Pressure can seem like a strange word to use for a team that made the playoffs just once last decade and is picking first overall in the NBA Draft, but in the case of the Minnesota Timberwolves, it’s a strangely apt description of the situation in which they find themselves as they continue to build around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell.
Minnesota can’t do anything about winning the Draft Lottery in a season with a weak class, nor can they change the fact that the building consensus is that the best player in that class is LaMelo Ball, a player who overlaps massively with Russell. Memphis’ James Wiseman, perhaps the second-highest profile prospect, isn’t a good fit with Towns. What the Timberwolves can do, however, and seem hell-bent on doing, is using the overall value of their picks at No. 1 and No. 17 to increase the chances that they come away from next week’s draft with a future star. There are several ways they can do that.
Drafting LaMelo Ball
Taking Ball is probably smartest according to pure value. A brilliant play-maker at 6’7 with the skill to score from just about anywhere on the floor, Ball could be the focal point of a top-10 offense one day. Even playing next to someone like Russell, the shooting and overall basketball IQ from Ball make it still a worthwhile endeavor to take him, and Minnesota has been sending out the message through reporters that they prefer having multiple ball-handlers.
Mileage will vary on Ball’s defense, as analysts like TrueHoop’s David Thorpe have been pretty harsh, while Mike Schmitz at ESPN is far more trusting of Ball’s overall intelligence and length to make up for his lack of effort last year in the Australian league. Players like Ball can be among the hardest to evaluate on this end considering how much focus they have on running the offense and how little emphasis their coaches place on asking them to execute a defensive scheme. It’s hard to imagine, though, that Ball’s smarts and size can’t make an impact on defense just like his older brother did at UCLA and early in his career with the Lakers.
Where Ball can likely be trusted is as a team defender, as Dan Olinger notes at The Step Back. Like Lonzo, he just sees the game and tries stuff that few would think to. But unlike Lonzo, he’s not as balanced or disciplined, perhaps because he didn’t get a year in a system like Lonzo did at UCLA. That doesn’t mean LaMelo is hopeless, though.
some real, high level defensive instincts pic.twitter.com/tHRsjA9Fwq
— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) November 8, 2020
At the same time, Minnesota is not likely to be the Draft situation that insulates him. If you want Ball to use his length and instincts in rotation, Russell is almost certainly not the guy you’d pair him with. That could, however, be Josh Okogie or Jarrett Culver, two solid point-of-attack defenders. Yet that puts the team and coaching staff in a bind if the base gameplan on defense is full of cross-matches and odd positional choices.
The most interesting outcome is that Ball is simply better than Russell, and the Timberwolves’ front office has to make a bet that Ball can prove that to Towns quickly enough. That’s all a decision for down the line, and one that would be fairly gutsy, but that’s why Rosas was brought in, and sports teams tend to be rewarded when they do something gutsy in favor of accumulating the most talent possible.
Drafting James Wiseman
Another option is Wiseman from an upside standpoint, though Wiseman seems unlikely to develop the kind of shooting or defensive versatility that would make pairing him with Towns work. More likely is that Wiseman would be a bench guy in Minnesota while general manager worked the phones on a trade to flip him down the road. That’s a high-risk, high-reward way to handle things.
If the Timberwolves do just pick hold their noses and take Wiseman, it’s not as if they would be getting a hopeless player. Wiseman is already solid at many of the things a modern NBA big man needs to do. Right away, he’s probably going to be a strong rebounder on both ends, he runs the floor well and has the balance and sticky hands to finish in transition, he understands how to create quick advantages for himself as a post scorer, and he can block shots.
There’s at least a small chance Wiseman also develops a wider offensive skill set as a shooter or with a burgeoning face-up scoring game. That would certainly help his fit with Towns, who we already know can be effective even from the perimeter.
The issue is that defensively, both players are pure centers. Towns initially looked capable of switching onto smaller players but that seems unlikely now unless he slims down considerably. Wiseman is also not as mobile as you’d like and struggles to change direction or speeds when he has to guard smaller guys or come out to the three-point line in pick-and-roll coverage.
Wiseman's PnR defense is so frequently utterly baffling. His recovery always starts a moment or two late, and he's often wildly out of position. So much work to be done to be viable in any coverage, not even accounting for his movement limitations/lack of coverage versatility pic.twitter.com/61X7F8UNVs
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) April 18, 2020
Some teams can exist these days with two bigs (Memphis is doing just fine with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke), but Towns and Wiseman is a frontcourt that would struggle mightily to defend.
Drafting Anthony Edwards Jr.
