Published June 28, 2013
MINNEAPOLIS – Flip Saunders' first draft running the Minnesota Timberwolves was a chaotic one, with players falling and then disappearing right in front of them and trades happening every 10 minutes.
When the dust settled, the Wolves came away with UCLA swingman Shabazz Muhammad and Louisville center Gorgui Dieng in the first round. They weren't the first choices the Wolves would have made, and Saunders knows that they will take some selling with his fans.
"We felt pretty confident that we were going to get one of our guys, but we didn't," Saunders said Thursday night. "We moved back. I know it's not a popular pick with Shabazz. And I've been very critical of him. And I told him that when he came in here."
The draft was shaping up beautifully early for the Timberwolves, who tried to trade up from No. 9 into the top five for a chance at one of the top two shooting guards in the league. They couldn't make a deal, but with Anthony Bennett and Cody Zeller both surprisingly going in the top four picks, Kansas guard Ben McLemore was sliding down the board.
Then the Kings took McLemore at No. 7 and the Detroit Pistons took Georgia shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope right in front of the Wolves at No. 8, leaving Saunders with few options.
"Our guys at No. 9 were off the board," Saunders said. "We thought one of them would be there. We had a decision to make, whether we thought who we could get, if he wasn't there at 9 who we could move back and get at 14."
With Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk and a few other players still available, Saunders drafted Michigan point guard Trey Burke for Utah in return for pick Nos. 14 and 21. But the Boston Celtics swooped in to grab Olynyk at No. 13, leaving the Wolves to take Muhammad, a highly touted prep star from Las Vegas who had a rocky one-year stay at UCLA.
Muhammad averaged 17.9 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in his lone season at UCLA. He has the natural scoring instincts that the Wolves have lacked in recent seasons, but also carries with him some questions about his background that may have caused him to fall down the draft board.
He was forced to sit out the first three games at UCLA and repay $1,600 in impermissible benefits after the NCAA and UCLA found that Muhammad accepted travel and lodging during three unofficial visits to Duke and North Carolina. It was also revealed in a story by the Los Angeles Times that he was actually 20 years old, a year older than the age that Muhammad's father had said he was all along.
Muhammad said he's working hard to show that any concerns about his character and background are unfounded.
"I think I'm just having a really good attitude with everything and going to come to Minnesota and try to (learn) as much as I can," Muhammad said.
Saunders, an alumnus of the University of Minnesota, was highly critical of Muhammad's uninspired performance in a first-round loss to the Golden Gophers in the NCAA tournament. Muhammad knows he comes into the league, and to Minnesota, with something to prove.
"I have definitely a chip on my shoulder and really can't wait to get to work and really take coaching well," Muhammad said.
The Wolves then took Dieng at No. 21, giving them a rim protector that their frontcourt lacks with Nikola Pekovic, who is a restricted free agent, and Kevin Love in the starting lineup. He averaged 2.5 blocks and 9.4 rebounds per game for the national champion Cardinals last season.
They traded the 26th overall pick and guard Malcolm Lee to the Golden State Warriors for cash considerations and a future second-round pick and rounded out the night by taking North Carolina State point guard Lorenzo Brown with the 52nd pick and Montenegrin forward Bojan Dubljevic with the 59th pick in the second round.
Saunders ended up not being able to address the team's most glaring need. Adding perimeter shooting was his top priority for a team that was dead last in the NBA in 3-point accuracy last season. Muhammad shot 37.7 percent on 3s at UCLA last season, but the Wolves will still be looking for more help in that area going forward.
"There were probably only about three or four (shooters) in the draft that were going to make an impact," Saunders said. "And unfortunately for us, they all went in front of us."
One who didn't was Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, who was drafted 10th by Portland. But the Wolves were looking for size on the perimeter and McCollum is just 6-foot-3.
Saunders was hired last month to take over for David Kahn, who was fired in large part because of a woeful performance in the draft. Kahn had major misses with Wes Johnson and Jonny Flynn in the top 6 picks and Rubio and Derrick Williams were the only first-round picks that were still on the team after his four-year run ended.
Owner Glen Taylor tapped his confidante Saunders, who was fired in Minnesota in 2005, to bring some more basketball-related acumen back into the front office, and Saunders plunged into this draft with a focus on adding shooters around Rubio and All-Star Kevin Love. The Wolves shot an abysmal 30.5 percent on 3-pointers last season, almost six percentage points below the league average.
Love's return from a twice-broken right hand and the anticipated return of Chase Budinger, who missed much of last season with a knee injury, should help matters. But the Wolves were still in need of a prototypical shooting guard who could defend the bigger guards in the league and knock down 3-pointers at a reliable rate. Last year coach Rick Adelman was forced to play undersized Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea the bulk of the minutes at shooting guard, leaving the Wolves vulnerable on the defensive end and without the scorer's mentality that generally comes at the position on the offensive end.
"We addressed our defense inside and our ability to score," Saunders said. "But we have not addressed our ability to make perimeter shots. So that's something we're going to have to address through trades and address through free agency.
"As I said prior to the draft, sometimes things don't go the way you want. ... I'm not disappointed. But we still have some things we need to fill."