Wolves NBA Draft preview: Plenty of options

Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders (right), along with team owner Glen Taylor, will have lots of personnel decisions to make during the NBA Draft on Thursday.

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MINNEAPOLIS — The hour is near.

That annual point of anticipation that, in recent years around here, has been met with ultimate disappointment. Yet this summer, the 2014 NBA Draft has almost become secondary in Lake Land, where the ‘A’ summer storyline is one of subtraction and not addition.

Each June, a multitude of different scenarios present a window into each NBA franchise’s future. That’s especially true for the Minnesota Timberwolves when the draft kicks off at 6 p.m. Thursday in Brooklyn.

The most discussed course of action, though a long shot at coming to fruition, is a trade that grants All-Star power forward Kevin Love his desired exit and nets the Wolves valuable player and pick assets in return. Cleveland, Boston, Denver, Phoenix, Chicago and Golden State have topped the May and June rumor heap and still could execute a trade with Minnesota before the draft concludes.

Cleveland has the No. 1 overall pick to dangle. Boston has a pair of first-rounders in the sixth and 17th selections. So, too, does Chicago (16 and 19), while Phoenix can offer as many as three first-round picks (14, 18 and 27). Golden State may have to wait, as it’s without a first-round draft pick this year but has discussed dealing point guard Klay Thompson and forward David Lee.

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A Warriors swap can wait until after the draft, unless Golden State and Minnesota choose to include a third team that grants the Wolves a desirable 2014 pick.

But there’s a reason no such deal has been executed less than 24 hours before the draft. Cleveland and Boston don’t have as much proven talent to offer Minnesota. Chicago and Golden State may be in an opposite conundrum.

The impending free agencies of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony put pursuing Love slightly on the backburner, too. The Wolves may be better served waiting to pursue a trade with whichever teams chase and don’t land either superstar.

Plus, Wolves coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders says, organizations aren’t wont to make a draft-centric deal until the last minute, anyway.

"You wait, because you’re always trying to get something a little bit better," Saunders said Tuesday. "Until that 12th hour comes, you don’t know if, what you’re offering, if you can get more."

So unless something changes drastically between now and late Thursday night, Love will still be with the Timberwolves when he and whoever they wind up drafting wake up Friday morning.

But that doesn’t mean the franchise’s tenuous future will be just as cloudy by that point. Each potential course of action the Wolves could take with the 13th overall pick trade is an indicator of where they might be headed.

It can, of course, change in the blink of an eye once Adam Silver starts announcing picks, players rise or slide, and trade offers blow up Saunders and Milt Newton’s war room phones.

Predicting is impossible. Educated guesses, though, can come a bit closer.

No small decision

If there were no such thing as a Kevin Love controversy, the Wolves would almost certainly snag the services of a swingman.

Not since Wally Szczerbiak in the mid-2000s has Minnesota been graced by a formidable wing player. Their best attempt at one presently is an aged Kevin Martin, a small forward in Corey Brewer who is much better served coming off the bench as a sixth man and an injury-saddled Chase Budinger.

The Wolves’ desires at this position are twofold. Like last year, they’re in need of improved perimeter shooting; each of the past three seasons, they’ve finished in the bottom third of the NBA in 3-point percentage, including a league-worst 30.5-percent mark in 2012-13.

But they also need defenders. With only Gorgui Dieng to protect the rim and Brewer and Ricky Rubio either generating turnovers or allowing easy buckets by gambling on the outside, Minnesota opponents shot 47.1 percent from the floor last season.

That tied for the second-worst opponent field-goal percentage allowed in the NBA.

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There are shooters aplenty the Wolves could land, starting with Michigan guard Nik Stauskas. The sophomore out of Michigan made 44.2 percent of his 3s and can execute effectively off the catch-and-shoot and create his own shot on step-backs and pull-ups.

"I can immediately be a guy who stretches the floor and make shots," Stauskas said at the NBA pre-draft combine. "That’s something I’ve always been able to do, but I think teams are really going to be surprised when they have the ball in my hands and they have ball screens. I think they’ll be surprised the plays I can make for myself and others. I just feel like I’m a guy with a high IQ and I like to make the right play out there."

Should teams above Minnesota pass on reigning national player of the year Doug McDermott, the forward from Creighton would present Minnesota another tantalizing offensive proposition. McDermott graduated as the fifth-best all-time scorer in NCAA history and led the nation in that category each of the past two seasons.

But, like Stauskas, there are grave concerns about McDermott’s ability to match up athletically with NBA-level wing players — one reason he may be available at 13.

McDermott said at the combine those criticisms toward him are fair.

"Everyone’s got to get better at something," the son of Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "That’s part of the reason why we play this game. Not everyone’s perfect. We want to get better every day. That’s something I take a lot of pride in. When someone’s maybe knocking me in one area, I’m going to work my tail off to prove them wrong."

Saunders walked away from a workout in Chicago last week featuring Stauskas and McDermott impressed with both players.

"You know if they get an open shot, they’re going to make it 80 percent of the time," Saunders said Tuesday. "That’s just what they do."

But most mock drafts have Stauskas and McDermott going before Minnesota has a chance at them Thursday. If that’s the case, Duke small forward Rodney Hood (46.4 percent shooting, 42 percent from 3, 16.1 points per game last season), Michigan State shooting guard Gary Harris (42.9, 35.2, 16.7), UCLA shooting guard Zach LaVine (44.1, 37.5, 9.4) or Kentucky wing James Young (40.7, 34.9, 14.3) might be the next-best option.

