The Anxiety of Opportunity: Minnesota Timberwolves

They Won the Lottery, Now What Do They Do?

On August 20th, 2020, the Minnesota Timberwolves found themselves fortunate enough to win the NBA lottery, receiving the rights to the number one pick in this year’s upcoming draft. Objectively it’s the best outcome a franchise could hope for, the reward for a season’s worth of humiliation. But in a year full of uncertainties, the 2020 NBA draft has no expectations. It’s tough to admit but true none the less that there is a danger in getting what you want, a peculiar dread that comes with a wish fulfilled. So… now that the T’Wolves’ know where they will be drafting, all that’s left is to figure out what the hell they’re going to do.

Despite the lack of a consensus on a clear number one prospect at the top of this year’s draft class, you always want the number one pick. It’s a unique asset that even in what is considered a weaker draft class, it still sparkles with a promise of pure potential. Franchises can always talk themselves into what might be over what already is, particularly those starved for talent or headlines. As for the Timberwolves, in the simplest terms, they can of course either keep the pick and draft whomever they consider the top prospect, trade back for even more assets/flexibility/preferred players, or attempt to trade for an immediate impact contributor. The Timberwolves flexibility will depend on a few different things. How do teams value this year’s top tier prospects? The Timberwolves young talents like Jarret Culver and Josh Okogie? How willing are prospective traders to take on the expiring James Johnson contract?  There is also the added complication of the Golden State Warriors winning and likely looking to trade the second overall picks effect on Minnesota’s leverage in the market.

In his short time as President of Basketball Operations, Gersson Rosas has been as active as an executive in the league ever has, famously executing a myriad of trade deadline moves this past season, transactions which ultimately resulted in the acquisition of complementary players Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, the exorcism of the Andrew Wiggins contract, and of course the addition of long time Minnesotan obsession D’Angelo Russell.  The good news is that the change in scenery and increases in opportunity lead to the best 14 game stretch of Malik Beasley’s career. While in Minnesota, Beasley saw his field goal attempts and usage more than double, averaging 20.7 points per game while shooting 42.6 percent from behind the three-point line. Beasley will enter the offseason as a restricted free-agent in what will be an unprecedented market. Just how conservative teams are when it comes to projecting the future of the salary cap through what should be at least a partial 2020-2021 season without fans is unknown. Minnesota will likely look to match any reasonable offer for Beasley, but I’m not sure exercising Beasley’s bird rights makes sense for a team in the Timberwolves position.

What the addition of Beasley and Hernangomez tells us about Gersson Rosas’s thought process is that he valued the asset of a restricted free agent over that of a potential second 1st round pick. That is in a pure asset v. asset vacuum. The Timberwolves will need this kind of flexible approach to team building due to the curious nature of their two cornerstone pieces. D’Angelo Russell and Karl Anthony-Towns played one game together this past season, I just want to get that out front, but much of the potential of the pairing still falls squarely in the realm of the theoretically. But how exactly Rosas and the Timberwolves build a team around an overpaid, mid-range happy PG and a franchise big man who has thus far negatively impacted the team’s overall defense will be challenging to say the least.

Keep the Pick

If Minnesota decides to keep the number one pick, they should select whoever they value as the draft’s top prospect regardless of fit. Not selecting LaMelo Ball or Killian Hayes because of D’Angelo’s max contract would not only be short-sighted but run counter to what Rosas’s short tenure has indicated about his philosophy of asset accumulation. The same goes for the potentially explosive scoring guard Anthony Edwards, who showed a clear preference for playing with the ball in his hands during his short stint at Georgia. Edwards would also give the Timberwolves a third developing young wing, not to mention a player who has so far shown nearly no interest in the defensive side of the ball. It doesn’t matter; if the Timberwolves value Edwards or any other prospect as far and away from the top guy on their board, you take him.

LaMelo Ball

Lamelo will enter the league as a top tier three-level passer. I say passer because I’m not sure I’d classify Ball as a high-level decision-maker yet. While the passing reads are the most advanced in the class, the overall offensive efficiency might be a question. Defensively, LaMelo has the potential to be a neutral value defender long term. NBA strength and training could go a long way as Ball is easily knocked off his spot on-ball and often disengaged off-ball. The vision, feel, and handle in a guard LaMelo’s size is reason enough to justify the pick. Again, if the Timberwolves keep the pick, you take the swing on talent over the short term fit, which could be beyond awkward.

Anthony Edwards

He’s the ghost of Andrew Wiggins’ past, or so people will tell you. While there are reasons to be squeamish about Edwards’s potential, I don’t particularly see the Wiggins comparison. Edwards brings a developed offensive package and an ability to score at all three levels. There is good reason to think Edwards’ bad shot selection at Georgia will be mitigated by the increased spacing and talent he’ll play within the NBA. Defensively, if Edwards wasn’t directly involved in the play, guarding on-ball, he might as well have not been on the court, having atrocious off-ball awareness.  Despite these concerns, I’ve actually warmed up to Edwards during my evaluation process, as I believe he’ll contribute off the ball. He was a great cutter at Georgia, with a fluid and consistent jumper. I don’t see any reason to doubt Edwards as a projectable spot-up off-ball shooter. However, the downside for the Timberwolves is apparent. What if Edwards’ feel and effort never comes along? There are real concerns that if Edwards is unable to become an efficient scorer at the next level, he’ll have little else to offer.

