Saunders expects Pekovic, Kirilenko back with Wolves
MINNEAPOLIS — Flip Saunders’ pre-draft mission isn’t limited to scouring the 2013 class for potential sleeper picks.
While that’s been the bulk of his workload this week, the Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations has plenty of in-house chores on his to-do list, even if they mean going abroad.
Coming out of Tuesday and Wednesday with a fresh set of talent to consider via Minnesota’s workouts with players that project well outside the lottery, Saunders now must balance the Timberwolves’ developing draft plans with forging current player relationships. To that end, he’ll meet with point guard Ricky Rubio on Saturday in Miami, Fla., and restricted free agent big man Nikola Pekovic during an upcoming trip to Europe. He’s also spoken with small forward Chase Budinger, whose contract expires at the end of June.
The Saunders-Rubio rendezvous gives both sides the chance to set a foundation similar to the one Saunders and forward Kevin Love appear to be developing. His meetings with Budinger and Pekovic, however, carry more weight.
Budinger is an unrestricted free agent and one of the Timberwolves’ best returning shooters. Pekovic is a restricted free agent and a stalwart center whom Saunders has said they can’t afford to lose.
Official negotiations don’t take place until July 1-10, with free agent signings possible July 11. But teams can converse with players already under contract.
And Saunders most certainly will.
“I think Budinger fits very well into Coach (Rick) Adelman’s system,” Saunders said of the 6-7, 218-pound fourth-year pro. “I think he’s aware of that. We’re aware of how he does fit in. He was successful before he got hurt, so he’s definitely a good match with the people that we have.”
Not long after meeting with Rubio, Saunders will board a plane for Treviso, Italy, and the Adidas Eurocamp, a showcase for international draft prospects. While in Europe, he’ll sit down with Pekovic, a Montenegro native who will be able to entertain other teams’ offer sheets which the Timberwolves in turn must match to return their 6-foot-11, 281-pound leading scorer of a year ago.
Forward Andrei Kirilenko has a player option on his contract, too. Saunders said there’s a good chance the Russian will remain on the roster. He has until the end of June to opt out.
“Pek’s a restricted free agent, so we expect that he’s going to be back,” Saunders said. “We feel he’s a valuable part of where we’re going, and we’ll do what we have to do to try to bring him back. I think Kirilenko’s the same way. Until he exercises his option, we feel he’s a guy that’s going to come back.”
With a draft class that’s perceived as relatively thin, particularly for a team that doesn’t pick until the No. 9 selection, Saunders has his work cut out for him in the free agent department.
Eleven draft hopefuls worked out again Wednesday morning at the Target Center, including former Minnesota forward Rodney Williams. Baylor guard Pierre Jackson, one of the highest-profile prospects on the workouts’ original participants list, decided not attend.
But guards Matthew Dellavedova (St. Mary’s), D.J. Stephens (Memphis), Elston Turner Jr. (Texas A&M), B.J. Young (Arkansas) were there, all vying for one of the shooting guard spots Minnesota needs to fill.
The event’s second day also featured a slew of forwards. In addition to Williams, BYU’s Brandon Davies, Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael, Missouri’s Alex Oriakhi, Syracuse’s James Southerland and Gonzaga’s Elias Harris all were on hand.
It was an admittedly nerve-wracking experience for Williams, a power forward who views himself as a swingman at the next level.
“For me, at least, it’s always nerves when I first step out on the court,” said Williams, who scored 10.1 points per game as a junior this past season. “Just to be able to be out here, the experience is good. Get out here, meet some new guys, and reconnect with guys that I’ve met through AAU and through college. The whole experience has been good for me.”
The Timberwolves have individual workouts, some that will include more high-ranking draft hopefuls, scheduled for the coming weeks as well. Georgia shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s slated to visit Minneapolis on Thursday afternoon.
He and Lehigh product C.J. McCollum are widely regarded as Minnesota’s top two most realistic possibilities if it chooses to take a shooting guard with its first pick.
But as Saunders reiterated Wednesday, just about anything can happen.
“I’d say there’s probably two or three guys (in the draft) that could play minutes and have somewhat of an impact” right away, Saunders said. “The interesting thing about our draft is, depending what some of the other people do, some guys could slide.”
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