by Murali Balaji

In June 1997, the Minnesota Timberwolves publicly contemplated the idea of drafting Minneapolis native and ex-Gophers center John Thomas in the days prior to the NBA Draft.
After passing up Thomas, the team incurred the criticism of local fans and media. For tonight’s draft, the Wolves have been cautious with what they say about guard Sam Jacobson, another local favorite who led the Gophers in scoring last season.
Jacobson, a native of Cottage Grove and a starter for two of his four seasons with the Gophers, is projected by most NBA scouts to be a late-first round pick in tonight’s draft. One of the teams rumored to be interested in him is the Seattle Supersonics, but vice president of basketball operations Billy McKinney rebuffed the speculation.
“Our (shooting) guard situation is relatively established,” said McKinney. “We’ve got Hersey Hawkins, Dale Ellis, and a guy we drafted last year, James Cotton, who we think has potential.”
McKinney admitted the team was looking to move from its current position, leaving the possibility open that the Sonics would draft Jacobson if he were to fall out of the first round.
Many fans hope that Jacobson never gets a chance to slip that far down. The Timberwolves, with the 17th pick, invited Jacobson to work out for them on Monday, but they are reportedly leaning toward a big man in the draft.
“We’re looking at all areas in the draft right now, and shooting guard is one of them,” said Timberwolves player personnel director Rob Babcock.
“We had Sam in, and he is definitely a guy we’re considering.”
When asked about the upside of Jacobson, Babcock’s response indicated the Wolves had thoroughly researched the former Gopher.
“Sam has a lot of good things going for him,” said Babcock. “He’s got size, strength, athletic ability, long arms and a great vertical.”
Babcock, however, reiterated scouts’ concerns about Jacobson’s transition from small forward to shooting guard, saying that “he needs to improve his ball-handling skills.”
Gophers supporters who have been watching Jacobson want to see him in a Timberwolves uniform, playing alongside Kevin Garnett, Tom Gugliotta and/or Stephon Marbury.
“It would be great if Sam went to the Timberwolves,” said University junior Jessica Dorn. “He belongs here in Minnesota.”
Dorn believes Jacobson would be a great fit for the Wolves “because he can do so many things so well.”
The Wolves currently have veteran Anthony Peeler at shooting guard, but Peeler is 28 years old and does not have an effective backup at the position. Babcock, while admitting the team’s interest in Jacobson, played down the Minnesota angle, despite the fact that team vice president Kevin McHale is a former Gopher.
“Being from the U of M is certainly not the No. 1 criteria in judging players,” Babcock said.
Jacobson has indicated in the past his desire to play in Minnesota. But tonight, it will be the Timberwolves’ decision to make.
Here is how the rest of the draft could play out:
Most draft publications and NBA insiders agree that this year’s keyword is parity when describing the pool of talent.
“There are probably 15 or 16 top picks in the draft, and after that it just balances out,” said McKinney.
“It’s not a good draft for impact players who are going in and starting for teams,” added Babcock.
Arizona point guard Mike Bibby is considered by most NBA scouts to be the likely No. 1 pick.
The player to watch, however, is Pacific center Michael Olawokandi, a 7-foot wunderkind whom some scouts are comparing to Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon.
Other top players available include forward Antawn Jamison of North Carolina, who won the Wooden and Naismith Awards for being the most productive college basketball player as a junior last season; 6-11 forward Raef LaFrentz and 6-7 swingman Paul Pierce, both from Kansas; and 6-5 shooting guard Larry Hughes of St. Louis.