Hagen chases dream in summer league

Former Gophers centerJeff Hagen played in the Minnnesota Summer League this past week.

At the start of the 2000-01 season, Jeff Hagen turned down several scholarship offers to walk on to Minnesota’s men’s basketball team.

Now he’s trying to do something similar. Though this time, there were no other offers.

Undrafted, Hagen signed on with the Minnesota Timberwolves Summer League team. And Friday through Tuesday, he began trying to make a name for himself as a role player and earn an invitation to training camp in the Summer League games at Target Center.

“Being a walk-on and stuff, I’ve accepted that role and enjoy that role,” Hagen said. “Go out there and work your hardest every single day, and good things seem to happen to you.”

Teams from Houston, Milwaukee, New York, Indiana and Toronto competed in the league.

Hagen said he picked the Timberwolves because of their lack of young, big men and the fact that they didn’t draft any. He said he felt that trying out for a team in that situation gave him the best shot. The fact that he was close to home in Minnetonka, Minn., made it a perfect fit, he said.

Hagen got his first chance to show his worth when he entered the game with a little less than six minutes left Friday against Milwaukee, when he matched up against No. 1 NBA draft pick Andrew Bogut.

When Hagen’s name was announced as he entered the game, the crowd cheered the loudest it had all night.

“It felt really good to finally get out there and get my shot, and get out there and run a little bit,” Hagen said. “The first couple steps were a little sore, with the knees and stuff. But then the crowd got kind of loud, so that was a very good feeling being appreciated by the hometown fans.”

Hagen scored two points on 1-for-3 shooting, with three rebounds and two steals in his first game. Altogether, he had six points and 11 rebounds in 38 minutes during the five games.

Though he didn’t light up the scoreboard, coaches were pleased with Hagen’s effort.

“The number one thing with role players is they’ve got to come with effort,” Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach Don Zierden said. “They’re not going to make a team if they don’t. Jeff’s big thing is he brings that effort every night.”

That’s exactly what Hagen said he’s counting on to have any chance of making this team or any team down the line. He said he wants to show the coaches he has a good attitude and is willing to do whatever it takes, including all the little things other players don’t like doing.

“Getting on the floor, chasing down loose balls, diving into the stands; whatever it is, I enjoy those sorts of things,” Hagen said. “Hopefully they realize that. And maybe some team will need a guy that’s willing to sacrifice their body night in and night out.”

Hagen said he did a lot of sacrificing his body during mini-camp. During grueling two-a-days, Hagen’s introduction to the NBA was a demanding physical challenge.

“We had four, five dudes that weighed about 250 pounds that were just running and colliding into each other,” Hagen said. “Every single night, you’d go home and your whole body just aches. You don’t remember where you got this giant bruise from, or why this muscle hurts so bad and stuff.”

Hagen also worked with Gophers strength coach Cal Dietz a lot last season to improve his physical strength and stamina.

Gophers assistant coach Jim Molinari said he believes Hagen’s work ethic will enable him to play basketball for a long time, especially after his breakthrough final season with the Gophers.

“I think he went from a contributing player here at Minnesota to this year being an impact player, to help us, a team that was picked 10th (in the Big Ten), get to the NCAA tournament,” Molinari said.

Hagen is coming off the best year of his career with the Gophers, a year in which he battled through various injuries to average 11.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. He was also named honorable mention All-Big Ten.

But those aren’t NBA-caliber numbers, and Hagen knows he’s anything but a shoo-in to make the team. But he also believes all his effort will eventually get him somewhere.

It has before.

“I’m fine with being this longshot,” Hagen said. “Because I’ll keep working and I know at some point something good is going to happen from it.”