MINNEAPOLIS — No, Flip Saunders isn’t comparing Shabazz Muhammad to Michael Jordan.
And no, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations didn’t heavily tip his 2013 NBA draft-day hand Sunday morning.
Muhammad’s pre-draft workout with the Timberwolves does, however, offer up the small forward position as potential top-pick material when June 27 gets here.
Tunnel vision eyeing only positional needs can be detrimental, Saunders said.
“You’re gonna take your best player, when it comes down to it,” Saunders said from the Target Center’s Lifetime Fitness center Sunday following an 8:30 a.m., 3-on-3 scrimmage and shooting session. “You have needs, and you want to try to get needs, but if there’s somebody you feel is going to be a top-flight guy, then you take him.”
The late former Portland Trail Blazers general manager Stu Inman surely would agree.
In 1984, U.S. Olympic coach Bob Knight told his friend Inman it’d be foolish not to snag Jordan with the No. 2 overall pick. But Portland already had a pair of top-notch guards in Clyde Drexler and Jim Paxson, prompting Inman to tell Knight the Blazers’ true need was at center.
“Then play Jordan at center,” Knight infamously retorted.
But Inman went with big man Sam Bowie at No. 2. The Kentucky product went on to miss more than half of four different seasons and averaged 10.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in a largely forgotten career.
Jordan did a little better.
So it’s with caution, then, that Saunders is broaching the topic of Minnesota’s desires for an effective outside shooter. The obviously gaping hole is at shooting guard, especially if Saunders can re-sign restricted free agent Chase Budinger. There’s a prime chance the Timberwolves take a two with the No. 9 overall pick — Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum and Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are the two front-running options — or try and trade up for Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, whom Saunders watched work out Friday morning in Washington D.C.
Unless there’s someone who’s far-and-away more talented on the board, regardless of what spot he occupies on the floor.
“If you think somebody has a chance to be a really, really good player in this league for a long time, even if it’s not one of your needs,” Saunders said, “then you have to go that way and then you have to re-form your roster a little bit.”
When delving outside the world of shooting guards and backup centers — Minnesota’s other foremost requirement this offseason — Muhammad’s current draft status puts him near the top of the best-player-available list, as far as the Timberwolves will be concerned at No. 9.
The former No. 1-ranked high school recruit (according to Rivals) and UCLA one-and-done is predicted as a lower lottery pick. Hoopsworld.com mock drafter Yannis Koutroupis has Minnesota taking him with its first pick. With 17.9 points per game and a 37.7-percent 3-point shooting clip on 106 attempts, Muhammad possesses scoring punch the Timberwolves covet after ranking 25th in made field goals last season.
So effective is Muhammad’s propensity to produce, Saunders said, that the 6-6, 220-pounder is capable of contributing immediately.
“He’s a natural scorer,” Saunders said. “He’s gonna find a way. He’s gonna score. You can put him in the gym with whoever’s playing, he’s gonna find a way to get 14, 15 points somehow. That’s just what he does. It might not be the prettiest way he does it, but he’s gonna find a way. And … that’s a given talent.”
But with the praise for Muhammad’s giftedness come red flags associated with perceived selfishness.
An NCAA suspension for receiving impermissible benefits. A Los Angeles Times story exposing his age had been falsified. A rap as a bad teammate culminating in what looked like frustration after his teammate, guard Larry Drew, hit a game-winning shot against Washington that Muhammad thought should’ve been his to take.
His pre-draft tour’s been more about reconstructing his image than anything else.
“I have a great attitude,” said Muhammad, who maintains frequent contact with fellow former Bruin Kevin Love. “I love playing with guys, and that’s one thing that (prospective NBA coaches) have been saying is that they don’t see a bad attitude. But that’s one thing I’ve been really trying to fix.
“I’m a guy that wants to play and wants to win, and that’s it.”
And while his lauding of Muhammad could be nothing more than a mask for his office’s true draft plans, Saunders doesn’t see ego being a problem with Muhammad, especially if he were to wind up in the Timberwolves’ locker room.
“Every guy in our league … have been the best players on their team ever since they’ve been in third grade,” Saunders said. “It’s always an adjustment that they always make, and depending on what your leadership is from the top, starting with your coach and the players you have, that always has a bearing on how those guys fit in. We would never have a problem with guys like that, because there’s definitely a pecking order, and he’d just have to fit — as anybody would — into that pecking order.”
But if Muhammad doesn’t, he’s not the only small forward Minnesota could take in the first round of the draft.
Russian draft hopeful Sergey Karasev would be probably be a reach at nine but might still be around when the Timberwolves exercise their 26th overall pick. Fellow international Giannis Adetokunbo (Greece), Glen Rice Jr. and North Carolina’s Reggie Bullock — who’s scheduled to work out for the Timberwolves on Monday — are definite candidates at 26.
Picking a three in the first round would necessitate some serious work in the free agent market, including finding another two-guard and another center in addition to re-signing restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic.
But as the Blazers’ plight illustrates, a position-pigeonholed personnel staff can be one that whiffs royally.
NOTES: Saunders observed and spoke with Oladipo in Washington on Friday morning and said Sunday the two “had a good discussion.” There are no plans to seek a rendezvous with Kansas SG Ben McLemore, considered the only other top-five at that position in this year’s draft class. … Former Minnesota forward Rodney Williams worked out for Minnesota a second time this offseason and exhbited dramatic improvement, Saunders said. “As I told Rodney, I think that his shot’s improved tremendously in the last three weeks. He played 100 percent better than the last time we saw him.” … Fellow repeat visitor Jamelle Haggins (F, Delaware) joined Williams, Muhammad, James Ennis (G/F, Long Beach State), Archie Goodwin (G, Kentucky), and Kyle Barone (C, Idaho) on Sunday. Saunders called it the most competitive group he’s seen so far. … Another former Gopher, big man Trevor Mbakwe, is slated to join Bullock, New Mexico F Tony Snell, Ohio State F Deshaun Thomas, Arizona State G/F Carrick Felix and Utah C Jason Washburn for Monday’s group session.