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New Faces in New Places: Northwest Division

A look at some of the most important new faces set to play in the Northwest Division this season.

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After taking a look at the Southeast and Central Divisions, Basketball Insiders continues its New Faces in New Places series with a look at the Northwest Division.

Minnesota Timberwolves:

Andrew Wiggins – It’s not often that a number one overall draft pick gets traded before ever playing for the team that drafted him (in fact, Chris Webber is the only other such player), but that’s exactly what happened this offseason when the Cavaliers traded Wiggins to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Wiggins brings the Timberwolves a new hope for future success as many view him as a future superstar. Wiggins certainly has the physical tools and skillset to become one of the best two-way players in the league, and a superstar, but it’s far from a given that he will reach that ceiling. It’s almost a certainty that Wiggins will become one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, but who he will become as an offensive player is still in question. He has the skill to be a 25 points per game scorer in the NBA, but he will need to take on a more aggressive mindset and embrace his role as the number one option for the Timberwolves. With Love gone, point guard Ricky Rubio takes over as the leader of the team. But long-term, Wiggins is Minnesota’s franchise player.

Anthony Bennett – It’s rare for a number one overall pick to be traded, but even rarer when two number one overall picks are included in the same deal. In order to land Love, the Cavaliers had to surrender Bennett in addition to Wiggins. Bennett had a disappointing rookie season with the Cavs. He was recovering from shoulder surgery at the start of the season, and struggled with conditioning issues throughout the season as well. This offseason, Bennett lost a significant amount of weight, and underwent surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids to help improve his sleep apnea. The improvement from his rookie season was apparent in the NBA Summer League held in Las Vegas, where Bennett looked noticeably lighter and more athletic. With improved conditioning, the hope is that Bennett will be able to rediscover his versatile offensive skill-set and prove that he was worth of being picked first overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.

Thaddeus Young – Timberwolves team president and head coach Flip Saunders isn’t interested in tanking this upcoming season, and therefore traded Alexey Shved, a first round draft pick and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Philadelphia 76ers for Young. Young may not be able to replace Kevin Love’s overall statistical production, but he is a solid addition. Last season, Young averaged 17.9 points, six rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Young is an underrated athlete who will be able to get out in transition with guys like Ricky Rubio, Wiggins, and rookie Zach LaVine. But as good as Young is, there are still some issues. First, he is by no means the three-point shooter that Love is. Last season he shot 30.8 percent from beyond the arc, and his highest season average was 34.8 percent in 2009-10. Also, like Love, Young is not a shot blocker and alongside center Nikola Pekovic, the Timberwolves’ starting lineup will again struggle to protect the rim this upcoming season. Lastly, Young can opt out of his contract after this season and if the Timberwolves want to keep him moving forward, they will probably have to overpay him next offseason. Still, if Minnesota’s number one priority is making the playoffs next season, landing Young is a big-time addition.

Zach LaVine – LaVine entered the NBA draft after one season at UCLA. LaVine was inconsistent in his freshman season, but has serious potential moving forward. The Timberwolves took notice of this and selected LaVine 13th overall in this year’s NBA draft. The most notable thing about LaVine is his elite athleticism. At the NBA Combine, LaVine registered a 41.5-inch vertical leap, and later hit 46 inches during a private workout. But LaVine is more than just an elite athlete. He has a solid jump-shot, is a good ball-handler and a willing passer. Though he is listed as a shooting guard, the Timberwolves are experimenting with him at point guard as well, a move, which if successful, could make LaVine an even more impactful player than he already projects to be. At age 19, and with just one season of college experience, LaVine is unlikely to be a major contributor for the Timberwolves this upcoming season. But in a few seasons, LaVine very well could be considered one of the best players to come out of this year’s talented draft class. And with Rubio at point guard, and LaVine and Wiggins on the wing, there are sure to be plenty of highlight plays in Minnesota this upcoming season.

