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International Men of Mystery

When times get tough in Minnesota, hope has been found abroad.

It has been quite the rollercoaster season for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Like clockwork, every Minnesota win streak has quickly been followed by a humbling losing streak. Aside from Anthony Edwards’ recent heater, the common narratives that we’ve seen pop up on the internet have been mostly predictable and anti-Minnesota.

  • Is the Rudy Gobert trade one of the worst trades of all-time?
  • 5 Teams That Should Trade For Karl-Anthony Towns.
  • Minny really gave up Andrew Wiggins & Jonathan Kuminga for D’Angelo Russell.
  • Naz Reid is being wasted on the T-Wolves.
  • The Jazz could end up with Victor Wembanyama AND Scoot Henderson.

The last narrative, however unrealistic, is especially annoying. Was it wise for the Tim Connelly to ship out a handful of unprotected first round draft picks? Of course not. Especially when the team is seemingly taking longer to gel than expected. The comments section at Canis Hoopus has a lot of experience and happy memories that are directly connected to the NBA draft. When you are the fanbase of the losing-est NBA franchise of all-time, it’s only during the offseason where you are truly the imaginary champion. Karl-Anthony Towns will be the next Kevin Garnett! Anthony Edwards will be is the next Michael Jordan!

So without a first round pick in the 2023 draft, things seem a little bit bleaker around these parts. Those aforementioned losing streaks are tougher to stomach when the Utah Jazz are the ones who will be profiting from our L’s. But what if I told you that the Minnesota Timberwolves will in fact have a rookie next season? An international guard who is currently sharpening his game in the fires of European leagues?

Ah, yes. That feeling of a mysterious international prospect who could potentially change the direction of the franchise warms my heart during these cold winters and even colder losing streaks. I decided to take (another) trip down memory lane a revisit some of the Timberwolves most intriguing international guards of all-time.

A few caveats here before we dive into the list. I’m specifically looking at guards who began their pro careers overseas before joining Minnesota as a rookie, and not players who joined the NBA with a different franchise. That means I will not be covering the following players:

Shoutout Paulão Prestes and his cereal brand. If you know, you know.

Boomers Training

Shane Heal

Nationality: Australia
Mythical Achievement: At age 26, Heal scored a game-high 28 points versus the 1996 Olympic Dream Team II and got into it with Charles Barkley.
NBA Debut: 1996 (Timberwolves)
MIN Stats: 5.5 mpg, 1.7 ppg, 0.4 rpg, 0.8 apg, 0.1 spg, 0.1 bpg, .268/.308/.600 - 1 season

I was only about to begin third grade when then General Manager, Kevin McHale, gave Shane Heal his first chance in the NBA. Heal, who garnered some attention due to his performance against Team USA in the 1996 Olympic games (Video link above), played the second fewest games and minutes during Kevin Garnett’s sophomore season. He didn’t have much of an impact despite being the fifth most effective perimeter shooter on the team, as evidenced by his team-worst WS (-0.4) and BPM (-6.8). That said, he’ll still be enshrined as part of the first Timberwolves team to ever make the playoffs (They would get swept by the eventual champion Houston Rockets). After his first and only season in Minnesota, he returned back to Australia for six seasons before having one more brief stint with the San Antonio Spurs in 2023.

Heal’s currently the head coach of the Sydney Flames of the WNBL where he’s coaching his daughter, Shyla Heal. Shyla was a surprise top 10 pick in the 2021 WNBA draft, but was traded and cut after only four games.

ULEB Cup Last 32 Game 2 - Dkv Joventut vs Allianz Swans Gmungden Photo by Rodolfo Molina/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

Ricky Rubio

Nationality: Spain
Mythical Achievement: At age 15, Rubio notched a 51-point quadruple-double to win the FIBA U-16 Euro Championship in double overtime.
NBA Debut: 2011 (Timberwolves)
MIN Stats: 30.9 mpg, 10.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 8.1 apg, 2.0 spg, 0.1 bpg, .377/.313/.834 - 7 seasons

In the summer of 2009, without a real sliver of hope for the future, then Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations, David Kahn, drafted an 18-year-old Spaniard who was contractually obligated to remain with his European club for a few more years. All Wolves fans had to bank their hopes on was a 10-minute highlight video of a Ricky Rubio set to the tune of Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Yes, this one.

I may have watched this mix over 100 times in 2009 alone.

Before Ricky even played his first NBA game, puff pieces popped up ranging from the astonishing list of accolades he had already accumulated in his young career, to why he might not ever join Minnesota. As Wolves fans continued to watch their team flounder to 15-67 and 17-65 records in ensuing seasons, we likely began to wonder if there was any reason for hope. Would the fabled Spanish savior be enough to save this team from Clippergeddon, let alone come to the states?

