eventual difference maker.
But there’s talent to be harvested during a time when many television draft viewers have flipped to another station, even if it’s a few years from coming to fruition.
There’s an example, albeit a skewed one, currently preparing — the Timberwolves hope — to continue an already stellar tenure in the Twin Cities.
Minnesota drafted center Nikola Pekovic, a restricted free agent this offseason, with the 31st overall pick in the 2008 draft. The Montenegrin behemoth spent two more years in Europe before signing with Minnesota.
He emerged as a highly effective center two seasons ago and led the Timberwolves in scoring last year after a hand injury put Kevin Love on the shelf.
But to label Pekovic a dark horse is inaccurate; he was considered by some a top-10 prospect but fell to the second round due to concern over his European contract. He was a virtual lock to be selected first in the second round, outside of subjectivity to the NBA’s rookie pay scale, meaning the team that possessed the 31st pick could shell out whatever salary was necessary to elicit Pekovic’s services.
In a stroke of luck for a franchise that hasn’t fallen upon much, that happened to be the Timberwolves.
But when it’s come to evaluating and developing bona fide lower-round players, Minnesota’s struggled.
Excluding Pekovic, whom Saunders has said he’s intent upon re-signing, the Timberwolves’ first-ever second-rounder is the only one to remain with them for more than three seasons. They picked shooting guard Doug West 38th overall in 1989, and he went on to a solid nine-year tenure in Minnesota, averaging 10.2 points per game and three straight 1,000-point campaigns from 1991-1994.
But aside from Pekovic and West, the Timberwolves have received little-to-no return on their second-round investments.
Malone’s a more extreme example – one a first-round hopeful, his career consisted of stops in four different European leagues and even a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters. Names like Chris Richard, Loren Woods and Andrae Patterson are the most commonplace — guys that earn negligible playing time for a year or two, then move on to either another league or another team.
Some just plain get away, for little or nothing in return.
The Timberwolves drafted point guard Howard Eisley 30th overall in 1994, only to waive him 34 games into his rookie campaign. The Boston College product went on to a lengthy NBA career, the bulk of which was spent with the Utah Jazz, that included a 3.5 assists-per-game average.
The 34th pick in 2008, Mario Chalmers has proven to be a more recent productive get, but former team president Kevin McHale immediately traded him away for cash and two 2009 second-round picks.
With those selections, McHale’s replacement David Kahn decided on Henk Norel and Nick Calathes. Norel was cut not long after, and Calathes was traded immediately for a 2010 pick and cash.
Twenty-four drafts. Two second-round grabs that have done anything of note in Minnesota.
So who could become the third this year?
That’s both the beauty and curse of drafting in the second round; few athletes that hear their name called during it are high-profile prospects coming in. With two selections in the second half of the second round, 52 and 59, it’ll be especially tough for Minnesota to garner eventual top-level talent this season.
But recent history suggests their situation’s far from hopeless: Suns forward Luis Scola, Cleveland point guard Ramon Sessions (a former Timberwolves player) and Suns center Marcin Gortat were drafted 55th, 56th and 57th overall. None of those three remains with the team that selected him, but the point is there’s sometimes everyday talent available even at the draft’s tail end.
The trick is identifying it. And, usually, being patient with it.
“You look at whoever you think has the most upside,” said Saunders, who also has two first-round picks with which to maneuver. “If you’re not gonna get him for two or three years, then so be it.”
That’s often the case with international players, who can spend a season or two maturing overseas before signing with an NBA team. More and more American players are taking the D-League route, too, though the Timberwolves don’t currently have an affiliate.
While Saunders and his staff have rated in order every player they’d consider drafting, their decisions near the end of Thursday night will largely contend on what happens between their 26th overall pick and 52. They currently have an overabundance of point guards, but CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore (Phil Pressey, Missouri) and Draft Express (Myck Kabongo, Texas) both predict Minnesota will take one in the second round, anyway.
Other names floating around mock drafts are Arizona small forward Solomon Hill, NC State power forward Richard Howell, BYU center Brandon Davies, French power forward Joffrey Lauvergne, Spanish point guard Alex Abrines and Latvian small forward Janis Timma. Minnesota’s also shown interest in Colorado State big man Colton Iverson, a transfer from Minnesota, and St. Mary’s point guard Matthew Dellavedova, both of whom are considered lower-second-round possibilities.
But predicting the second round of any draft, especially one as wide open as 2013, is unmistakably a crapshoot.
What’s not, though, is employing enough research and evaluation to draft someone who ends up either having a pivotal role in Minneapolis or serves as beneficial trade bait.
Doing so would be a new phenomenon in a new age of Timberwolves basketball.