What Happened To the Wolves In the Years They Picked Outside the Lottery?

Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

We’re experiencing a rare occurrence on Thursday night during the NBA Draft. Like seeing Halley’s Comet once every 75 years, the Minnesota Timberwolves are not drafting in the lottery this season. In the 32 previous NBA Drafts that the Timberwolves made at least one selection, they’ve only picked outside the lottery nine times and only twice since the Kevin Garnett era ended. It’s a time-honored tradition watching the Wolves tank, get hosed in the draft lottery, and pick a player who doesn’t pan out. Rinse and repeat.

But this year is different. This year the Wolves pushed the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies to six games in a first-round battle and had the 19th pick in Thursday’s draft. They’re in a strong position to compete in the West. Still, just because they’re out of the lottery doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing into next season. To understand the franchise’s future, we must look to the past to see how drafting outside of the lottery worked out for previous Wolves teams.

Instead of breaking down all nine years when the Wolves didn’t make a top-14 pick, we’ll eliminate the five instances in which the Timberwolves only made picks in the second round (thanks, Kevin McHale and Joe Smith) and focus on the four years they made a non-lottery first-round selection. We start in 1997 after KG and Stephon Marbury led the Wolves to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

The player they chose with the 20th overall pick? Paul Grant, a center out of the University of Wisconsin. Don’t remember him? That’s probably because Grant didn’t make his NBA debut until 1999. He only played four games for the Timberwolves before they shipped him to the Milwaukee Bucks as part of the Marbury-Terrell Brandon trade. Even without their first-round pick, Minnesota didn’t miss a beat the next season. They added five wins but still lost in the first round.

The Garnett-led Wolves kept the lottery at bay for a second straight year in 1998 when they selected Rasho Nesterovic with the 17th pick. The Rasho Revolution took a year to get going, but he eventually became Minnesota’s starting center. The Slovenian big man averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game over his four-plus years with the Wolves. Rasho didn’t contribute much in his rookie season, and the Wolves took a step back in the strike-shortened 1998-99 season. They finished 25-25 and lost to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round.

Five years and one Joe Smith fiasco later, the Wolves were nestled outside of the lottery once more. They decided to try to recreate the Garnett magic by drafting 6’9” Ndudi Ebi straight out of high school with the 26th pick in 2003. Let’s just say Ebi did not become the next KG. He only played in 19 games across two seasons before bowing out of the NBA and resurrecting his career overseas. Still, the Wolves didn’t need any production from their first-round pick in his rookie seasons as KG, Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell, and the boys got the top seed in the West. They pushed the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals before Sam Cassell‘s hip injury sunk their chances to make the NBA Finals.

The Wolves went 15 years between taking Ebi and the next draft, where they had a non-lottery first-round pick. In 2018, the Wolves were fresh off their first playoff appearance since 2004, thanks to Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jimmy Butler. They took a defensive-minded guard out of Georgia Tech in Josh Okogie, who didn’t have a lot of name recognition. The Wolves intended for Okogie to compliment Jeff Teague, Wiggins, and Butler on the perimeter. Okogie turned into a lovable but never fully-formed rotation guard. After four years in Minnesota, he may depart this offseason. We all know what happened in Okogie’s rookie season. Jimmy Butler politely asked for a trade, Tom Thibodeau got fired, and the Wolves began their descent once again.

So what can we learn from these previous instances? How can the past provide context for what will happen this year? The big thing to takeaway is that whomever they take, a non-lottery pick will likely have little to no effect on how the Wolves fare this season. It’s fun to project what 18- and 19-year-olds can become. Maybe they’ll eventually contribute to a contender, as Nesterovic did. Still, we’ll likely have to wait 3-5 years to fully know if the Wolves hit or miss on their pick.

Draft night won’t make or break the 2022-23 Timberwolves season. But if Minnesota’s scant history of not picking in the lottery is any indication, their picks this year could provide a little bit of depth to a talented squad or be an absolute nobody two years later.

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