When the Timberwolves Passed on Isaiah Thomas to Draft a Mystery Man from Qatar

Minnesota could have used the No. 57 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft to select the future Boston Celtics star. Instead, they took Tanguy Ngombo, producing one of the weirdest stories in draft history.

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May 12 2017, 1:15pm

Greg M. Cooper - USAToday Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves knew about Isaiah Thomas. They just had another player in mind. It was the summer of 2011, and the NBA Draft was coming to an end. The Dallas Mavericks were on the clock, preparing to make the No. 57 pick on behalf of the Portland Trail Blazers, who had just acquired the selection via a three-team trade involving Denver.

Only now, the Timberwolves were jumping in. They made a deal with Portland to get the pick, and had the Blazers tell the Mavericks to select an under-the-radar prospect they long had their eyes on. Only that player wasn't Thomas, the diminutive University of Washington guard who would be taken three selections later with the final pick in the draft, and ultimately become a NBA All-Star with the Boston Celtics.

Instead, Minnesota selected Tanguy Ngombo—an unexpected choice that would produce one of the weirdest stories in draft history.

"You look back and you can say, 'of course we should have taken Isaiah Thomas,'" says Pete Philo, the Timberwolves' director of scouting and player personnel from 2005 to 2013. "We evaluated Isaiah Thomas. I loved Isaiah Thomas. I've long believed that since the hand-check rules changed in the early 2000s, smaller point guards go undervalued.

"But we just didn't have a roster spot. And our entire scouting staff watched tape on Tanguy and felt like we had an under-the-radar guy."

Who was Ngombo? A 6-foot-6 Congolese wing who was playing in Qatar at the time of the 2011 draft, he profiled as the sort of player every team wants: athletic, can knock down three-pointers, attack in a straight line off the dribble, and defend reasonably well. Ngombo needed more polish and professional seasoning, to be sure, but that made him an ideal draft-and-stash candidate for a Minnesota franchise that was out of roster spots.

Such was the plan: Acquire Ngombo's rights, then get him into a stronger European league with better coaching and competition. Let his natural gifts take over. See if you end up with a steal. Given the success rate of players selected at tail end of the second round—over the last eight NBA Drafts, just 30 percent of the final five picks have played even a minute in the league, and Thomas is the only bonafide starter to emerge from that group—it was a reasonable bet. With just one catch.

On draft night, the Timberwolves thought Ngombo was 21 years old. In reality, he likely was almost 27.

The one who got away. Photo by Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

How did Minnesota president of basketball operations David Kahn make such a mistake? The story starts with Philo, whose job was to scour the globe for prospects who might turn into useful NBA players. In 2010, he got a tip from a friend in the Middle East.

"[They] said there's a pretty talented kid in Doha, you should take a look," Philo says. "So I said okay. I evaluate leagues, I evaluate players, and typically, good talent doesn't come out of Doha. But I'll go anywhere if there's a chance there's talent. That's the job.

"So I went down, and I'm watching this tournament. I was intrigued, no red flags yet, got pretty good size for his position, was bouncy, and made shots. So I was like, 'huh.' And I filed it away."

Philo again saw Ngombo play later that year, this time while scouting for the Chinese national team. Qatar was playing in the Asian Games in Guangzhou, and Ngombo was on the country's squad. He performed well, scoring 19.6 points per game while leading Qatar to a fifth-place finish.

Philo was intrigued. Here was a prospect with potential, and one that seemingly nobody else had noticed. To make sure he wasn't crazy, Philo made another trip to Qatar, this time taking fellow scout Tony Ronzone—currently Director of Player Personnel for Dallas—along with him.
Philo spoke with Ngombo. He talked to his coaches, the better to get a sense of the player's personality and work ethic. When Philo returned to Minnesota, he brought Ngombo's game tape, and recommended that the team consider picking him in the 2011 draft.

As far as Philo or anyone with the Timberwolves knew, Ngombo was born on July 18, 1989.

"Every single time I was around anything in terms of documentation—brochures, flyers, stat sheets, everything his name was on—said 1989," Philo says. "So to me, he's eligible. I can't tell you how many guys I've scouted internationally, but it's been a lot. I can't remember the last time I said, 'there's something fishy, let me figure out if he's the real age or not.' It says 1989, you see it on multiple documents, away you go. He's draft-eligible."

