NBA

Rebuild and Retain: Minnesota Timberwolves

Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the Minnesota Timberwolves traded away Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007, they have been stuck in a rut of misfortune. Al Jefferson, the young prospect that was supposed to supplant Garnett as the face of the franchise, tore his ACL in just his second season with the team. They later traded Jefferson to Utah, focusing their rebuild around their superstar power forward, Kevin Love. But after being unable to make the playoffs and put together a competitive roster around him, Love was traded to Cleveland in the summer of 2014.

Due to several poor draft decisions, major injuries to key players and a front office turnover, the Timberwolves have yet to make the playoffs since dealing Garnett to the Celtics eight years ago.

Minnesota has learned the hard way that trading away a superstar in their prime doesn’t always yield a return that will equal the same results. The assets the Timberwolves were able to get back for Garnett and Love in those two mega trades may have been nice in theory, but they have yet to translate into wins and a competitive basketball team. While it is unfair to use those two things as criticisms against the franchise, the Timberwolves have become the poster child for why teams need to do everything they can to hold on to the superstars in their primes.

The Timberwolves are the next team in this Rebuild and Retain series going through each NBA squad not considered a title contender and assessing the young players they have on their roster. Player development is key in building a championship contender, and this series looks at whether or not the young players these teams have will help them reach that level in the future.

For Minnesota, as their team is in the early stages of developing their players, they will have to be extra cautious so as not to make the mistake of trading away another budding star.

Note: Only players on their rookie contracts will be considered for this series. If a team has signed a player to a second contract, that more than likely means that they are considered a core member of the roster.

CORNERSTONES

KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS

I know Towns has only played a handful of NBA games, but so far he looks like a beast. It’s hard not to fall in love with the kid when he does stuff like this:

In his first five games as an NBA player, Towns is averaging 15.2 point, 9.6 rebounds and three blocks. He has already had a 17 point, 13 rebound and four block performance against the Bulls and went for 28 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks against the Nuggets. He may be closer to being a monster in this league than we all expected.

Towns’ understanding of defensive concepts and rotations is astounding for a player his age. It isn’t just his ability to block shots that is impressive, it is his rotations over to help at just the right moment that raises eyebrows. Some rim protectors hunt blocks too much to the point that it hurts a team’s defense to cheat towards the player going to shoot a layup. The best shot blockers, like Towns, wait and pounce at the right moment in time.

Towns’ offensively versatility may be the scariest part about his game. You saw the smooth jumper in one of the above clips, a juicy part of his game that is developing and could be a huge weapon in a modern NBA that is big on spacing. He is already using that shot and his sneaky quickness to pump fake defenders in the air and beat them off the dribble.

In college, we didn’t get to see his skill as a passer out of the post. Not only is he a willing passer, unlike most post players, he has great vision and accuracy on those passes. He can already whip passes with his back turned on time and on target to his teammates.

You could go on and on for days about Towns. I didn’t even dive into his main calling card on offense: His post-up game and his soft touch with both hands around the rim, as well as his ability to dominate the glass on both ends of the floor. Oh, and his potential as a pick and roll threat, patiently getting into open passing lanes as he rolls towards the hoop.

The ceiling on this guy seems limitless at this point, especially given the fact that he only turns 20-years-old in a week.

ANDREW WIGGINS

Wiggins has been one of the most divisive young prospects of the 21st century. Anointed the next LeBron James by many media outlets when he was in high school, Wiggins has had to play with the weight of the basketball world on his shoulders ever since. After a quietly productive freshman year at Kansas, Wiggins was drafted No. 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers and traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Love deal.

In his rookie year up north, Wiggins averaged 16.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award.

Wiggins established himself last year as one of the elite on ball defenders already in the league. His combination of length and athleticism can’t be taught. Throw in his instincts and uncanny knack of always following the ball, and you have the makings of a defensive nightmare.

Wiggins has a lot of work to do offensively, but you can see some skills that could blossom into a solid option on that end. There are several go-to moves he has that are near unstoppable due to his athleticism. He loves to drive and spin, for example, when he has his defender leaning one way.

With how long his legs and his reach are, he can euro step around pretty much anything.

Last year, the late great coach Flip Saunders showcased Wiggins as a post-up wing, something that is rarely seen in the league. When he catches the ball on the low block, his favorite move is to face-up, jab step and create separation with a pretty step back that he is equally good at going either right or left.

There is a lot to like with Wiggins moving forward, especially since the mechanics on his jump shot have improved just about every year. Through five games, he is shooting 35.7 percent from downtown, an encouraging sign for someone who shot 31 percent from deep last year. His arsenal of moves may get predictable at some point, but he is near impossible to stop given his length and freak athleticism.

Wiggins’ big problem right now is efficiency, struggling at times to put together consistent stretches of production. He’s shooting just 32.9 percent through the opening five games of the season, often forcing shots that aren’t there in order to get himself going. That could just come with being a 20-year-old kid expected to shoulder an offense in just their second year in the league. You can tell he is still robotic in his movements, something that can only improve with reps and confidence. Wiggins had an impressive 31 point outing in Chicago a few nights ago, though, so hopefully that will bring him out of his early season slump.

