Wild Swings: A look back at the last 10 years of Timberwolves flyer acquisitions
Last week, the LA Clippers signed Serbian guard Milos Teodosic. In case you are not familiar with Milos, here is a primer. He actually played against the Wolves in the 2013 preseason when they hosted CSKA Moscow at Target Center. (Moscow won the game, and Teodosic was awesome.) I bring this up now because my initial, kneejerk reaction to this news was, “Damn. I wish Thibs would’ve signed him for the Wolves. I have no idea if he’ll pan out in the NBA, but he’s really entertaining to watch.” And then after about 20 seconds of thinking about it, I realized that the Wolves are not the team to be taking flyers on exciting-but-uncertain foreign players. They have all kinds of crazy upside — a word that inherently includes uncertainty — with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns set to join forces with Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler. Rather than jam the roster more full with variables, the Wolves are now in position to fill out the roster with generic players who (Thibs voice) do their jobs, especially the boring ones.
About 20 seconds after completing that thought, it occurred to me that the Wolves have taken a TON of flyers on intriguing players over the past decade. Ever since they traded away Kevin Garnett, the franchise has done a terrible job of winning games, but a great job of piquing (diehard) fan interest by acquiring young, enigmatic ballers who were once considered future stars, but — for various reasons — never panned out.
What follows is a post-2007 history of the flyers taken by Wolves front offices spanning from Kevin McHale to David Kahn to Flip Saunders, right up to Tom Thibodeau. A brief note about the list: Webster defines “flyer” as a “reckless or speculative venture.” The last decade of Wolves basketball has included countless enigmatic or otherwise funny/interesting players who are not on this list. I limited it to players acquired via trade or free agency in manners that were either reckless or speculative; sometimes both!
How was he acquired: traded to Timberwolves as part of the package sent from Boston for Kevin Garnett, July 2007.
What made him an intriguing young player: High school hype.
Telfair was widely known as a prep star, before he skipped college altogether and was drafted in the lottery by Portland. He was the subject of an ESPN documentary “Through the Fire,” that followed Telfair through his senior season at Abraham Lincoln High School — the same one made famous by the Spike Lee Joint, “He Got Game.” Basically, Telfair was supposed to be a special/transcendent point guard talent because that’s what he was in high school.
What caused him to fail: Bassy didn’t “fail” in Minnesota the way that many others on this list did — he just never became the sort of player that some imagined when he entered the league. Telfair was too small and not an accurate enough three-point shooter to be a starter on a good team. By the time his career trajectory was stabilized into “journeyman backup,” he played within his abilities, which included setting up a halfcourt offense, feeding the post, and playing half-pesky defense against average or worse opposing point guards. He ended up playing a long NBA career, and some overseas ball after that.
How he was acquired: Along with Telfair, Green came to Minnesota in the KG trade.
What made him an intriguing young player: Freakish athleticism.
Green came into the league with the physical profile of Tracy McGrady, only his vertical leap was probably even higher than T-Mac’s. Despite barely drawing minutes for Randy Wittman’s 2007-08 Wolves, he was selected for the dunk contest, where he turned in one of the most memorable slams ever, for a non-winner:
Green was a 6’8″ wing who could handle the ball, shoot a jumper, and fly through the air like almost nobody else before him. The intrigue was justified in his early years.
What caused him to fail: Low basketball IQ.
In his brief Wolves tenure, Green had no idea how to play basketball. He was prone to stopping the offense with a bunch of side-to-side dribbles reminiscent of a video-game-button sequence, before launching difficult shots against the wholly prepared set defense in front of him. They rarely went in, evidenced by his 33.1 field goal percentage in ‘Sota. Green played a little bit for the Mavs the following season before leaving overseas for a couple years. To his credit, he returned with a more appropriate and effective specialist mindset, gunning threes at a high rate with pretty good accuracy. He played last season for the Celtics and will probably get another contract before free agency ends. The Wolves have even been rumored as a club showing interest in G-Buckets:
Yet another wing #Twolves have inquired on is Gerald Green. Casting a wide net, hoping a bigger name falls into their $4.3M exception laps.
— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) July 3, 2017
How he was acquired: KAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHNNNNNN!!!!
What made him an intriguing young player: Size and skills.
Darko was (in)famously drafted second overall in the 2003 Draft, right after LeBron James, and right before future HOFers like Melo and D-Wade. At the time, the Pistons seemed far from crazy: Darko from Serbia was 7’1″ with a frame that would fill out into a massive player, and he had the perimeter ball skills of a guard. In the still-evolving Post-Dirk Nowitzki Era of NBA Draft analysis where 7-foot Euros were widely overrated, Darko’s profile hinted at the outline of a player the league had never seen: parts of Dirk, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan, packaged into one.
It should be noted that, by the time Kahn signed Darko, he (Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers voice) wasn’t THAT young. He was 24 years old, but had been in the league for 6.5 seasons. His “epic bust” status was well established by Spring 2010, which is why the Kahntract offer he received and accepted from Kahn/Glen Taylor was so widely criticized.
What caused him to fail: A disinterest in, if not disdain for the game of basketball.
It is often said that players can be as good as they want to be and it is rarely true. Most have limitations either in their physical stature or their basketball fundamentals that place a firm ceiling on their potential upside.
In Darko’s case, that coach-speaky adage actually made sense. He could’ve been a perennial All-Star if he liked playing basketball as much as most professional players do. He had both the size and the basketball skills to be great. While playing for the Wolves, he flashed his potential every once in a while. Against the defending champion Lakers, he once posted a line of 23 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 blocks. A few nights after that, against the Spurs, he dropped 22/8/4/5.
But those nights were few and far between. Normally, he didn’t even look engaged in the competition, purposefully avoiding contact when rebounding or posting up. He was always keeping his nose out of the mix under the boards, essentially the exact opposite of his teammate Kevin Love who was twice the rebounder as Darko at a much smaller size. Darko would occasionally tease us with an aggressive — sometimes flashy, even — move out of the post, only to revert back to his inaccurate lefty hook that ensured he wouldn’t have to throw his weight around or get involved in too much contact. That he later dabbled in kickboxing only proved that he was not afraid of hitting anyone; he just couldn’t be bothered to do it in the basketball games he was paid millions of dollars to play in.
After being cut by the Wolves in the post-lockout “amnesty” contract maneuver, Darko played 5 more career minutes in a single game for the Boston Celtics.
To properly conclude the Darko Flyer section, here is Kahn talking about him to Chris Webber:
How he was acquired: David Kahn took Beas off of Pat Riley’s hands in a cap-clearing move to allow The Decision to take effect, bringing LeBron James to South Beach. It cost the Wolves a second round pick.
What made him an intriguing young player: Recent, historically-great freshman season leading to high draft slot.
In his lone collegiate season as a freshman at Kansas State, Beas averaged over 26 points and 12 rebounds per game. In a loaded draft lottery that included future MVPs Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, and other future stars like Kevin Love and Brook Lopez, Beasley was considered by many smart people to be the best prospect in the class. He was taken second overall by Pat Riley’s Miami Heat, who were fresh off of a rare tanking season and planned to rebuild around Dwyane Wade. In his first two seasons, Beasley was in the unusual position for a high lottery pick of trying to fit in on a playoff team. In that role, he actually performed reasonably well, scoring 13-15 points per game (about 20 per 36) with league average-ish advanced stats. For the low cost of a second round pick, acquiring Beas seemed like a smart move by Kahn. The Wolves could afford to give him the ball more than the Heat did and it was possible he’d blossom into the star many projected when he came out of Kansas State.
What caused him to fail: Immaturity, “tweener” position.