Of that group, though, only Young, the worst offensive player of the bunch, and Harris, who’s a bit undersized at 6-foot-4, are renowned for their defense.

That leaves Saunders in a precarious position. Should he indeed draft a small forward or shooting guard, it’d confirm the notion that Minnesota is in no rush to trade Love — at least not until free-agent negotiations begin July 1.

Or, of course, it could indicate the Wolves are making one final, last-ditch effort to give the roster immediate help and convince Love to stick around.

But that’s probably not happening.

Power play

If Love is indeed traded, now or later, Minnesota will be in need of a power forward.

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Backup Dante Cunningham is set to become an unrestricted free agent and is highly unlikely to be re-signed after two mediocre seasons in Minneapolis that culminated in two arrests stemming from the same domestic violence incident.

Depending on the returns of a Love trade, that could leave little-used Luc Richard Mbah a Moute as the team’s only returning four with any NBA experience.

Primarily, that highlights the need for Minnesota to land a viable power forward in any deal for Love, making deals involving Lee and Chicago’s Taj Gibson, for example, look like more attractive offers. But it also puts pressure on Saunders to consider drafting a post player that could develop into the Wolves’ power forward of the future.

The top get there would be Aaron Gordon, should he somehow fall out of the top 10. The ultra-athletic, prized athlete out of Arizona can run, dunk, pass, score and defend with the best of them, but no major mock drafts have him going lower than 10th to the 76ers.

Michigan State’s Adreian Payne, though, looks like a solid pick to land in Minnesota 13th overall. The 6-10, 239-pound senior can shoot inside (53.6 percent on 2-pointers), outside (42.3 percent from 3) and score in several different ways — post-ups, transition, pick-and-rolls, spot-up jumpers and simply by attacking the basket.

But there’s concern over the stretch four’s durability. During his time under coach Tom Izzo, Payne fatigued easily (though he said part of that senior year was due to contracting mono). He has a small, weak lower body and small lungs for a man of his stature, too. Payne even admitted he was notably tired after a pre-draft workout at the Target Center earlier this month.

He also has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, calling into question his basketball IQ and ability to pick up on things quickly.

"A lot of people said that I can’t pick up on the systems and plays, but at Michigan State we ran an NBA system, and (with) coach Izzo we ran over 100 plays," Payne, who graduated this past spring, said at the combine. "And I did fine with theirs. So it’s just a matter of me, if I put my mind to it, I can do it."

If Payne’s downsides are too much for Minnesota to stomach, Swiss product Clint Capela may be available, too.

In any case, drafting a power forward would seem to indicate the organization is preparing to move on without Love. There’s no replacing a player of his caliber, but selecting a power forward could help soften the blow in time.

Point of emphasis

With Andrew Wiggins topping the draft board and several fellow swingmen expected to fall in behind them, Saunders acknowledged the wing appears to be the deepest position in the 2014 NBA draft class.

But don’t sleep on point guards, he said.

"They won’t be taken as high, but you might have five or six point guards taken in the first round," Saunders predicted, "which at that point would probably end up being the most of any position taken."

Saunders certainly isn’t one to tip his hand. But it’s no secret the Wolves could soon be in the market for a point man to back up Ricky Rubio.

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Besides Love, the most likely Minnesota player to be traded this offseason is reserve one-guard J.J. Barea. He was nearly sent to Memphis in a deadline deal last season and has one year remaining on a contract the Wolves would like to toss in another team’s lap.

The easiest way to do that, of course, is to include Barea in a trade alongside Love. But if that happens and Minnesota doesn’t get a point guard in return, it’d be left with a roster hole behind Rubio.

Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis (12.9 points per game, 5.5 assists per game last season) could fill it. So could Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier (18, 4.9), who led the Huskies to a national championship in the spring.

If Saunders selects either one of them, it’d be another harbinger of a Love trade, one that most likely includes Barea.

Shooting craps

Projecting picks and what can be derived from them concerning Love and the organization’s direction, though, is all contingent upon the assumption Minnesota stays at 13. That’s a feathery factor upon which to bank; the Wolves have traded a first-round pick in five of the past six seasons, a timeframe that spans three different general managers.

With Joel Embiid and Julius Randle both nursing injuries, dominoes already have begun to fall. Players projected between six and 13th on teams’ draft boards, Saunders said, are all equally capable of fitting into a rotation immediately.

And with the possibility of dealing Love and/or trading up or down, Minnesota’s prospects are just as wide open.

"When you look at the draft, there’s different philosophies," Saunders said. "You get what you feel is the best ready-made player that can come in and help you. . . . Or, you decide is that that spot that you have to say that — similar to what the Lakers ended up doing with Kobe, what we did relatively with (Kevin Garnett in the 1995 draft) — not saying there’s players like that, but you look and say ‘you know what, we have to take him and put confidence in our ability to develop the player.’"

Should make for an interesting night at the Barclays Center, eh Flip?

"(Things have) been interesting for four weeks," Saunders quipped, referring to the days since he appointed himself to take over for a retired Adelman — also right around the time it became clear Love wants out of the Twin Cities.

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