ROLE PLAYERS

ZACH LAVINE

LaVine was an underrated player who caught the world by storm at UCLA his freshman season. Largely coming off the bench for the Bruins, LaVine decided that he was going to skip out on the rest of school in search for a bigger opportunity in the NBA, where he was drafted 11th overall by the Timberwolves in 2014.

As expected, LaVine’s rookie season was filled with ups and downs. He started in 40 games for Minnesota, averaging a respectable 10.1 points and 3.6 assists on 42.2 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from 3-point range.

Since day one, Minnesota has tried to turn LaVine into a backup point guard and it hasn’t worked out so well. He has a poor assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.4, often driving with reckless abandon into the lane and making the wrong decision. Yes, he has crazy bounce and won the dunk competition last year, but other than the occasional windmill highlight LaVine’s game is rather predictable. When he is asked to initiate and create offense, things often go wrong.

If LaVine is going to stick in the league, it will be as backup shooting guard who runs the floor and has the occasional heat check game from deep, exactly like the Miami Heat’s Gerald Green. He is more than capable of doing so, and with the addition of Tyus Jones and Andre Miller this offseason, Minnesota should look to give him the majority of his minutes at that spot.

TYUS JONES

Speaking of Tyus Jones, he proved himself to be a worthy leader and role player during his only season at Duke. Jones has yet to appear in a game for the Timberwolves, but showcased his potential to be a solid backup point guard during the Las Vegas Summer League. He has great command and poise for a guy his size, overcoming his lack of athleticism with his high IQ. He can knock down the open 3-pointer spotting-up, showing that he doesn’t need the ball to be effective either.

Jones is probably in for a long season this year, but he could get an opportunity to play at times due to Miller’s age and LaVine’s inconsistency playing point guard.

SHABAZZ MUHAMMAD

On a much more mild scale, Shabazz Muhammad was a highly ranked recruit with enormous expectations similar to Wiggins. Muhammad missed the first nine games of his only season at UCLA due to an eligibility issue. Since then, its been nothing but a rocky road from getting kicked out of the rookie symposium to a frustrating rookie year.

Muhammad turned over a new leaf his second year in Minneapolis, appearing in 38 games and averaging 13.5 points and 4.1 rebounds on 48.9 percent shooting from the floor and 39.2 percent from the perimeter. He has one NBA skill that could keep him on a roster as a role player, and that’s his ability to use his wide frame to post-up smaller guards and score over them with a sweeping hook shot.

If he can continue to knock down 3-pointers at a respectable clip, Muhammad could make a name for himself as a small forward and sometimes small ball power forward on this Timberwolves roster.

NEMANJA BJELICA

Bjelica is another intriguing rookie on this Timberwolves roster. The 27-year-old Serbian is in his first NBA season after being drafted in 2010 by the Washington Wizards. Bjelica impressed many by his Eurobasket performance this summer, showing off his unique ability to handle the ball and create from the power forward position. At 6-10, he has the rare skill set of a guy who can facilitate off the dribble and run a pick and roll. He loves to grab the rebound and then push the break himself without outletting to a guard.

Who knows what Bjelica is going to turn out to be. He presents an interesting option next to Towns as a power forward who can space the floor just enough with his shooting and scamper around the perimeter making plays and dishing out assists. He had a nice 17 point, 11 rebound and five assist game against the Bulls, showing just how well rounded of a player he could potentially be.

LONG SHOTS

ADREIAN PAYNE, GORGUI DIENG

Neither Payne nor Dieng have been able to deliver much on their talent early in their careers. Both were supposed to be plus defenders with budding offensive games that could help them become solid two way role players in the league. Their skills on either end just haven’t been consistent enough to garner many minutes this season and as the frontcourt gets more crowded with other young players, Dieng and Payne are the next ones to go.

Dieng has a lot better shot than Payne to stick around, given that he has had some solid moments and shown stretches of being a legitimate NBA big man. Last season, his second in the league, Dieng averaged 9.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, starting in 49 of his 73 appearances. If he can continue to build on his solid high post passing and shot blocking, maybe he can make it as a fourth or fifth big. However, at age 25, the odds of him improving much more are slim.

Payne, on the other hand, hasn’t had much to show in his short stint with the Timberwolves. After being traded by the Hawks midseason, Payne played in 29 games and started in 22 for Minnesota last year, averaging 7.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He hasn’t necessarily delivered on his potential to be a shot blocking, switching power forward who can shoot 3-pointers, and like Dieng, it’s hard to believe he will improve much at his age.

THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT

The majority of Minnesota’s rotation this year has been covered throughout the entirety of this piece. There are lots of things to work on, but for being a team this young and sitting at 3-2, the future is definitely bright. Towns and Wiggins are legitimate building blocks that you can plan on being in Minnesota well into their prime years. Muhammad, Bjelica and LaVine still present some unknown to their game but have the potential to be long term fixtures, too.

The great thing this team has going for them is that the likes of Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller are in practice every day pouring knowledge and wisdom into the minds of these young players. I mean, just watch KG go crazy after Karl Towns makes this jumper.

This is a team committed to building towards the future that has put in all the necessary pieces to make that happen. Now, they just have to hold on to the good things they have going.