The Timberwolves president of basketball operations — and part owner, and coach — keeps all sorts of lists. Best players at every position. Top players available. Top free agents.
For many weeks he has kept a list of top draftees, too. It was months ago Saunders and his staff started evaluating college talent. It was weeks ago that the Wolves learned they would be making the first overall pick in the NBA draft for the first time in franchise history.
From that point on, Saunders’ list changed. Evolved. Until he saw Karl-Anthony Towns work out, that is. After making Towns the No. 1 pick Thursday night, Saunders said the 19-year-old Kentucky center had the best workout he had seen in years. Probably the second-best ever, in fact, next to Kevin Garnett 20 years ago.
“When he came in here,” Saunders said of Towns, “it was a wrap.”
After the Wolves drafted Towns and then traded their two second-round picks for Tyus Jones, Saunders was talking about home runs. But the process of deciding who to take No. 1 was settled by Towns himself, when he came to the Twin Cities before the draft.
“I wanted to see his motor, his work ethic,” Saunders said. “You take a player with a skill level, and athleticism, and that work ethic? They have a chance to be a special player in this league.”
But it’s more than just ability. Towns, of course, has that. He is a basketball analytic’s dream with the ability to alter games with his defense. Saunders talked about how his quickness enabled Towns to cover vast portions of the paint: “It looks like you have to shoot over a house coming at him,” he said.
Towns’ offense, Saunders said, is underrated; he promised Towns would become a go-to player sooner than later.
But, Saunders said, it was the intangibles Towns brings that, coupled with his ability, made this a no-brainer.
“You can have a presence in how you play,” Saunders said. “Some guys have a presence in how they communicate. Some guys have a presence in how they talk to other players. In the time I’ve been around Karl, he has a presence in all those areas. That’s why he has a chance to be special.”
And, by extension, so do the Wolves. “We’re going to be a very good team,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how long it takes. We’ll be a team that can score off our defense. We have all the pieces. I’ll say this: There are a lot of teams out there that … probably wish they were us today. I really believe that.”
That’s pretty big talk after a 16-66 season. But Saunders said he believes a team with Andrew Wiggins and Towns along with other young talent and veterans returning to health will be a much better than last year.
Saunders said it hurts him to know it has been 11 years since the Wolves made the playoffs. But he pointed to the past three drafts as proof things are getting better.
“I don’t think anyone would have imagined that today we’d be where we are when we were hear a year ago, when we had uncertainty,” Saunders said.