Maybe the safest option here would be to draft Anthony Edwards Jr., the Georgia wing who presents the best combination of athleticism, shot creation, and upside in the Draft. In the case of the Timberwolves, Edwards is also the best positional fit. Edwards could join an intriguing Minnesota wing rotation that includes Culver and Okogie and inject some unpredictable athleticism to a team that, because of Russell and Towns’ unorthodox styles, is lacking in that area.
Still, many wonder about Edwards’ overall work ethic after seemingly poor conditioning during his nationally televised workout last week and his lack of hustle throughout the SEC season. Those worries seem a bit over-blown. More pressing fixes will likely come in Edwards’ decision-making and how he impacts winning without the ball in his hands.
Throughout the year, I’ve been higher on Edwards than most seem to. Folks around the Georgia program seem to really believe in his outrageous talent and competitive spirit, and are optimistic he can find new ways to impact the game. Remember, Edwards was not part of a high-level AAU program, nor did he go through the international basketball circuit like Wiseman, R.J. Barrett, or even Nico Mannion did. All year, head coach Tom Crean implored Edwards to be more active as an off-ball scorer and gave him assignments on defense that demanded his intense focus.
All that said, Edwards’ decision-making remains an issue and has been since scouts first saw him.
Anthony Edwards shot this pic.twitter.com/4B4VAB4BLU
— Brendon Kleen (@BrendonKleen14) October 24, 2019
The results of Crean’s coaching were inconsistent. But go back further and watch Edwards’ high school tape or his scoring explosion at the Maui Invitational nearly a year ago, and it’s clear Edwards has just about every shot in his arsenal already, and is a bit younger than most of this class. The best version of Edwards is the best complement to Towns and Russell of anyone likely in contention at No. 1 and I feel optimistic he can get a lot better in the NBA.
Breaking with consensus and drafting someone else
There are plenty of wings who could also help Minnesota firm up that spot long-term, if the Timberwolves are willing to buck consensus. Ben Pfeifer of the Prep2Pro draft podcast and the USA Today RookieWire believes Florida State wing Devin Vassell offers the best path toward an elite wing for the Timberwolves. There’s also Isaac Okoro, who’s probably a little light on shooting when Culver and Okogie both struggle with their shots as well, but is a truly genius player. A big monkey wrench would be to take combo guard Killian Hayes or Deni Avdija, two strong two-way players who don’t have any one skill that pops but would fit nicely on a team like Minnesota with two stars in place already.
There has been so much buzz around so many different players now that it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if the Timberwolves just pivoted and took someone unexpected.
Trading the pick
That brings us to situations in which Minnesota backs out of No. 1. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer added fuel to the fire on this particular concept when he reported that not only are the Timberwolves interested in trading the 17th pick to move up for a second lottery pick, but that in particular, they like Tyrese Haliburton and Patrick Williams, both of whom would be more traditional fits alongside Towns and Russell.
Who would teams be moving up for? Sources say FSU wing Patrick Williams is a main target. The Wolves are high on Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton.
Williams scouting report: https://t.co/NtQipFKwKj
Haliburton scouting report: https://t.co/cfSfAvNdjl
Draft night will get wild.
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 11, 2020
Trade machinations are too dense here to imagine all the possibilities involving No. 17, but it’s worth considering how this informs what Minnesota would do in the event they could simply trade down. That may be the smarter move for a few reasons.
Most importantly, by trading back, they could potentially recoup a 2021 first round pick after dealing theirs to Golden State for Russell. The 2021 Draft seems like it could have a few star-level talents in it, like Cade Cunningham and Usman Garuba. Getting back into the 2021 while also grabbing a player like Haliburton or Williams that we know the Timberwolves are high on seems like the type of move general manager Gersson Rosas — who knows the value of the long game from his time in Houston — would be wise to make.
A team centered around Russell and Towns theoretically doesn’t need another traditional star. By taking a player like Haliburton or Williams, two dynamic two-way role players with upside, Minnesota could build a deeper and more cohesive squad around the two stars rather than upstaging one of them.
The most fun scenario for those who love gigantic, complex trades is the No. 1 pick becomes involved in something bigger, such as Atlanta’s reported pursuit of Holiday, as noted this week by Marc Stein of the New York Times. Imagine Minnesota moving back and grabbing a veteran player in one move, and we know they’re aggressive in deals like this after Rosas swapped out nearly the entire roster at last season’s trade deadline.
When push comes to shove, the top overall pick hardly ever moves. The last time it did, Boston moved down two slots and drafted Jayson Tatum. Rarely does the pick become part of a huge transaction. Because of the high value of being able to draft any player in the entire class, most organizations simply roll the dice and take someone. The rumors right now indicate that would be Ball, but draft night is sure to pose some big surprises, not the least of which could be Minnesota reversing course.