Roster battles begin tonight

Wolves open exhibition season in Grand Forks

Knight Ridder Newspapers

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. -- The; gym is essentially empty. The only sound inside the Timberwolves' practice facility is a basketball bouncing and rap music coming from the weight room. On the near side of the court, second-year player Ndudi Ebi and Eddie Griffin are having a shooting contest. In the weight room, undrafted rookie Jackie Butler is going through an exhausting weightlifting session with strength and conditioning coach Thomas McKinney.

For Griffin and Butler, there's no hurrying home after practice to play PlayStation2. The gym is their home until the Wolves tell them their services are no longer needed.

"You just love to see these kids spending the extra time in the gym," Kevin McHale, the Wolves' vice president of operations, said as he looked on from the sidelines.


It's going to take countless hours at practice and on the court during the exhibition season Griffin or Butler, or any other unproven players, to secure a spot on the roster. Griffin, Butler and former Gophers Rick Rickert and John Thomas are battling for one forward position.

The Wolves play Milwaukee tonight in Grand Forks, N.D. That's when the battle begins for the coveted roster spot.

Three years ago Griffin was the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft. He had tons of potential and a three-year guaranteed contract. But then he ran into criminal and substance abuse problems.

The Wolves are taking a chance with Griffin. They don't want any distractions .

They do, however, feel optimistic that Griffin can regain his old form and that veteran players such as Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell can keep him straight. Griffin, who signed last week, is the most talented of the group of forwards vying for the one spot, but it is obvious he has been away from the game for a year. He still is trying to get his legs back.

"It's going to be awhile for Eddie," McHale said. "He didn't play last year. You can't take a year off and expect a guy to come in flying. There are certain things he does naturally that are way above NBA skill level, like rebounding and blocking shots. You can work on guys until the cows come home and they won't do as good as he does. That's the gift he's got. He's going to have to work on his low post game."

Butler, who played at Coastal Christian (Va.) High School last year, should be enjoying his freshman year at Tennessee by hanging out with people his own age. Butler, though, went down the wrong path by listening to the wrong people and signing with an agent and eventually not hearing his name called on draft night. Now he is trying to outmuscle players like Garnett and Mark Madsen in the post during practice.

"You can go back over what happened, but that's so counter productive," McHale said. "You can do the same thing with Rickert. What good does that get you? He should be able to play in our league at a certain point."


Nobody knows when that's going to happen, though. There is no denying Butler's talent. He showed that with the Wolves summer league team when he had 10 rebounds in one game. The Wolves would be more likely to take a chance on Butler if they did not have Ebi, another project player, on the roster with a guaranteed contract.

"I'm here and I'm not going to look back," Butler said. "I can't change what happened in the past. Now it's up to me to prove that I can play."

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