On draft night, Minnesota made its move, trading back into the second round to take Ngombo. You can see the pure glee that then-deputy commissioner Adam Silver has as he reads out the name of a pick he clearly has never heard of—a mystery prospect who sends ESPN analyst Tom Penn into a Thomas Friedman-esque filibuster:

… the world's getting smaller. With technology, with connectivity, you can tap into markets like Qatar, into Africa, and it's only continue into Asia and into India. This is the future, the future's here now, and it involves these guys, and I'm not gonna say their names, either ...

Almost immediately, there was speculation around the league about Ngombo. Who was this guy? Had the Timberwolves found a steal in the middle of the desert? And, how, exactly, did you spell his name— Tanguy or Targuy? Typically, the NBA investigates potential draftees to make sure that they're eligible; in Ngombo's case, he was so far off the consensus pre-draft board that the league hadn't run a background check. Only Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress had an inkling the pick was coming.

Kahn planned to place Ngombo into a stronger league, like the Spanish ACB or the Italian LBA. That never happened. The day after the draft, Givony and European scouting expert Simon Jatsch unearthed an online Qatari national team roster from 2005 that listed a Tanguy Ngombo from Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, as having a birth date of 1984.

(Even today, you can still see a full accounting of Ngombo's stats from 2005 tournaments on the FIBA basketball site, which also lists him still has being born in 1984).

The new information sent the Timberwolves scrambling: if Ngombo was really almost 27, he would have been ineligible for the 2011 draft. (Per league rules, international players are automatically eligible for the draft in the year that they turn 22, and players cannot be eligible for selection in more than one draft). Team owner Glen Taylor and Kahn met with Philo and asked him about the reports. Philo called Ngombo to find out more.

"I told him about the reports out there," Philo says. "He said he didn't know what I was talking about, he's born in 1989. I asked him if he was absolutely positive, that there were reports that you played in a tournament years ago under a 1984 birthday. Tanguy explained that if this is true he had no knowledge of it, which led to me asking him what he meant by 'to his knowledge.' That led to him saying something really interesting, in my mind."

Which was?

"As far as I know, that's how old I am."

Philo says he asked Ngombo what he meant by that. Ngombo told him he didn't know what a birth certificate was. So Philo asked Ngombo if he had his passport on him.

According to Philo, Ngombo answered that "the sheikh had it."

The sheikh, Philo says, was a Qatari who took care of Ngombo. (Philo doesn't remember his name, and doesn't know if the sheikh was responsible for bringing Ngombo to the country in the first place). It turned out Ngombo didn't hold his own passport on a daily basis; he only had access to it when he went through customs. Philo told Ngombo to get his passport immediately, so he could fax images of it to the league office and put to bed a problem that was now holding up a multiple-team trade.

A week later, Philo got a copy of Ngombo's passport. It said that Ngombo's birthday was 1989. But there was a problem. "It looked like it was brand new, just done," Philo says. "My assumption is that he never got his [real] passport. Tanguy felt so nervous—and I don't know this for a fact, I'm guessing—but I think he went and had a passport made on his own because the sheikh wouldn't give him the passport.

"So I felt bad for the kid. It's a life-changer for him. He got drafted by an NBA team. It's the happiest day of his life. But now, he's got this NBA team calling him in a panic trying to figure things out when even he doesn't have the answers.

"Ngombo said to me at some point that week while we were trying to document things, 'Pete, I wasn't even born in a hospital to my knowledge. So I've never had papers.' That led me to ask, 'you really don't know how old you are, do you?' To which he responded, 'as far as I know I am (21). Now, if someone changed my papers along the way, maybe they did. But to me, my birthdate has always been 1989.'"

The NBA ultimately decided to let the trades go through, and only investigate Ngombo's actual age if Minnesota ever tried to sign him. That wasn't necessary. In May of 2013, Kahn was replaced by Flip Saunders. A month later, the Timberwolves renounced Ngombo's draft rights.

Ngombo never did leave Qatar. He still plays for the same team, Al Rayyan in Doha, that Silver announced in 2011. Likely now 32 years old, he's averaging 18.3 points and 4.5 assists per game, according to asia-basket.com. He won the league's player of the year award in 2012, has led his team to the Qatar League championship three times since being picked, and last year was named Finals MVP. He also plays for Qatar in international three-on-three competition.

As for Philo? He later took a job with the Indiana Pacers, and is now the president of TPG Sports Group. Looking back, he feels for Ngombo, but doesn't regret passing on Thomas. After all, the entire NBA made the same mistake. Such is the nature of scouting: to some extent, every player is a mystery. Some more than others. "When you watch the tape [of Ngombo]," Philo says, "you see the talent."

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