Colton Iverson returns to Minnesota transformed

MINNEAPOLIS — Should he somehow end up playing basketball in the Twin Cities again, Colton Iverson hopes hoops fans around here won’t recognize him.
Not because he transferred after three subpar years under Tubby Smith at the University of Minnesota and instead excelled in a delayed senior year at Colorado State, one that has him in line to hear his name called during next week’s NBA Draft. 
No, Iverson’s goals hinge upon primacy, not secrecy.
“I’m not the slow slug you saw at Minnesota,” Iverson said following Friday’s draft workout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “I’ve really just improved all around.”
A year off — per NCAA transfer rules — in 2011-12 gave Iverson time to shed some flab, add some muscle, work on his agility, and develop into the all-around center that scored 14.2 points per game and was an Associated Press honorable mention All-American last season.
Smith taught him defense at Minnesota. Tim Miles focused on developing his scoring technique during Iverson’s first year on campus in Fort Collins, Colo., before taking the head coaching job at Nebraska. Larry Eustachy came in and meshed the two foci.
And according to the man who worked him out Friday in the Target Center’s Lifetime Fitness center, what came out of that three-coach factory may greatly differ from local recollections of Iverson’s first three years of college.
“I think the people in Minnesota, if they had seen him play, they wouldn’t think it was the same guy,” said Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, a former Gopher himself. “He’s much improved, he’s got a lot of confidence, and I believe he’s a guy that’s got a chance to make it in our league somewhere.”
With a 7-foot, 255-pound frame, the South Dakota native could go anywhere from the bottom of the first round to late in the second. Scouts like his reputation as a non-stop worker and around-the-rim finishing capabilities.
But Saunders says he’s looking for more of a defensive post presence — not necessarily Iverson’s forte, but enough a part of his game to possibly merit one of the Timberwolves’ two late second-round picks.
“You look and see the progression and the improvement that he’s made over the last four or five years,” Saunders said of Iverson, whose scheduled Sunday workout with the San Antonio Spurs will be his 17th. “When you look at that, you say, ‘Here’s a guy that’s got a chance to come in as maybe a backup center, a third center in the league.’ It’s tough to find size that are skilled, that can run, that’ll bang, and he does a lot of those things.”
From 2008-2011, Iverson averaged 5.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, often coming off the bench after losing the starting center job his freshman year to Ralph Sampson III. Iverson would start 42 of his 98 games in a Minnesota uniform but never reach the potential he, Smith or anyone else invested in the program had in mind.
But that’s all water under the Washington Avenue Bridge now as Iverson prepares for the draft.
“When you put in work and you see results and your game is improving, your confidence goes with your game,” said Iverson, who still maintains contact with some of his former Gophers teammates. “I knew I had the potential to be here, but I knew it wasn’t going to come easy.”
He wasn’t the only big man Friday in Minneapolis whose draft stock benefitted from a season away from game action.
In addition to Duke and Indiana forwards Mason Plumlee and Christian Watford, Gonzaga All-American forward Kelly Olynyk was in attendance. After mediocre outputs in 2009-10 and 2010-11, he opted to redshirt in what would’ve been his junior year and focus on becoming a truer big man, one that spends more time on the blocks than on the perimeter.
Like Iverson, Olynyk said missing the 2011-12 campaign paid crucial dividends.
“It was huge,” said Olynyk, still sporting his trademark long, flowing hair he plans to donate to Locks of Love. “I improved my body and developed my game and really got both my body and my game — mentally, physically — to where it needed to be.”
Olynyk’s a higher-rated prospect than Iverson, looking like a mid-first-rounder, perhaps even a low lottery pick. His 17.8 points per game — which came from the paint, mid-range and, at times, behind the 3-point line — are nothing to sneeze at, but Olynyk’s not a prime defensive prospect, by his own admission.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the best shot blocker in the draft, by any means,” Olynyk said. “Shot-blocking is a lot about timing, but it’s also about pure athleticism. Maybe that’s something I can improve. I think, defensively, I bring a high IQ, get in the right position and team defensive concepts more than individual, lock-down defender.”
But depending on what Minnesota does with the No. 9 overall pick and which big men are taken in the first round, 7-foot 238-pound Olynyk might be the best remaining option when the Timberwolves draft 26th.
“For bigs, (he’s) one of the most skilled with the ball,” Saunders said. “Being able to handle the ball, pass the ball, shoot the ball and just be comfortable with the ball. … He’s very skilled for his size.”
Barring a late addition, Friday was the last day of scheduled pre-draft workouts for the Timberwolves. The draft’s first round beings at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, with Minnesota slated to be on the clock around 7:15 p.m. and again at 8:35 p.m.

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