Wolves newcomer Neal faces uncertain future

For now, the future of new Timberwolves guard Gary Neal is up in the air, as the NBA's trade deadline looms.

Sam Sharpe/Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — After his first Timberwolves practice, Gary Neal needed more than one set of instructions from a team staffer to navigate the Target Center’s labyrinth of hallways and elevators. As he was led from the Lifetime Fitness practice facility back to the dressing room Wednesday night, he studied the route, raising his eyebrows at its complexity.

He might not need to know it for long.

"I don’t know what’s going on," said Neal, who came from Charlotte to Minneapolis along with Miami’s 2019 second-round draft pick for Mo Williams last week. "I don’t know what’s going to happen."

The pre-NBA trade deadline rumor mill says the former Spurs sharpshooter would prefer a trade or buyout. Flip Saunders, the guy who dealt for him, insists neither of those courses is likely. Even if Neal does play out the rest of the season here, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent once it’s over.

In any case, the future is fluid.

"Whatever happens, happens," said Neal, who sat out last Wednesday’s game against Golden State and arrived in the Twin Cities on Wednesday afternoon. "I can’t control the future. I can’t predict the future. I can only control what I’m going to do, and I’m going to give my best effort night-in and night-out."

In the past, that effort centered on lights-out 3-point shooting — 39.8 percent in three seasons with the Spurs from 2010-13 that included big-time playoff performances. In 43 games with the Hornets this year, though, he dropped to 29.3 percent from beyond the arc and 35.9 from the field, both career lows, and 9.6 points per game.

Traded at last year’s deadline from Milwaukee to Charlotte, Neal doesn’t much resemble the San Antonio European pickup who hit a game-tying 3 in the first round of the 2011 playoffs and went off for 24 points in Game 3 of the 2013 NBA Finals. The Spurs plucked Neal from Spain in 2010 after he went undrafted in the NBA and bounced around overseas from 2007-10.

Before that, he sandwiched stints at La Salle and Towson around a rape allegation for which he was later acquitted. The Baltimore native played for two different high schools, too, transferring from Aberdeen to Calvert Hall College before his senior year.

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However long he’s here, he’ll be counted on to stretch the floor and score, Saunders said.

"I like Gary, because he’s got the ability to really shoot the ball," Saunders said. "He’s got the ability to make 3s, and with (point guard) Ricky (Rubio) and his ability to penetrate and find people, there’s nothing wrong with having somebody like that. He’s played in big games. He’s played in big games for Charlotte. He played in big games when he was in San Antonio, so I believe he can fit into what we’re trying to do."

For how long, though?

It makes sense Neal would encourage a buyout or trade that sends him to a contender; Atlanta has been mentioned as a possibility. And it’s unlikely he sticks around with a rebuilding Wolves team after this season, when he’ll hit the open market.

Saunders said Wednesday evening he doesn’t "anticipate we’re going to do something" regarding any trades, "because usually at this time, you’re pretty far down the line on things. We’re not really far down the line on anything. But you’ll listen till the (deadline) comes. So there’s some things that might happen. Usually, it’s a domino effect; something else has to happen with other people to trigger some things. So I guess we’ll wait and see what happens here over the next 18 hours or whatever it is."

Saunders’ comments came before reports of a possible Thaddeus Young-for-Kevin Garnett trade surfaced late Wednesday night.

He openly refuted the notion of buying Neal out, too. "We didn’t trade for Gary with the idea that we were going to buy him out, so we have had no conversations, and that’s not something we’re looking into. We want to get players that we feel can come in and see how they fit in with us. If they do, they can maybe become a long-term-type guy."

But for now, that’s all up in the air as Neal tries to blend into his newest surroundings.

"Flip’s been around, been coaching for a long time," Neal said. "I’m pretty sure his expectations of me are the same expectations I have of myself — coming in, be a professional and compete night-in and night-out. Everything else will figure itself out like it always has."

The Wolves have one more practice Thursday afternoon before officially closing the All-Star break Friday at home against the Suns.

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