NBA

NBA Saturday: Timberwolves Assembling Exciting Core

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New Era in Minnesota

Today, the Cleveland Cavaliers will officially acquire star power forward Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Love, one of the most productive players in the NBA, leaves Minnesota after six seasons with the Timberwolves.

While there may be an inclination to feel as though the Timberwolves have taken a major step back after losing their franchise player, the fact is that Minnesota acquired a solid haul of young talent to build around moving forward. The Timberwolves acquired two number one overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett from Cleveland, and will concurrently send Cleveland’s 2015 first-round pick (acquired from the Miami HEAT) along with Alexey Shved and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Philadelphia 76ers for Thaddeus Young.

This was a strong return for Love, who made it clear to the Timberwolves that he would leave Minnesota for nothing at the conclusion of the upcoming season if he was not traded. While losing Love hurts, the Timberwolves now have one of the best core’s of young talent in the NBA, and are still talented enough to have an outside chance of making the playoffs moving forward.

Wiggins, the number one overall pick in this year’s draft out of Kansas University, is a top-level NBA prospect and potential superstar. In his one season at Kansas, Wiggins put up 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals and one block per game, and shot 44.8 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from beyond-the-arc. While Wiggins’ stats don’t jump off the page, he has the size and skill of an elite wing player and should be able to develop into a well-rounded offensive player and lock-down defender.

Over the last few years, Wiggins has drawn comparisons to LeBron James, but a better or fairer comparison may be someone like Paul George. George entered the league as a wing player who could play defense immediately and had the size and skill to develop into a versatile offensive weapon. George, to his credit, made huge strides in his game early in his career, improving his jump-shot and ball-handling, allowing him to be a play-maker on offense. Similarly, Wiggins will need to add consistency to his jumper, and improve his ball-handling to take his game to the next level. Assuming Wiggins can make the same sort of strides in his game that George did, coupled with his elite athleticism, Wiggins could be a top wing player in the NBA in just a few years. Wiggins has been criticized in the past for being too passive, but he seems to recognize this and sees Minnesota as a place where he will have to embrace being a lead-player, and not just another piece.

Joining Wiggins in Minnesota will be the number one overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Bennett. Last season, in 52 games played with the Cavaliers, Bennett averaged 4.2 points, three rebounds and 0.3 assists per game and shot 35.6 percent from the field. It was a truly disappointing rookie campaign for the former number one overall pick. Bennett entered his rookie season rehabbing from shoulder surgery and suffered a knee strain in March. He struggled with injuries and conditioning last season, but has lost weight this summer and is looking to have a bounce-back sophomore season. In addition, Bennett underwent surgery in May to remove his tonsils and adenoids to help improve his sleep apnea, and says it is now easier for him to breathe while playing.

Bennett’s improved conditioning and breathing does not guarantee that he will have a breakout sophomore season, but it is a positive step in the right direction for the talented forward. At UNLV, Bennett was a versatile offensive player who shot well at the rim, could take the ball off the dribble and knock down three-pointers consistently (38.3 percent). And while he was not a great defender in college, he moves well for a player his size and has potential defensively. With Minnesota, Bennett can learn from Thaddeus Young how to play the power forward position at the NBA level. However, Bennett also has the potential to play small forward, but he will have to keep his weight down in order to do so, which may make it harder for him to guard the bigger forwards in the league. This is something that Bennett and the Timberwolves will need to experiment with and figure out moving forward.

Fortunately for Bennett and the Timberwolves, Bennett will not have to rush his development with Corey Brewer and Wiggins in place at small forward, and Young set to take over for Love as the starting power forward. Last season, Young averaged 17.9 points, six rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game. At age 26, Young is young enough to continue improving along with the young talent in Minnesota, but brings seven years of valuable NBA experience to the starting unit. At 6’8, 220 pounds, Young is slightly undersized at the power forward position, but can shoot the ball from the perimeter and has an overall solid offensive game. While Young will not be able to completely make up for the loss of Love, the Timberwolves have managed to add a solid replacement to help keep the team competitive moving forward.

In addition to these newly acquired players, the Timberwolves are bringing in another bright, young talent this upcoming season. The Timberwolves drafted Zach LaVine with the 13th overall pick in this year’s draft out of UCLA. LaVine is arguably the most athletic player in this year’s rookie class and at 6’5, 180 pounds, has good size for an NBA combo guard. At UCLA, LaVine averaged 9.4 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and shot 44.1 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. Similar to Wiggins, LaVine did not put up overly impressive numbers in his one college season, but his upside is off the charts. LaVine has the ability to handle the ball and initiate Minnesota’s offense, but is still very much a work in progress as a point guard. In the Las Vegas Summer League, LaVine had an opportunity to run point guard for Minnesota and showed flashes of his potential.

“I feel like I’ve been just setting up the plays really well, running the team,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “Getting to the hole, creating for others and then making my shots when I have to.”

