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Updated: June 18th, 2013 1:00am
Wolves' Flip Saunders sees Trevor Mbakwe's talent level as NBA caliber

Wolves' Flip Saunders sees Trevor Mbakwe's talent level as NBA caliber

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Two years ago, Trevor Mbakwe was considered a potential NBA draft lottery pick.

An ACL injury in November 2011 abruptly derailed those projections and added another layer to the former Minnesota Gophers star's long, often tumultuous, path towards possibly realizing his pro dreams.

But Mbakwe could be less than two weeks away from getting the chance he may have once thought was slipping away.

With the calendar closing in on the June 27 draft, Mbakwe was back in his hometown of Minneapolis on Monday for a workout with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

A grueling recent stretch of team workouts - Monday was his ninth of the 13 he has scheduled -- has resulted in a slightly slimmed down version of the 235-pound Mbakwe that had reestablished his formidable inside presence closing months of his final season with the Gophers.

However, the strong optimism and pressing energy that have always been staple traits for Mbakwe have not dissipated, resulting in putting him in what he calls the "best shape of my life."

Mbakwe's game is defined largely by his defensive ability and rebounding prowess, but since graduating from Minnesota he has been working to refine his outside shot something rarely seen out of him in college.

Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, who is also a Gophers alum, has taken notice of Mbakwe's solid post-college development.

"He's definitely improved his perimeter," Saunders said. "His biggest thing is that he's going to have to play power forward and he's undersized. I really believe he has the talent to play in the league, but he's had some issues as far as his knees. And in the NBA, when you have those type of issues that is something you really have to look at."

Mbakwe's road back from knee surgery was a gradual one. It wasn't until late-December that he started to look closer to his former self. The true reminder of Mbakwe's pro potential came in the Gophers' February 26 upset of then-No. 1 ranked Indiana in which he dominated Hoosiers big man Cody Zeller in 21-point, 12-rebound performance.

He picked the right game to do it, with Saunders and several NBA scouts at Williams Arena that night.

"I get that a lot," Mbakwe said with a grin.

Apart from his injury history, Mbakwe's five-year collegiate saga was also hindered by a series off-court incidents, including a DWI charge that he pled guilty to last summer. But in the months since, the change in Mbakwe, both in his playing style and the way he handles himself off the court. has come across as genuine.

Teams haven't shied away from confronting the 6-foot-8 pound forward about his past struggles, and he has not backed down from keeping his answers open and truthful.

"I'm coming off my ACL injury and a couple off-court issues," Mbakwe said. "That's definitely one of the main things that teams talk to me about. I knew that coming in. I've experienced some troubles. Some things I could have handled better. But after talking to these guys I think they've gotten a good impression of me."

Since a strong performance at the NBA scouting combine, Mbakwe's draft stock has been increasing. While making it as a lottery pick is no longer in the picture, he is likely headed towards a mid to late second round selection.

Draftexpress.com has the 24-year-old Minneapolis native slotted as going to the Chicago at No. 19 in the second round (49th overall). ESPN's Chad Ford lists Mbakwe as the 50th best player in the draft.

If so, Mbakwe would become the first Gophers player to get drafted since the Utah Jazz took Kris Humphries at No. 14 in 2004.

Mbakwe has kept in touch with his former Gophers coach, Tubby Smith, throughout the draft process, which has helped him maintain perspective.

"He's been through this process with a lot of his players. He told me Tayshaun Prince went through 19 workouts. I was complaining about 13," Mbakwe said laughing.

The Wolves hold second round picks No. 22 and No. 29, making it possible that Mbakwe could be around for a look when their turn comes around.

Notes

• Mbakwe was joined at Monday's workout by North Carolina's Reggie Bullock and New Mexico's Tony Snell. Both are possibilities for the Wolves with their 26th overall pick in the first round.

• The Wolves' last stretch of workouts continues Tuesday. Likely late-first/early-second round pick Glen Rick Jr. is scheduled for a six-man group session. C.J. McCollum, a valued guard prospect out of Leigh, will workout individually. With the Wolves searching for a shooting guard, McCollum is a legitimate option for them at No. 9 overall.

• Saunders says the Wolves have targeted four guards who would be quality pick-ups at No. 9.

"We look at there being about four guys in that guard spot then there is the rest," Saunders said. "The top four are two-way players, have the ability to play offense and defense, where at 26 you're starting to get more of a specialized-type player than maybe an overall package."

• Saunders was in Washington D.C. last Friday to watch Victor Oladipo in an individual workout. The session seemed to further confirm the high value the Wolves have placed on the Indiana guard.

"It was a good trip. We saw him workout, went over a few things with him. He's a great kid, everything we kind of expected about him," Saunders said.

Getting to Oladipo, a projected top-3 pick, would require the Wolves to move up in the draft order. As KSTP-TV producer/reporter and 1500ESPN.com's Darren Wolfson has reported, the Wolves are angling for a potential trade that would put them within in range to take Oladipo.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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