Spoiler alert: He came. (Credit: PoorDick)

Ricky’s positive impact on fan morale, winning basketball, and national perception was immediately felt. His unique flair for the game and ability to contribute on both ends of the court was something that basketball fans around the world united together to praise. In his debut during the lockout shortened 2012, had it not been for a freak accident injury, Ricky (along with MVP level Kevin Love) was very likely going to end the Wolves playoff drought at “just” 9 years.

We all know what happened from there. Ricky’s continued bad luck with injuries caused him to miss the majority of his first four seasons in Minnesota. By the time he finally got healthy and saw individual improvements on the court, the Wolves had entered yet another rebuild, going young with the likes of young Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns. With Flip Saunders’ passing, so did the dream of Ricky leading these youngsters into the future. Enter Tom Thibodeau, who was less than enamored with the Spanish Unicorn. His incessance on Chicago retreads a point guard that could score the ball resulted in Ricky getting jettisoned to Utah during the start of the Jimmy Butler era, instead opting for Jeff “JFT” Teague.

Ricky helped push the Jazz’s talented core of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Barcelona teammate, Joe Ingles, to new heights. They surprised the masses by disposing of the Russell Westbrook & Paul George Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, as Ricky singlehandedly outdueled the former MVP. Utah would eventually replace him with Mike Conley Jr., letting Rubio walk to the Phoenix Suns in order to help their rebuild. Much like he did in his stints with Minnesota and Utah, Ricky quickly became a fan favorite and nearly pushed the Suns into the playoffs after their miracle 8-0 run in the 2020 NBA bubble. Unfortunately, history would repeat itself, as Phoenix replaced Ricky with Chris Paul.

Rubio did have a quick whirl back in Minnesota in 2021 and although fans were mostly ecstatic to have him back (Me), Ricky’s return felt more like a drunk hookup with an ex-girlfriend more than it was an honest effort to fix the relationship. Ricky was soon traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, making that his fourth team in four years. Surprise: He helped lead the young Cavs team to the playoffs before suffering a cruel knee injury once again, ending his season before the postseason began. Now at the grizzled age of 32, he seems to have found a home as Cleveland showed him loyalty, re-signing him in the offseason to a 3-year $18.4 million deal. His return to the court is rumored to be at the start of the 2023 calendar year.

But we’ll never forget how Ricky got here.

Russian guard Alexey Shved celebrates af Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages

Alexey Shved

Nationality: Russia
Mythical Achievement: At age 23, Shved came up clutch to lead the Russia to a 2012 Olympic bronze medal victory over Manu Ginobili and Argentina.
NBA Debut: 2012 (Timberwolves)
MIN Stats: 17.9 mpg, 6.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 2.5 apg, 0.6 spg, 0.3 bpg, .358/.295/.733 - 2 seasons

It was the summer of 2012 and despite missing the playoffs for the 8th straight season, the Timberwolves had something to be optimistic about. They appeared to be on the verge of turning a corner and with newly arrived, although recently injured, Ricky Rubio to lead the charge next to Kevin Love, the future looked surprisingly bright. The vibes were peaking, but GM David Kahn had one more trick up his sleeve. A pair of Russian aces.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Kahn would sign one of the best Russian players of all-time (Kirilenko) and one of the most intriguing Russian prospects (Shved) at the time. Not much was known about the 23-year-old Shved, though he already had a decorated career overseas including 4 Russian league championships and 1 EuroLeague championship. Just 3 days prior to the start of 2012 Olympic basketball in London, Shved inked a deal to join Minnesota for the ensuing season. So grew the excitement and intrigue around the mystery man from Russia.

A few of Alexey’s many personas: Cornrow Shved & Crossover Panda

Shved showed from day one that he was no ordinary rookie. He was able to navigate through the early learning curves, courtesy of his chemistry with Kirilenko and his smart passing, which earned the trust of head coach Rick Adelman. Despite an inconsistent perimeter shot, Alexey was a constant rotation player who finished fourth on the team in games played during his rookie campaign. Unfortunately, that was indicative of the amount of injuries that the Wolves had to manage that season.

  • Kevin Love missed 64 games (“Knuckle pushups”).
  • Ricky Rubio missed the first 25 games of the season.
  • Nikola Peković missed 20 games.
  • Andrei Kirilenko missed 18 games.
  • Chase Budinger missed 69 games.

After starting the season with a respectable 16-15 record (9th in the West) without Rubio, the injury storm swiftly demolished any momentum they had going in their favor. Minnesota’s season would go down the drain as they lost 15 of their next 17 games. Shved’s hard work did culminate with his invitation to the Rookie-Sophomore game during All-Star Weekend where he would have a number of exciting plays.

Alexey would play out one more season with Minnesota before turning into a journeyman around the league. In year two, he would play a very diminished role which was likely magnified with his countryman Kirilenko no longer playing by his side. Shved would play a career-low 10.5 minutes per game. He got swept into the Kevin Love-Andrew Wiggins deal prior to his final year in the league, playing for three teams in one season.

