Wolves enter draft with Jimmy Butler looming in the distance

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Timberwolves enter the NBA draft with the No. 7 overall pick in the first round, and not sure if the player they want will be available. And that player might not necessarily be a rookie.

When the draft opens Thursday night, two All-Stars could lord over the proceedings. Indiana All-Star Paul George is on the trading block after informing Pacers that he will not re-sign with them and Chicago star Jimmy Butler could also be pried away for the right price.

The Timberwolves and Butler have been linked ever since Tom Thibodeau was hired as coach and president at the end of the 2015-16 season. The two teams had extensive conversations on draft night last summer and could renew those talks this time around depending on what happens above them with the first six picks in the draft.

''You hear about a lot of trade rumors and things of that nature,'' Thibodeau said Wednesday, holding his cards typically close to his vest. ''We're always looking to improve our club. If we feel there is somebody we can add and improve in certain areas. But we're always looking to get better.''

Given Butler's standing as a top-15 talent in the league and the kind of tough, experienced, two-way player that Thibodeau has said the team needs if it is going to end a 13-year playoff drought next season, the Bulls would likely command a significant package of compensation to land him. So far there has been little dialogue between the teams this week, but draft night typically ramps up the process.

If the Wolves do stay at No. 7, Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac and Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen are two of the names most often mentioned in connection with the team. Isaac is the kind of versatile, defensive-minded forward who could complement Karl-Anthony Towns in the front court while the 7-foot Markkanen would bring the 3-point shooting touch that the team desperately needs.

''If there's a player out there that has that type of shooting skill, particularly a big guy, we feel that that could open up the floor, and that creates space for everybody,'' Thibodeau said with a smile, declining to speak specifically about Markkanen. ''But whether it's a big guy or a small guy, we need shooting, and we need defense and we need toughness.''

Wolves GM Scott Layden said ''this has a chance to be a historic draft.''

And therein lies the rub for Minnesota. Do they hold tight and take a young player that can grow with their young core and be ready to take the big steps when Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are ready to take off? Or do they roll the dice and try to package that pick with a player or two to land the Butler-type of player that would thrust them into the playoff conversation right away?

''In all likelihood, the picks are so valuable at this time of year that you end up wanting to keep the pick,'' Layden said. ''But we're leaving all options open.''

Isaac figures to get a lot of attention ahead of the Wolves, from Orlando at No. 6 in particular, and could be gone by the time they come on the clock. If that is the case, the Wolves could also look to trade down a little bit lower with a team that wants to move up to take one of the highly touted point guards. Markkanen very well could be available at No. 9 and Gonzaga's Zach Collins - a shot-blocking big man with shooting range - is another possibility a little lower in the draft.

''There's been a lot of talk about trading the pick,'' Thibodeau said. ''So we know there's great value in it. We like the players that are in the draft, both at our position and if we decide to move down a little bit. There's a possibility of moving up as well. It's a great position to be in.''


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