MINNEAPOLIS — From his perch inside Williams Arena, Flip Saunders watched intently while Cody Zeller struggled against Trevor Mbakwe in one of college basketball’s biggest 2012-13 upsets.
At the former Indiana forward’s individual pre-draft workout Wednesday inside Target Center, Saunders told Zeller “he got his butt kicked by Mbakwe in that game. He’s aware of that.”
Unranked Minnesota’s 77-73 shocker Feb. 26 against the then-consensus No. 1 Hoosiers saw Mbakwe outmuscle Zeller all evening, holding him to nine points on just 2-of-9 shooting from the field. The Gophers’ long, athletic center rarely allowed Zeller to slide his way to the basket on the low blocks, a forte of the sophomore’s college skill set.
But Zeller was largely out of position that night, Saunders said.
And that’s why his chances of landing in Minnesota appear limited.
While Zeller claims he can man both spots, Saunders strongly prefers him at the four instead of the five. “He’s not a center,” Saunders said after Wednesday’s proceedings, which also featured a six-player group session before Zeller stepped on the Lifetime Fitness Center floor. “He’s a power forward.
“Anyone that’s looking at him as a center is not evaluating him right.”
The problem for Zeller’s prospects in the Twin Cities is that the Timberwolves don’t strongly need a power forward. They’ve got a pretty good one coming back fully healthy named Kevin Love, and Saunders has said a rim-protecting backup center for Nikola Pekovic (assuming he’s re-signed) is a much higher priority.
There were a couple of those on hand Wednesday that might fit Minnesota’s current needs better than Zeller.
But Saunders still liked what he saw.
“He’s gonna be a very good stretch four,” Saunders said. “One of the first things that a couple of the (our) guys said when they saw him, as he got through the workout, was why he wasn’t in those situations in Indiana. Because they pretty much played him back to the basket inside, and he never really showed his ability to shoot the ball like he did today.
“Now, can he at times play in the league, when he’s on the floor he’s maybe the biggest guy on the floor? Yeah, because a lot of times in our league, there’s a lot of teams that play a power forward at the center. And at that point, he can play that position. But he’s really a face-up four type player.”
Zeller’s status as a between-the-blocks presence in college was largely a result of his size. He only shot 24 jumpers in 36 games, according to Synergy Sports Technology, in coach Tom Crean’s system.
There are plenty of lottery teams that consider a well-rounded power forward a higher priority than Minnesota. If Saunders is true to his word, he’ll draft either a shooting guard, small forward or more traditional center with the No. 9 overall pick, unless of course the Timberwolves are able to trade up.
By the time pick the Timberwolves’ No. 26 spot rolls around, it’s likely Zeller will be off the board. Almost every mock draft slots him in or just outside the top 10.
For his part, the first-team all-Big Ten selection considers himself capable of playing center and forward. He also thinks he could find a niche in Minneapolis.
“I’ve always been a little bit undersized and make up for it with how hard I work, scrapping and clawing,” said Zeller, who was born in Winona, Minn., and lived in Lewiston, Minn., until he was 10 months old. “I think I could fit in well, to be able to grow behind Pekovic and Love. Definitely a talented team.”
Perhaps a more realistic possibility at No. 26 would be a true center like Steve Adams or Rudy Gobert, both of whom showcased their length and athleticism before Zeller did on Wednesday.
Both project as first-round picks, though Saunders was more complimentary of Adams when it comes to immediate professional ability.
“I think there’s no question that Steve Adams, physically, is one of the more physical players, really, in the draft,” Saunders said. “(Gobert’s) a project. But he does have some ability. He’s a guy that when you take, you know he’s three years away before he’s gonna have any type of impact.”
Adams certainly will bring some interesting storylines into whatever NBA city lands him. Born in New Zealand — hardly a hotbed for international basketball talent — he has 17 siblings and a reputation for ordering multiple items when prospective teams take him out to dinner.
There’s a fun-loving, easygoing demeanor behind that menacing 7-foot, 250-pound frame.
“I’m not sure if I might not get drafted because of that because (teams are) broke,” joked Adams, who averaged 7.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and two blocks per game for Pittsburgh last season. “They’re just like, ‘Uh…’ because I asked for three entrees.”
If Minnesota is indeed looking to add depth at power forward, there’s a good chance Minnesota native Mike Muscala will be around at 26 — maybe even 52, the Timberwolves’ third of four slotted selections.
But the Roseville Area High School and Bucknell product’s own shooting skills and size (6-10, 7-1 wingspan) could earn him a low first-round or higher second-round spot.
But Muscula would be just fine if the Timberwolves were able to snag him June 27, regardless of draft position.
“I was just thinking today, walking into the locker room, I always walked through these doors into the arena as a fan,” Muscala said. “I used to always remember (Kevin Garnett) would never come and shoot around before the games. They always said he came down here and shot in the practice gym, so that was kind of cool to see, ‘OK, this is where he was.'”
Guards Lorenzo Brown (NC State), Larry Drew II (UCLA) and forward Zeke Marshall (Akron) also worked out Wednesday for Saunders and the Timberwolves. St. Mary’s guard Matt Dellavedova, Wisconsin forward Ryan Evans, Virginia Military Institute forward Stan Okoye, Kansas center Jeff Withey, Virginia Tech guard Erick Green, and Brazilian center Lucas Nogueira are scheduled to appear for a group session Thursday afternoon.