Where is the line between playful and immature? Wherever it falls for NBA players, Timberwolves-era Michael Beasley stood on the wrong side of it. While a lot of his idiosyncrasies made him a fan favorite among the diehards trying to extract moments of joy out of the worst two-year stretch in Wolves history (no small bar to clear, there), the bottom line is that Beas lacked the necessary professionalism to make the most of his considerable talents. For every time he did something hilarious, like this:
Beas would do something on the floor that tested the patience of fans and coaches; usually an unforced turnover or an off-the-ball defensive lapse. He really did have a lot of talent — especially his picturesque dribble jumpshot that helped him score a career-high 19.2 points per game for the Wolves. But, the negatives outweighed the positives and he soon lost the green light and playing time afforded to him by Kurt Rambis in the 2010-11 season. He was not big enough to dominate the boards like he did in college, and he wasn’t quite quick enough or good enough at dribbling to effectively play the “stretch 4” position in any sort of dynamic way. Too often, when Beas would put the ball on the floor and not pull up for a jumper, he’d turn it over. He was not an effective playmaker for teammates, nor was he very good at drawing fouls with strong drives to the hole.
When Rick Adelman arrived the next year and brought Serious NBA Basketball with him, Beas saw his playing time diminish. His career spiraled downward after that, as he played horrificly with the Suns (negative win shares) and was basketball-deported to the Chinese league.
Like Gerald Green, Beas served his time overseas and returned with a simplified “gunner” mindset which helped him reduce turnovers and return to NBA basketball playing. He always seemed like a nice person and fun teammate, so it’s easy to root for him as he tries to extend his career every season.
How he was acquired: Much like how he intervened in The Decision, Kahn got in the mix of the Melo-to-Knicks trade, and took Anthony Randolph from New York to help them clear space for Melo. This was before the trade deadline in 2011, toward the end of Rambis’s coaching tenure.
What made him an intriguing young player: Basically, this video:
The Legend of Anthony Randolph is really a story about his Las Vegas Summer League performance in 2010 when he was still with the Warriors. The dude was 6’11” and played like an athletic shooting guard. It was natural to get excited about his potential, even if his performance had been uneven through two and a half seasons. He was only 21 when Kahn traded for him.
What caused him to fail: Basketball IQ, Court awareness
Randolph was a true enigma. He had the size and athleticism to be a great NBA forward. A lot of his movements reminded of a young Lamar Odom and I’m like 60 percent sure that I’m not just saying that because they’re both lefties. He would run the floor hard, could dribble better than most bigs, and had decent-enough shooting mechanics that should’ve turned into a reliable jumper from the mid-range, if not deeper.
It just never came together for him. He’d make some of the most incredible mistakes — Shaqtin’ a Fool stuff, before that was a thing — that suggested his snap judgments might just take a split second longer than most other players. He could go off for huge stat lines (in his first two Timberwolves starts, in Kevin Love’s injury absence — he dropped 31 & 11 and 24 & 15) but never showed the consistency needed to survive in the league.
He current plays for Real Madrid in Spain.
How he was acquired: Signed by Kahn out of injury retirement. (!)
What made him an intriguing young player: He wasn’t young, but he had proven in Portland to have Hall of Fame-level talent and had convinced himself that platelet-enrichment treatment improved his knee arthritis enough to allow him to return to basketball.
What caused him to fail: Bad knees.
Roy had almost no vertical lift in the games that he played in a Wolves jersey (which were pretty weird to witness, for what it’s worth) but he could slide around the floor and probe defenses with his size and wits enough to set up teammates for good shots. Had his knees not quickly gone back to their degenerated-as-all-fuck baseline level, he could’ve been an effective player for the Wolves, even in his diminished physical state. It’s a shame what happened to Roy’s career; gone too soon from the NBA.
In case you forgot what a beast Brandon Roy was, here’s a reminder video:
How he was acquired: Signed in July 2012 by Kahn, after going undrafted in 2010. He had been playing professionally in Russia before joining the Wolves.
What made him an intriguing young player: Size (for a guard) and passing ability.
The timing of the Shved acquisition could not have been better. Right after Kahn pried him away from CSKA Moscow and signed him to the Wolves, the Summer Olympics began, where Shved went on to star and win the hearts of basketball fans around the globe. At Punch-Drunk Wolves, we wrote practically everyday about the new Wolves guard and what he had just done in the Russian Red uniform, playing next to his new teammate Andrei Kirilenko and for future Cavs coach David Blatt (!). Shved dazzled with clever passes, dribble jumpers, and the occasional huge dunk. Even if he looked too scrawny to bully anybody in the NBA game, his skill level on a huge stage was too much to dismiss: he was going to be fun to watch and probably a good guard in the States.
What caused him to fail: Scrawny frame, inconsistent shooting.
Make no mistake about it, the NBA was not ready for Alexey Shved when he first arrived in October 2012. While Ricky Rubio continued recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery, Shved “had it under control” at point guard. Initiating the offense that included not-yet-injured Nikola Pekovic and Kirilenko, but importantly did not include Kevin “knuckle push-ups” Love, Shved helped lead the Wolves to an improbable 13-11 start to the 2012-13 campaign. His career highlight probably came at home, on TNT, against the Russ & KD Thunder, when he dropped 12 points and 12 assists in a huge upset victory.
The problem for Shved and the Timberwolves was that the NBA eventually — and it didn’t take that long — figured out how to stop him. Basically: get up close and physical with him when he’s dribbling out court, and play for the jump pass. He grew increasingly frustrated and disconnected from games, prompting a memorable attempt at encouragement from his teammate Ricky:
Shved would’ve survived in the league if he would’ve either improved his jumpshooting (career 36.9% shooter) or bulked up enough to handle pressure defense. Neither improvement occurred and he has been back playing (successfully) in Russia since 2015.
Never forget #Shvedsanity.
How he was acquired: Part of the return (headlined by Andrew Wiggins) in the Kevin Love trade with Cleveland.
What made him an intriguing young player: One year removed from being the first overall draft pick.
By trade “throw-in” standards, Anthony Bennett was quite a haul for Flip Saunders, who negotiated the Kevin Love-for-Andrew Wiggins trade in the Summer of 2014. Bennett had a disastrous rookie season in Cleveland, to be clear, but was still so young that making the most of a fresh start in Minnesota seemed realistic. On a team that would be rebuilding around newcomers Wiggins and Zach LaVine, Bennett had a chance to establish himself as the power forward of the future.
What caused him to fail: Conditioning, “tweener” position.
Readers of Punch-Drunk Wolves and followers of @PDWolves know that Patrick and myself were huge Bennett guys in the lead-up to the 2013 Draft. We thought that he’d be more “versatile” than “tweener” combining strength and athleticism to terrorize opponents as a matchup nightmare who could stretch the floor with jumpers, run the floor for dunks, and crash the boards all game long.
Basically: none of those things happened. He always looked a step slow and usually that correlated with him looking unbelievably TIRED. Bennett has a really nice-looking jumpshot, but anyone who has played any level of basketball knows that jumpers won’t fall if you’re gasping for air out of fatigue. Along with being in poor NBA shape, Bennett had no position to defend. He was too short to defend centers and too slow (possibly due to the conditioning issues) to defend forwards. His only clear NBA skill was rebounding, and that’s not enough to keep anyone in the league, these days.
After his short and unsuccessful Wolves tenure, Bennett had brief stints in Toronto and Brooklyn before signing in Turkey, where he played most recently.
How he was acquired: Signed to a 10-day contract in the middle of last season after completing his recovery from a groin injury that caused him to be released by the Pelicans in early November.
What made him an intriguing young player: He wasn’t young, but he had been a really good player for the Indiana Pacers teams that battled against Miami in the Eastern Conference playoffs. After leaving Indiana, things at times seemed to fall apart and then come back together for Lance. The volatility explained his availability to Thibs in the middle of last season. Lance can play defense and make plays off the dribble, but he brings a lot of baggage with him, wherever he goes.
What caused him to fail: Injuries.
Lance got himself a couple of 10-day contracts from Thibs-Layden, LLC, but multiple ankle sprains in that short window caused his Timberwolves tenure to be a very short and forgettable one. Whether Thibs seriously considered keeping him around for the rest of the season and beyond is anyone’s guess and we’ll never know. Lance returned to Indiana where he is now under contract for next season.