Sandell: No. 26 pick gives Wolves chance to gamble on a raw center
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MINNEAPOLIS -- One cannot teach size.
That mantra has been heard numerous as the Minnesota Timberwolves have spent the last few weeks sorting through the various options they have in next week's NBA Draft, including a desire to add another big man to a team heavy on point guards
As the draft draws nearer and the largely fluid crop of prospects slide up and down draft boards, it seems more and more likely the Wolves will make a priority out of picking up a reliable shooting guard with their first pick at No. 9.
But the Wolves still have a need to find a player with top-end size. Whether they decide to focus on locating a prospect that fulfills that role with their pick at No. 26 or elsewhere in the draft remains unclear.
Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders has been careful to keep his analysis of the draft fairly broad in front of the media, keeping the team's true plans for their pair of first round picks shrouded in at least some level of uncertainty.
There is also uncertainty when trying to project the order in which the prospects measuring in around 6-foot-11 and above will go come draft day.
While there are solid prospects available on the five-spot front, there is not a clear-cut, dynamic big man in this year's draft. Saunders has noted multiple times as the Wolves have progressed through draft workouts that any "center" taken is likely two to three years removed from being able to have a major impact at the NBA level.
Thusly, any big man scooped up next week will come with a bold "work in progress" tag.
"There's no one that is going to step in right now that's healthy, and play or start in our league," Saunders said. So they're all going to be guys who you hope can come in and play limited minutes and develop."
At the forefront of the big men group obviously stands Nerlens Noel, the 19-year-old seven-footer out of Kentucky, who has been projected as the No. 1 overall pick, despite his ongoing recovery from an ACL tear. Next up is Maryland's Alex Len, slotted in the top-6 range with enough bulk (225-pounds) to go with his 7-foot-1 frame.
Both Noel and Len are not in the picture for the Wolves unless something drastically changes in the next few days.
Beyond that pair, the options begin to blur together more.
The Wolves have worked out a number of towering prospects in the last several weeks, including Steven Adams (Pittsburgh), former Indiana star Cody Zeller, Kelly Olynyk (Gonzaga), Rudy Gobert (France), Jeff Withey (Kansas) and Lucas Nogueria (Brazil).
When seeing any of these players, it is clear they are largely very raw talents, so determining who has the highest upside becomes crucial.
Zeller, once seen as a possible top pick, has since fallen down the ranks towards the lower end of the first 15 selections, especially after an inconsistent showing in the latter part of his final season with the Hoosiers. At Indiana, the 7-foot, 230-pound Zeller played primarily inside with his back to the basket. In the lead-up to the draft, teams have been watching Zeller begin to show his rising skills away from the hoop.
After watching him work out individually, Saunders was adamant in defining Zeller as a stretch-four.
"He's not a center. He's a power forward," Saunders said. "Anybody who is looking at him as a center isn't evaluating him right. Now can he at times when he's playing in the league, when he's the biggest guy on the floor ... He's really a face-up forward type player."
Unlike Zeller's body of work, the sample size for Adams is minimal. Adams, a native of New Zealand, opted to leave after his freshman season with Pittsburgh, where he averaged 7.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. As one of the more physical players in the draft, Adams is equipped with the body to be an imposing force on defense, but his offensive skills are lagging behind.
Adams admits that improving his shot blocking ability has been a focus during his draft prep.
"I kind of have to work on my timing," Adams said. "Going from New Zealand, we have a lot of short guys, so I don't really have to jump. I kind of just stand there. But here, you've got guys jumping out of the gym."
Gobert is somewhat of a mystery man, having played solely internationally. His 7-foot-2 frame makes him one of the tallest players in the draft, and with a large wingspan (7-foot-9) and an ability to run the floor, the intrigue surrounding him is high.
But Gobert, whose lacks top-tier strength, especially in his lower body, has lately been moving closer to the bottom half of many mock draft boards. That could be a positive for the Wolves, however, as Gobert seems to be a definite possibility at No. 26 if they decide to go that route.
ESPN's Chad Ford has the Wolves taking Gobert late in the first round in his latest mock draft.
Again, Saunders sees a steady learning curve involved when deciding whether or not to gamble on a player like Gobert.
"He's a guy that when you take him you know it's three years away before he has any kind of impact," Saunders said. "Working him out, he's actually farther along in some areas offensively than I thought he would be ... He actually did some things better than I thought, shooting the ball well and is pretty light on his feet for being as big as he is."
Olynyk was in Minneapolis Friday, along with former Minnesota Gophers center Colton Iverson, Duke's Mason Plumlee and Indiana forward Christian Watford, for the Wolves' last scheduled workout before the draft.
He stands out among his fellow bigs because of the unique, varied skill set he possesses. Olynyk has the mobility and shot-making skill to be versatile in where he can score from. The knock against him is concern surrounding his ability to rebound and be an adequate shot blocker.
Saunders, who labeled the former long-haired Gonzaga standout as "one of the most skilled (big men) with the ball" in this year's draft, came away from Friday's session impressed.
"One of things with him that shocked me was that he measured in at, in bare feet, 6-11, which is big," Saunders said. "I thought he'd measure in at 6-10. With shoes on, he's over seven feet, so for a guy who can do what he does with the ball, shoot, pass, he's very skilled for his size."
Saunders' buzzword with the available bigs has repeatedly been "project." He has discussed his preference that any player the Wolves pick at No. 9 be someone who can come in and be an immediate help next season. That likely wouldn't be the case with any of the centers they are considering.
Much can change when the draft finally commences on June 26, but the outlook for the Wolves still points to the likelihood of their pursuit of a center or sizable forward taking place either at No. 26 or in the second round with the 52nd or 59th overall picks.
"At 26, we still have opportunities to take more of a project-type player," Saunders said.
Current Wolves center Nikola Pekovic will become a restricted free agent as of July 1. Saunders has expressed that he expects Pekovic to re-sign and be back in the Wolves' starting lineup next season. Although Pekovic's status in all likelihood will not be known until at least sometime in July, Saunders has stated that the uncertainty with Pekovic will not change how the Wolves handle the draft.