Killian Hayes

D’Angelo Russell and Killian Hayes are in fact both left-handed. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, lets discuss the best prospect in the 2020 draft. The 18-year-old Frenchman is on the steepest developmental arc of any player in the class. Going from a slow-footed and overwhelmed 17 year old in FIBA play to the best combination of size, pace, control, and IQ in this year’s draft, Hayes is an advanced pick ‘n’ roll player, with feel and space creation skills far beyond his years. As it stands today, Hayes is much more effective as an off-the-dribble shooter, as his catch and shoot form lacks consistency really from the feet up. I suppose teams could be concerned about Killian’s extreme left-hand dominance, but I tend to believe it’s more of a case of not having to use it rather than being unable to use it (although, his offhand passing does concern me). Unlike Ball and Edwards, Killian is a plus defender on-ball and, within a team scheme, if the Timberwolves commit to keeping the number one pick, Hayes deserves a long hard look, despite any perceived redundancy with Russell.

Deni Advija

The best overall fit among the top prospects is perhaps 6’8 Israeli forward Deni Advija. The 19-year-old has shown clear signs of being a capable tertiary playmaker and a top of his class cutter.  Having a second playmaker with Deni’s size should help diversify a Timberwolves offense which currently has very little playmaking outside of Russell. Advija excels in transition as a passer and finisher and has shown willingness defensively to make weak side rotations and contest shots at the rim. The difficulty for Deni in the short term will be whether his athleticism keeps him from being the defensive factor he was at Maccabi Tel Avi, but the instincts are real. As for the jump shot, the jury is still out. The catch and shots look a touch mechanical but nothing too serious. He does have trouble finding consistency in his base, which often results in odd angling at his waist, particularly off the bounce. Deni is more of a right angle shooter than an up and down one, which brings us to the free throws. Deni’s shot looks projectable enough despite the problems I just laid out, but if there was a cause for concern, it would be his mind-boggling bad free throws. 53% bad. His body appears to be misfiring on all cylinders at the line, it’s startling.

Trading Back

In addition to the number one pick, the Timberwolves also have the 17th and 33rd pick, which could be used to further facilitate a move. While the team’s total assets won’t be enough to swing for a player like Bradley Beal or Ben Simmons, it does give them a lot of flexibility to slide up and down the draft board. The trouble will come on the demand end: who exactly wants the number 1 pick enough to risk the potential downside? The Hawks have shown a willingness in the past to trade up for the guy they want. Let’s say they view Edwards as a potential long term backcourt mate for Trae Young. Would the Timberwolves be interested in moving back to 6th while adding a young player like Deandre Hunter? It seems likely the Timberwolves would prioritize offloading James Johnson’s contract as a part of any deal for the number one pick, which would make a one to one deal with Atlanta tricky. The Timberwolves’ next best hope of moving the pick might be to involve a team perpetually interested in the splashy headline approach to team building, the New York Knicks. If the Knicks don’t want to take any chances on bringing LaMelo Ball to the big city, they could throw a package together of young assets from this year’s 8th and even 27th pick if the T’Wolves were interested. Importantly, they would be able to easily absorb the nearly 16 million left on James Johnson’s contract.

Impact Contributor

While the top-tier of potentially available stars will likely fall out of reach for the Timberwolves, they could make a run at the next tier of players. The Victor Oladipo’s and Aaron Gordon’s of the world could be on Minnesota’s radar if, and it’s a big if, the Pacers and Magic are comfortable taking a short-term set back to potentially build more sustainable young cores. Projecting out a trade for an immediate contributor depends heavily on how the league’s other 29 teams view the 2020 draft class. All it takes is one team fixing their heart to one player’s potential to open up a world of possibilities for the Timberwolves. Unfortunately, the offer of their dreams may be just that–a dream–as they sort through an off-season’s worth of less than stellar pitches.

Whatever the Timberwolves decide to do, it should be informed first and foremost by how they view themselves and what window they are actually trying to compete within. So far it seems the timeline is essentially whenever Karl Anthony-Towns says it is. Sure, they could trade back and get a solid role player, or take a flier on a few rookie contract assets, but do any of those options outweigh the chance to roll the dice with the number 1 pick? Minnesota is a lot closer to Charlotte than it is to Chicago when it comes to attracting potential free agents. The draft is still the easiest way to add and keep potential blue-chip talent, particularly for the league’s less attractive locales. But, there is reason for optimism in Minnesota. Gersson Rosas has shown an ability to be flexible in his short tenure as President of Basketball Operations, and while the answer to all of the Timberwolves problems might not be found in the number one pick in the 2020 draft, It could be another piece to the puzzle, a key to a lock yet undiscovered talent, or at least one more asset on the Timberwolves road to relevance.


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Written by Shay Youngblood

Shay lives in New Orleans and writes about Basketball and other American arts.

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