Though his days in a Timberwolves jersey were short-lived and didn’t quite pan out as much as Kahn may have dreamed, he’ll forever go down in Wolves lore as a quirky, lovable, and meme-able character during the darker days of years past. Shved currently ballin’ it up in his home country for CSKA Moscow, leading his team in minutes, points, 3 pointers, and assists per game.

FC Barcelona V Zenit St. Petersburg - Turkish Airlines Euroleague Basketball Photo by Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Leandro Bolmaro

Nationality: Argentina
Mythical Achievement: At age 20, Bolmaro earned the ACB Most Spectacular Player award en route to both ACB Liga & Spanish Cup championships.
NBA Debut: 2021 (Timberwolves)
MIN Stats: 6.9 mpg, 1.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 0.6 apg, 0.2 spg, 0.0 bpg, .315/.278/.846 - 1 season

On November 18, 2020, the Timberwolves were finally set to be the bell of the ball. It had been 253 days since they had played their last NBA game and the world was in full pandemic mode. Just three months earlier, Minnesota had landed the number one draft pick and it was time for them to make the selection. Many had predicted the Wolves to select Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, or a potential trade down.

With the first pick in the 2020 NBA draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select - Anthony Edwards, from the University of Georgia.

The Wolves fanbase went wild. Though Edwards may have been far from a sure thing, then GM Gersson Rosas had planted his second flag firmly on the franchise with the choice. Then, less than an hour after Edwards was drafted, the next shoe dropped.

If Edwards was an exciting addition for newer fans, then Rubio’s return was the chef’s kiss for the generation prior. As Wolves Nation joined hands and danced in unison, the next draft pick was nearly forgotten as a footnote.

There were mixed reactions around the selection as some savvy internet GMs preferred a prospect such as Desmond Bane, though a young draft & stash was far from the worst outcome. Not much was known about 20-year-old Argentinean, aside from perhaps being a bit of a “homer” pick by the Wolves and their Argentinean assistant coach, Pablo Prigioni. NBA draft “expert” Mike Schmitz had Bolmaro as one of his top five rookies who would outperform their draft spot, rating him as as fringe top-10 prospect. He had the makings of a useful rotation player though - a big guard with defensive chops and a sharp passing acumen. He also donned a #9 jersey for Barcelona.

Remind you of anyone you know?

During the rough 2020-2021 season, “Leo” “Lea” would spend another year overseas, honing his skills and accumulating a highlight package of passes and dunks that teased his tantalizing potential. As the Wolves floundered into “D-Logeddon” without a 2021 first round draft pick, Bolmaro would be the lone full-time rookie for the 2021-2022 “New Wolves” season. The hype was real.

As some of us are now experiencing today, it even took last year’s New Wolves a few months to get things sorted out. After a lot of lineup tinkering and early injuries, Lea was quickly thrown into the fire, finding himself in the starting lineup. During a seven game stretch where he averaged over 17 minutes per game, his poor performances unfortunately outweighed his strong ones. As a result, Bolmaro was regulated to the Iowa Wolves, where he actually thrived as evidenced by his 15.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.8 stocks per game averages.

Personally, I was excited for his sophomore campaign. He had seen some marked improvement in his perimeter shooting late in the season and had one whole season of NBA experience under his belt to help boost his confidence issues. Lea would only just be turning 21 as he started his second year, but he was folded into the Rudy Gobert trade as a throw-in. He hasn’t played meaningful minutes for a young Utah Jazz team this year, nor is he standing out in the G-League, so Bolmaro is suddenly fighting for his NBA future.

No matter what happens, we’ll always have his collab with Canis Hoopus.

AX Armani Exchange Milano v Vanoli Cremona - Serie A Photo by Savino Paolella/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Matteo Spagnolo

Nationality: Italy
Mythical Achievement: At age 13, Spagnolo scored 78 points and 77 points in semi-final and finals games of a U-14 championship league.
NBA Debut: 2022 (Timberwolves summer league)
LVSL Stats: 15.6 mpg, 3.2 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.2 spg, 0.0 bpg, .300/.090/.500

Am I leaning in extra hard to the Matteo Spagnolo hype because the Wolves are struggling hard right now and lack a 2022 first round draft pick? Sure.

Am I unnecessarily hyped about him because of his nickname, “Italian Ricky Rubio”? Absolutely.

Is it possible that Spagnolo is a true prospect that might be an impactful player? Without a doubt.

As mentioned earlier, Aiden Berg did a great job breaking down what type of player Spagnolo is at the spry age of 19. It bodes well for his development that he has already experienced success in pro-leagues as a teenager.

We here at Canis Hoopus will continue to keep a close watch on his continued progression as a player and share updates as he looks to become the next International Man of Mystery in Wolves lore. Though the bar is not particularly high from a basketball perspective, I will be pumped to see what type of non-basketball-related flavor he brings to the team.

Bonus international highlights: