Draft Kept Off Guard by Run on PGs
Another point guard strolled through the Madison Square Garden interior like he owned the place. Jonny Flynn slapped hands with security guards, and when a janitor stopped Flynn to talk about a certain memorable game Flynn played in here back in March, Flynn flashed his Farrah-like smile and said, "Yeah, the 15 overtime one?"
This was hours before the Minnesota Timberwolves made a head-scratching, scene-stealing move by selecting both playmakers -- Rubio, the Spanish phenom, was the fifth pick, and Flynn, the irrepressible spark plug from Syracuse, went sixth. One might be traded, or the two best point guards of this draft could both end up in a Minnesota backcourt helping reshape a team that has not made the playoffs since 2004. Whatever transpires, the Timberwolves haven't made this much noise since Kevin Garnett clawed the backboards at the Target Center.
The Timberwolves don't yet have a coach, but they do have a new president who's not afraid to go against convention. David Kahn is a former sportswriter, which means he has to be brilliant, or at least a little loony. Earlier this month, Kahn kicked legend Kevin McHale to the curb, and on the eve of the draft he orchestrated a deal with Washington that brought the No. 5 pick to Minnesota. That gave the Wolves four first-round selections, and when they chose their third point guard of the draft, Ty Lawson of national champion North Carolina, you wondered what special beverages Kahn and his cohorts were sipping in the Minnesota war room. (Lawson, the 18th overall pick, was later traded to Denver for a future first rounder.)
The 2009 draft class was considered by some to be the weakest in years, except for the point guards. The crop of floor generals was deep and diverse, from Rubio through Stephen Curry (Davidson) to Tyreke Evans (Memphis) to Jrue Holiday (UCLA) to Flynn to Brandon Jennings (Lottomatica Roma). They took over the Garden the way guards often do, with bursts of flash and pizzazz.
When the Sacramento Kings chose Evans with the No. 4 pick, the large and very vocal pockets of Knicks fans spread across the theater seats perked up. Maybe the Knicks would finally do something right, and be lucky enough to snag one of the charismatic guards at No. 8. When Minnesota chose Rubio the fans booed, because they had become enamored with the teen prodigy from Spain (and he with them), and a few minutes later, as commissioner David Stern announced the Wolves selected Flynn, the theater exploded.
The audience was angry, bummed, confused. Minnesota copped two point guards? Surely another trade was imminent. In 24 hours, Shaquille O'Neal had been sent to Cleveland to play Robin to LeBron James' Batman, Vince Carter joined Orlando and the landscape in the East had clearly shifted. What was next, Quentin Richardson escaping New York? (Lucky for him, he did.)
From the war room, Kahn told reporters he'd have no problem keeping both Flynn and Rubio. Rubio, said Kahn, would be the leader of the orchestra, Flynn the scorer. Kahn also joked about hiring Dick Vitale as the Timberwolves' next coach, so who knows what else Kahn has up his work sleeves?
Rubio, understandably, didn't know what to make of the madness. In Europe, where he turned pro when he was 14, he's a 6-foot-5, 190-pound wunderkind, the most heralded international player since China's Yao Ming. A phenomenal passer who cuts through defenses like a knife through frosting, Rubio is also a waif amongst NBA behemoths. He has exceptional fundamentals, but limited athletic power.
With his floppy surfer hair and subdued suit, Rubio roamed the Garden halls unnoticed early Thursday, and when he sat down to face the media after learning he'd been selected to play in city that gets almost as much snow as Spain has sand, he could barely muster a smile. His expression was so different one day earlier, when Rubio talked about how "cool" it would be to play in New York. "The media capital of the world!" he kept exclaiming. "It has everything, like Times Square!" The Knicks had been targeting him for months, coach Mike D'Antoni telling reporters Rubio could be an exceptional playmaker someday.
Minnesota might not be Memphis or Oklahoma City, two cities that clearly didn't push Rubio's buttons. But it's still, well, Minnesota. Rubio was asked if he was excited.
"I'm excited to come to the NBA," he said, his face blank.
He still has a poster of Michael Jordan on his bedroom wall, in the home he shares with his parents. If he were asked to name the Wolves' starting five, he could probably list one. And the cold? He visibly shivered when someone mentioned Minnesota's brutal winters. If Rubio does stick with the Wolves, he'll have to front a $6.6 million buyout from Spanish team DKV Joventut, not a small issue. But eventually his back straightened and he started sounding like the leader who held his own in the Olympics, against American and international stars.
"When I was like 14 years old, I went to the professional team and there are guys 30 years old who don't listen to me in the beginning, but after they see I can be a very good point guard and put them in the right way, and they believe in me," he said. "So I want to try to do the same here."
Then it was Flynn trading seats with Rubio. Flynn clearly loved the chaos, the uncertainty that comes whenever he enters the Garden. He was smack in the middle of a game for the ages in May, when Syracuse and Connecticut went six overtimes in the Big East tournament. Flynn played 67 minutes and had 34 points that incredible night, and the legend grows a bit every time he visits New York. He's got speed, a strong outside shot, and energy to power all of Minneapolis.
"If that's what they need me to do, I played 20 overtimes a few months ago, so I think I can do that," he said when someone asked if he could play 48 minutes a game for the Wolves.
"You've got Kevin Love and [Al] Jefferson, two big men that can make my life easier," he added. "I can get them the ball in situations where they can score and they can make me a better player."
Flynn's summer buzzed with folks telling him he should have stayed at Syracuse for another year; his lottery stock rose and fell like NASDAQ. Now his smile was as bright as the lights at Macy's, even with Minnesota collecting point guards like presents. "I think it's going to be fun to have another player who can make plays just like you," said Flynn. "I think we can boost each other's level of play and I can't wait to go play with him."
He even offered Rubio some cold weather tips. "I can give him what kind of clothes to buy and what snowshoes to buy and things like that, and it will be fun," said Flynn, always the facilitator.
Rubio needn't buy long underwear or tire chains just yet . Two rookie point guards might be one too many in Minnesota. But on this night in the Garden's WaMu Theater, playmakers were hot property. Golden State used the seventh pick to take Stephen Curry, son of NBA sharpshooter Dell, officially ruining the night for Knicks fans. (When New York took Jordan Hill, a power forward out of Arizona, at No. 8, the crowd didn't exactly treat Hill like he was Frederic Weis, but the New Yorkers didn't offer their famed hospitality either.)
Curry was standing near a television, waiting for his turn at the interview table when Stern announced Milwaukee had chosen point guard Brandon Jennings with the tenth pick. Jennings was a sort of pioneer, opting to make millions playing in a European professional league rather than spend the requisite year before the NBA draft playing college ball. He was here Wednesday for pre-draft festivities, but he curiously chose to watch the draft on TV at an undisclosed location. Nobody wants the cameras on him as his name goes uncalled, pick after pick, and Jennings wasn't sure where -- or when – he'd go.
"Bummer for him," Curry said, as Jennings' name was added to the coveted top 10. "He missed a lot of fun."
Half an hour later, Jennings rushed through the Garden doors, eager to crash the party. He bounded onto the platform, upstaging Stern. He raised his arms like a prizefighter, another point guard stealing the show.