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Flip Saunders Hopes For ‘Home Run’ Top Pick

Flip Saunders isn’t interested in trading the top pick and praised the draft’s top prospects.

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With a care package coming from North of the Border, the Minnesota Timberwolves entered the 2014-15 season with two Canadian-born players and the hopes that they—Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins—could help the move back toward relevancy in the NBA.

And with the results of Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, the franchise got a much-needed shot in the arm.

For the first time in franchise history, despite making 18 trips to the draft lottery, the T-Wolves have emerged victorious, winning the first overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft.

“This is huge,” Timberwolves president of basketball opertions and head coach Flip Saunders said via conference call on Tuesday night. “This is huge for our organization. We’ve never been able to stay the same or move up or get the number one pick, so being able to get that gives you a little bit of a jolt.”

Aside from a jolt, it will also give Saunders and his staff in Minneapolis their choice of player among a crop that Saunders believes will ultimately feature no less than four “All-Pro” players, in his own words. Entering the lottery, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns were declared the top two consensus players. With Ricky Rubio entering the first year of a four-year, $55 million extension, drafting either Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell or international prospect Emmanuel Mudiay—two top flight points guards—seems to make little sense.

Still, Saunders says that the Timberwolves will approach the draft process with an open mind.

“Right now, it’s not really a two-player race,” Saunders said in reference to Okafor and Towns. “Like I said, there’s a lot of guys that intrigue me that we’ve looked at. Those are two guys that are on everybody’s board and they should be, not just for what they accomplished this past year but also for what they’ll do down the road.”

Whether or not those roads happen to be in Minneapolis, or in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York or Orlando remains to be seen, as the latter four teams round out the top five selections in next month’s draft.

“I think both [Okafor and Towns] are gonna be All-Star type players, but I think when we look at anybody that we look at in the draft, it’s about how they will fit in with the players that we have, what their dynamic is and how we wanna play,” Saunders said. “We feel that with Wiggins and with [Zach] LaVine, that we can be an up-tempo team.”

If the thought for Saunders is truly playing at a fast tempo, it would make some sense for the franchise to consider drafting a point guard, especially considering Rubio’s recent inability to stay healthy. If it was determined that a player aside from Okafor or Towns was the answer for Saunders, trading the top overall selection could make some sense, however, that is not something that Saunder intimated the team would consider.

“We’re not gonna mortgage our future to facilitate that development,” Saunders said when asked about the possibility of trading the pick for veteran help that could help his team turn the corner sooner. “I think we’ll just have to wait and see, but right now, I don’t see us trading it because I think all these guys that we’re gonna have an opportunity to look at, three or four of these guys are gonna be All-Star or All-Pro players and usually those are the guys you don’t want to give up on.”

In his nine full seasons as the head coach of the Timberwolves, from 1996 to 2005, Saunders led the team to eight consecutive playoff appearances. Since he was fired in 2005, the Timberwolves have failed to win more than 40 games and have not appeared in the playoffs since.

After being rehired as the president of basketball operations in June 2014, Saunders has begun his second tenure with the franchise. With Wiggins in tow and the number one overall pick in the 2015 draft, things seems to be getting off to a good beginning.

“As I said here when I took the job, I said we were coming here to build a championship team,” Saunders said. “We want home run hitters and not singles and doubles.

“What I meant by that was that you want to have the talent that guys can be potentially All-Star or All-Pro players. I feel there’s a lot of guys in this draft that can be that.”

Now, his challenge will be to make the right selection.

Along with Okafor, Towns, Russell and Mudiay, Saunders mentioned 19-year-old Latvian Kristaps Porzingis and Towns’ former teammate Willie Cauley-Stein as two other players who intrigue him.

“We’re going to be very open minded,” he said.

In the immediate future, the team hopes to bring Kevin Garnett back and continue along the path of what Saunders called being “a developmental team.” Referencing the Oklahoma City Thunder, Saunder is hoping that along with Wiggins, LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, that he can build a team and a culture that is natural and organic.

His hope, and the hope of Timberwolves fans alike, is that the success that the franchise experienced with him as head coach the first time around will continue.

Less than a year ago, with the somewhat painful departure of Kevin Love, the franchise embraced rebuilding.

Saunders already stands alone as the sole coach in franchise history to guide the team to a playoff series victory. Now, at the very least, with the team becoming just the fourth team with the worst record to win this weighted draft lottery, Saunders has continued being a trailblazer.

“It was a very emotional day for the Timberwolves organization,” Saunders said gleefully. “[It] has not had very much luck in the lottery and today we got the ping pong balls.”

And with one reigning Rookie of the Year and the opportunity to select a running mate, Saunders hopes to deliver even more winning to the City of Minneapolis.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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