LaVine still has a ways to go in terms of playing point guard, but there is certainly potential there. As a shooting guard, LaVine has shown his ability to score the ball from the perimeter and on drives to the basket. His three-point shooting will be a nice addition to Minnesota, as the Timberwolves were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league last season. At age 19, LaVine is certainly a raw talent, and will struggle on many nights in his rookie season. But, with good size, developing point guard skills and a solid offensive skill-set, LaVine has a ton of potential and could one day be considered one of the best players from the 2014 NBA draft class. And with athletes like LaVine and Wiggins running the lanes with point guard Ricky Rubio, there is certain to be some highlight plays in Minnesota next season.

In regards to Rubio, it is easy to forget that he is still just 23 years old. Rubio’s rookie season in the NBA started off well as he averaged 10.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 2.3 steals in 34.2 minutes per game. However, he suffered an ACL tear in March 2012, and missed the second half of his rookie season. In the following two seasons, Rubio continued to score roughly 10 points, and register roughly eight assists per game, but his perimeter shooting remains an issue. Rubio, a career 36.8 percent shooter from the field and 32.3 percent three-point shooter, has flawed shooting mechanics and an especially slow release. This is something Rubio will have to address moving forward, which, at age 23, is very possible. If, and when he does, he will join the upper echelon of point guards in the league as he is already a great play-maker, passer and solid defensive player. With Love on his way to Cleveland, now is the time for Rubio to take the next step in his development, and become the leader of the Timberwolves.

Also on the roster is Shabazz Muhammad, once considered the best NBA prospect in the nation. After a disappointing rookie season in which he only played in 37 games, Muhammad is looking to have a bounce back sophomore season. Before his rookie season, Muhammad spent one underwhelming season at UCLA before declaring for the 2013 NBA Draft. Muhammad, age 21, is a talented offensive player, but is not a great athlete, and has not shown much ability to make plays for his teammates. However, he does have a thick frame, is a good rebounder for a wing player, and plays with supreme confidence. While he may never live up to the hype that surrounded him as an amateur, Muhammad could still find a niche as a bench scorer and put pressure on opposing guards by taking them down into the post where he often has a size advantage. Much like Rubio, Muhammad is not as far along in his development as many had hoped, but he is still very young and has an opportunity to be another piece of Minnesota’s promising core of young talent. 

In addition to all of these young wing players, the Timberwolves have some young talent at center as well. Timberwolves starting center Nikola Pekovic missed significant time last season with an Achilles injury. To fill the void left by Pekovic, the Timberwolves turned to rookie center Gorgui Dieng from the University of Louisville. Dieng was a revelation for Minnesota and had some outstanding performances throughout the second half of the season. On March 20, Dieng logged 22 points, 21 rebounds, 4 assists and made 10-of-11 from the free throw line. Four days later, Dieng registered 15 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and one block. These are two of Dieng’s best performances from last season, but there were many other nights in which Dieng registered a double-double and contributed a few blocks. Pekovic will remain the starter next season, but with Dieng behind him, the Timberwolves now have a legitimate shot blocker and another young piece to develop moving forward.

Also, while Pekovic is 28 years old, he has only been in the NBA for four seasons, and is one of the league’s best scoring big men. At 6’11, and weighing in at 285 pounds, Pekovic is massive and does not rely on athleticism to score points. He has a well-rounded offensive game and knows how to use his size to clear out defenders and score at the rim. While he is older than many of his young teammates, he is still relatively young and should maintain his current level of play for a long time since he does not rely on athleticism to be effective.

It is true that the Timberwolves would probably win more games this upcoming season with Love than they would with Wiggins, Bennett and Young, especially considering it takes a few seasons for rookies to become real impact players. But the fact is that Love wanted to move on, and in his six seasons in Minnesota he never led his team to the playoffs. To be fair to Love, he did about as much as he could in terms of filling up the stat sheet every night, but it was never enough to get Minnesota over the hump. The reality is that the Western Conference is, and has been stacked with playoff teams and contenders for many years. The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Portland Trailblazers are all teams to be reckoned with, and even with Love, there was no guarantee the Timberwolves would make the playoffs this upcoming season.

With the addition of LaVine, Wiggins, Bennett and Young to Rubio, Dieng and Pekovic, the Timberwolves now have a core of players that can develop over the next few seasons and hopefully peak at a time when teams like the Spurs are rebuilding, and other teams are exiting their window for contention as well. In the meantime, this is a team that can still compete with opposing teams on a nightly basis, and fight for an outside shot at making the playoffs. And while Timberwolves fans may bemoan the fact that it may take some more time to break Minnesota’s 10-year playoff drought, they should take solace in the fact that Minnesota now has one of the best and most exciting cores in the NBA.

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is in his second year covering the NBA for Basketball Insiders. He is a law student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA in 2011.