Getting excited over first-round picks is easy — after all, this is where the bulk of the talent is in any draft. Yet, firing yourself up over a second-round pick is what takes real fortitude. By the time the draft reaches picks 31 and beyond, where the sleepers lie is anyone’s guess.
Maybe it’s that big man from [Directional State School].
Perhaps the hidden gem is the gunner combo guard from a mid-major school who averaged over 30 points per game.
You might even swear that tweener forward from that particularly stacked program will show to be the best player over time. Surely, they’ll have less competition for playing time in the NBA.
Now, I’m not judging. I’ve been there. We all have. Remember Malcolm Lee? I was high on him after the Chicago Bulls traded his and Norris Cole’s rights to the Timberwolves on draft night 2011 in exchange for the rights to Nikola Mirotic. The Wolves liked Lee so much they gave him a guaranteed deal instead of the usual unguaranteed contract for second-round picks.
Well, Lee played all of 36 games in the NBA. He struggled with injuries and seeing the floor when healthy. Who knows, he might’ve been good with more consistent playing time. It’s also likely there was a reason he didn’t play more. Minnesota dealt Lee on draft night in 2013 to Golden State after just two short seasons. The Warriors would then flip Lee to the Suns that same night. Phoenix actually held onto Lee until the fall before trading him to the Wizards who promptly waived him. One year would pass before a team (Philadelphia) would sign him and the former Wolf played just one more game in the NBA.
To recap, the Timberwolves traded the rights to two viable NBA players — Cole and Mirotic — to give Lee a guaranteed contract for 35 games and to trade him after just two seasons. Several viable NBA prospects’ rights passed through the Timberwolves’ hands that night and Lee turned out to not be one of them.
But that doesn’t mean second-round picks can’t be good! On the high end, there are the Dennis Rodmans, Manu Ginobilis, and Jeff Hornaceks. Montrezl Harrell and Nikola Jokic were more recently drafted outside the first round. Really, you’re content if you find a Patty Mills, Bryon Russell or another useful rotation player.
Timberwolves second-round picks rarely make the lists of best non-first-round selections. Do you know who ranks first in all-time win shares by a Minnesota second-round pick? Mario Chalmers, who played zero minutes in a Timberwolves uniform. Identifying talent is one aspect but retaining it is another.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the best second-round picks in team history.
Nikola Pekovic | 31st overall (2008)
Pekovic was actually a good player. Unfortunately for Pek, his feet simply couldn’t support all that ability. Built like an ox, Pekovic was one of the kindest players I’ve covered. It’s a shame his body didn’t hold up because he became one of the best at his position before every center could shoot 3-pointers. Here’s what I wrote about him earlier this summer:
Re-signing Pekovic was a necessary gamble on a player ascending to becoming one of the best at his position. Pekovic’s career essentially ended after 2014. His peak from between 2012 to 2014 saw Pekovic average 16 points and 8.3 rebounds on 53.8 percent shooting.
The only centers were Howard, Pekovic, and Andrew Bynum to average 15 points and eight rebounds while shooting better than 50 percent from the field over that time.
His contract absolutely became a boat anchor on their cap sheet, but it wasn’t his fault. Had he stayed healthy, he could have had a role in the NBA through the life of his contract. Pekovic is a no-brainer as one of this team’s greatest second-round finds.
Doug West | 38th overall (1989)
At one point, West owned the bulk of the Timberwolves’ records. West still ranks third in games played, fourth in minutes played, and remains in the top-10 in many leader board categories. That’s what happens, I guess, when you’re one of a handful of players to play nine seasons for this franchise.
West’s notoriety will always be as one of the original Wolves. He was on the inaugural roster and remained until Minnesota dealt him to Vancouver for Anthony Peeler in 1998. It’s rather unfortunate for West that he was dealt as soon as the team was on the rise. He had one playoff appearance after years of commanding hapless Timberwolves teams. Those Grizzlies teams were sadly on par with West’s early Wolves days.
Howard Eisley | 30th overall (1994)
(Note: the first round had only 27 picks in ‘94, so Eisley still counts as a second-round pick.)
I remember Eisley mostly as the guy on those 1997 and 1998 Jazz teams. If you forgot about his time in a Timberwolves uniform, you’re not alone. He played just 14.6 minutes per game over 34 games across two seasons. In fact, the Wolves waived him halfway through the 1995 season.
How does Eisley become one of the best picks the Timberwolves made? That’s where things get interesting. Eisley went from shooting 25.1 percent on 3-pointers from 1995-1997. Then from ‘98-’03, Eisley drilled 38.3 percent of treys on 2.4 attempts per game at a time when the league appreciated outside shooting less. While Eisley never became a star, he was a useful rotation combo guard who went from a later pick to a 12-year NBA career.
Craig Smith | 36th overall (2006)
Right as one Wolves second round left the league, another entered. Smith was a 6’7, 250-pound power forward who was never one for high-flying dunks, but could not miss at the rim. You also never questioned if he was going to play hard. His nickname of “Rhino” was certainly fitting for these reasons.
Smith shot 64.2 percent from within three feet of the basket. In 2011 with the Clippers, he shot 69.7 percent at the rim. Again, Smith was 6’7”, not some seven-footer. If it was outside of the paint, he wasn’t interested. He took 92.3 percent of his career shots within 10 feet of the basket.
While Smith’s numbers as a Timberwolf are unimpressive, they’re also not that bad. He played 233 games in Minnesota and started 47 of them. He only averaged 8.9 rebounds and 4.5 rebounds per game, but he was playing just 20 minutes per game. You wanted more rebounding from him and seldom created for himself. Overall, Craig Smith wasn’t a star but he was a guy you appreciated having on your side.
Why This Matters...
I didn’t want to just write about some old players for this article (well, I did want to do that a little bit but there’s a greater point here). There is value to be found in the second round and finding the right player can catapult a franchise several steps forward. If the Timberwolves land two of picks No.1, No.17, and No.33, they’ll likely be competitive sooner rather than later.
It’s unrealistic to expect to land a Mark Price or Marc Gasol every time, but aiming for Trevor Ariza or Lou Williams types can happen (and be extremely beneficial). Sure, misfires will happen. But if you properly value all draft picks, you can get better at them. That’s going to be a rather new thing for a franchise that has often traded them or burned them on the likes of Rick Rickert or other players who can’t sniff the Association.
As the team gets better, having affordable talent will be even more important. The Timberwolves are already in a tight salary cap situation going forward and not having to dip into free agency to overpay for players would be a serious competitive advantage. While there are no guarantees anywhere in the draft, this is especially true in the second round. However, that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked.