MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Flip Saunders was in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office in 1995 when they drafted a teenager named Kevin Garnett, ushering in an era of respectability for the franchise.
He was the coach a year later when a draft-night trade brought Stephon Marbury to the team, forming a dynamic tandem with Garnett that finally pushed the Wolves into the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s eight years in the league.
As important and significant as those two nights were in turning an NBA laughingstock into a competitor in the powerful Western Conference, Saunders believes the Wolves could be on the verge of an even bigger moment when they draft No. 1 overall on Thursday night.
“Tomorrow should be maybe the best draft day that this organization has ever had,” Saunders said Wednesday.
As lost as the Timberwolves appeared to be when they plucked Garnett out of high school 20 years ago, they have fallen on even harder times over the last decade. During that time they fired Saunders as coach, traded Garnett to Boston for a package of players who never panned out, said hello and goodbye to Kevin Love as the new face of the franchise, changed coaches seven times, brought Saunders back as team president and coach, and reacquired Garnett in a trade with Brooklyn.
Through all that they have missed the playoffs for 11 straight seasons, the longest active drought in the NBA, and worn down their dwindling fan base with a new rebuilding plan seemingly every other season.
Now, finally, some optimism.
Saunders and GM Milt Newton turned a disgruntled Love into rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins and the assets to bring Garnett back and built a promising young roster that includes draft picks Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine. Ricky Rubio is expected back fully healthy next season and the team recently opened a $25 million practice facility.
All of the progress and excitement surrounding the first pick has led to more than 9,000 fans sending in RSVPs for the team’s draft party at Target Center on Thursday night, suggesting renewed local interest in the team.
“The KG draft ended up being a great draft,” Saunders said. “The only other time I sensed the same excitement was when we made the trade for Marbury after having Garnett and having the two guys together. It seems ironic that you had two dynamic players that were the beginning of that franchise. I believe that’s what we’re starting to do now, too.”
Saunders said he feels comfortable with their decision, but would not say who will be the pick. The heavy favorite is Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns, a versatile power forward-center that would give the Wolves defensive presence in the paint they have lacked for years. He can shoot from the outside and would be a nice complement to Wiggins, a strong perimeter defender and athletic marvel who shined while working in the post last season.
“He likes Minnesota,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Towns. “He said from day one, ‘I’ll go to Minnesota. I love it. Let’s build something.'”
The Wolves also hosted Duke center Jahlil Okafor, Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, a point guard who spent last season in China, for workouts last week.
Garnett, who will become a free agent in July but is widely expected to return, sat in on some of the workouts, but Saunders said he had no role in making the decision.
“I wouldn’t put him in that situation. That wouldn’t be fair to him, being a player,” Saunders said. “And he didn’t want to be in that. He just wanted to see these guys and see them in person and see how they were and see how they reacted and that. He was impressed with everybody that he saw.”
For the first time in ages, the Wolves are sitting in the driver’s seat.
Considering that a year ago at this time Saunders was in the middle of so much uncertainty with Love wanting out and coach Rick Adelman retiring, they’ve come a long way. And it makes it all the more imperative that they get this choice right.
“I look at where we were and we were able to come out of that situation and get a potential superstar in Wiggins,” Saunders. “You look at the development of some of our young players and now where we’re at. We’ve made strides. We have a chance to have something special.”
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