MINNEAPOLIS — For once, Flip Saunders went with his gut.
A year’s worth of analytics, scouting and film review still had him befuddled as to whom he should select with the 2014 NBA Draft’s 13th overall pick Thursday night. As early as Thursday morning, the Timberwolves coach and president of basketball operations’ mind wasn’t made up.
"We had two or three guys we really looked at, and as of about a day or two ago it changed back and forth," Saunders said. "And we had all these players that were basically ranked seven, eight and nine on our board."
But for no cut-and-dry reason he was willing to offer, the franchise’s top basketball decision-maker wrote the name "Zach LaVine" on a piece of paper and shoved it in his pocket during the day Thursday. An unexpectedly uneventful first round left LaVine on the board when Minnesota came up on the clock, and Saunders didn’t hesitate.
"I’ve never really done it before," Saunders said of drafting on feel. "Basically, it was one of those things where I just felt that, I felt that he was going to be there and just wrote it down and it worked out."
It didn’t immediately register as a popular pick, but for the second straight summer, Flip Saunders drafted a project player from UCLA.
The Wolves took Bruins shooting guard LaVine 13th overall, going with an athletic combo guard they feel can attack the rim alongside Ricky Rubio or pick up some point minutes behind him. Much like his selection of Shabazz Muhammad in last year’s draft, Saunders opted for a player with tremendous physical gifts but plenty of room to grow into an NBA talent.
"Athletically, he’s the best athlete in the draft, and he has great speed," Saunders told reporters gathered at the Target Center to cover his second draft since rejoining the organization last spring. "This guy has an opportunity to be a home-run type player with development."
A 6-foot-6, 181-pound 19-year-old who, like Muhammad, entered the draft after one year in college, LaVine averaged 24.4 minutes, 9.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game last season. He shot 44.1 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3.
Not exactly astounding numbers, especially in a deep draft class.
But LaVine impressed Wolves brass at last month’s NBA pre-draft combine, where he was the only player to place in the top 10 in all five strength and agility tests, and at a workout in Minneapolis leading up to the draft.
LaVine said his father used to give him practice media interview questions, as early as when he was 6 years old. After dreaming his entire life of having his name called on draft night, LaVine said a silent prayer of thanks while burying his head in his arms, then got up and appeared to mutter an expletive before approaching the Barclays Center stage.
His reaction immediately spawned social media speculation he’s unhappy coming to Minnesota, which hasn’t been to the playoffs in 10 years and could be saying goodbye to its franchise player in the near future.
But LaVine said he spoke out of relief and excitement, not scorn.
"I’m completely ecstatic," LaVine said via conference call. "I can’t be more happy. I’m a very emotional person. I might’ve uttered something . . . but I put my head down, thanked God, kissed my mom and kissed my dad — I can’t believe this is happening to me right now."
Saunders appears enamored with LaVine’s upside. It’s a long-term outlook more becoming of a personnel chief than a coach — roles Saunders must delicately balance since assuming the sideline reigns from retired Rick Adelman.
With Michigan’s Nik Stauskas (Sacramento) and Creighton’s Doug McDermott (Denver, traded to Chicago) off the board, Minnesota bypassed small forwards Rodney Hood and James Young, shooting guard Gary Harris and power forward Adreian Payne.
The move doesn’t speak much to the Wolves’ plans for Kevin Love, who’s expected to opt out of his contract after this season and could be traded well before then. The opportunity to deal him came and went in the lottery picks Thursday, but Saunders had said previously the chances of a draft-day trade involving his disgruntled All-Star forward were unlikely.
Speaking with reporters shortly after drafting LaVine, Saunders said there would be no big-time trades involving Minnesota on Thursday. Several teams called to talk about swapping picks, but there wasn’t any heavy conversation about moving players, Saunders said.
But selecting LaVine could still indicate the direction of the Wolves’ roster moving forward.
For one, his presence allows Minnesota more roster room to trade shooting guard Kevin Martin and/or No. 2 point man J.J. Barea, whose contracts the Wolves would like to dump along with moving Love. It also means Saunders, general manager Milt Newton and the rest of the front office are confident they can get enough player assets in return for Love or — by a much smaller margin of chance — convince him to stick around under Saunders’ direction.
"I feel comfortable with the guys that we have," Saunders said earlier this week. "If we can get something that makes our team better, we’ll do it. If we don’t, we’ll stay pat and go forward and enter into free agency on July 1."
That group now includes LaVine.
The Seattle, Wash., native started just one game but earn Pac 12 all-freshman honors, scoring in double figures in 17 games (nine of his first 10). He can score in transition and by attacking the basket and has an inside-outside game the Wolves covet.
"Great athlete," said former Arizona State assistant and NBA head coach Eric Musselman, who coached against LaVine this past season, in a text message to FOXSportsNorth.com. "Huge upside. . . . Gets his shot off quick. Bouncy player."
But things went south for LaVine during the second half of the season; in UCLA’s three NCAA tournament games, he scored a combined total of eight points.
His decision to declare for the draft early surprised some observers.
"I’m a very confident person," said LaVine, who’s expected to be introduced at a press conference Friday in Minnesota. "I knew I was going out all along. I believe in my talents. I thought I was ready for this journey.
"There’s a lot of doubters out there that I’ve been proving wrong through this whole process."
Saunders, who’s hoping to convert Minnesota from a franchise in flux to a playoff contender during a short-term stint as head coach, wasn’t among them.
The ideal pick, Saunders said earlier this offseason, would be a sure-fire wing player who can score and defend. LaVine’s not there yet.
But he can be, Saunders said.
"As we got through the draft and I talked a lot about this last week, you look at ready-made players," Saunders said. "He might not be as ready-made as some of the players, but you’re going to be able to point him out just because of how dynamic he is when he’s on the floor, he’s going to make something happen."
Minnesota still has three second-round picks, at least one of which Saunders will likely try to deal — 40th, 44th and 53rd overall.