Mo Williams – While the Timberwolves are bringing in plenty of young prospects, they also added some veterans this offseason, including Williams to backup Rubio. Williams brings some much needed shooting to the Timberwolves, along with a player who is not afraid to take big shots in big moments. Last season, the Timberwolves struggled in late game situations. Williams has made game-winning shots for several teams, and should be on the floor for the Timberwolves when the game is on the line. He may not make every clutch shot he takes, but he has as good of a chance of making them as any other player currently on the roster.

Portland Trail Blazers:

Steve Blake – The Trail Blazers are bringing back a majority of their players from last season’s team. One of their offseason additions is Blake, who the Trailblazers signed to a two-year, $4.25 million deal. Like the Golden State Warriors last season, the Trail Blazers acquired Blake to stabilize the backup point guard position. At age 34, Blake is not the scorer he once was, but is still a good passer (5.6 assists in 27.2 minutes per game last season), and is still a good three-point shooter (37.6 percent last season). Blake likely won’t play many minutes at point guard considering that Damian Lillard averaged 35.8 minutes per game last season, but he is a nice option off the bench and can also play alongside Lillard.

Chris Kaman – In addition to signing Blake, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey signed Kaman to a two-year, $9.82 million contract this offseason ($5,800,000 guaranteed). Olshey is familiar with Kaman from their time together with the Los Angeles Clippers. Kaman, age 32, spent last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, and now comes to Portland to backup Robin Lopez. Overall this is a solid pickup for the Trail Blazers. It’s easy to forget that Kaman is a former All-Star, solid rebounder, good mid-range shooter and can finish with either hand around the basket. Last season, former Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni underutilized Kaman, playing him just 18.9 minutes per game in 39 games. But when Kaman did play, he put up solid numbers. Per 36 minutes, Kaman averaged 19.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and two blocks. Those numbers are somewhat misleading, but it shows that when given time, he can have a significant impact on the court. In landing Kaman, Olshey has again landed an underrated player who can make a positive contribution for the Trail Blazers.

Oklahoma City Thunder:

Anthony Morrow – The Thunder had a quiet offseason overall, but did acquire a sharpshooter in Morrow to shore up the shooting guard position. With Thabo Sefolosha being signed-and-traded to the Atlanta Hawks, the Thunder have to figure out who will start at shooting guard moving forward. Third year player Jeremy Lamb has the size and skill to be the starter, but is still very inexperienced and has yet to prove he is ready for that role. Backup point guard Reggie Jackson has made it clear that he thinks he should be in the starting lineup, and has been effective in that role in the past. But Morrow may be the best fit here considering he has six years of NBA experience and is a knock-down three point shooter (career average of 42.8 percent). Whether Morrow ends up as the full-time starter, or a weapon off the bench, his shooting is a significant addition for the Thunder.

Utah Jazz:

Dante Exum – With the fifth pick in this year’s Draft, the Jazz selected Exum from the Australian Institute of Sport. Exum, age 18, has the size and skill to be one of the best point guards in the league someday. But Exum has very little experience against top-level basketball players and will have a steep learning curve as he adjusts to the NBA’s level of talent. Earlier this offseason at the NBA Combine, Exum measured in at 6’6 in shoes, with a 6’9 ¼ wingspan. With this size, Exum can play both guard positions, which means that he will likely spend a lot of time playing alongside Utah’s incumbent starting point guard, Trey Burke. Like most rookies, it is not fair to expect Exum to make a big difference in terms of actually winning games this upcoming season, but for a rebuilding Jazz team, the more important question is who Exum will be long-term. If he ever reaches his potential, the answer could be one of the best overall point guards in the league.

Denver Nuggets:

Arron Afflalo – The Nuggets brought back Afflalo for his second stint with the team. Bringing back Afflalo is a great move for the Nuggets, who are looking to have a bounce back season after suffering more injuries than just about any other team in the league last season and missing the playoffs. To understand how significant of an addition Afflalo is, consider that Klay Thompson is believed by many fans and analysts to be one of the best, if not the best, two-way shooting guard in the league today, and yet Afflalo averaged slightly better statistics than him last season. Of course, Afflalo’s stats are slightly inflated as he was the go-to-guy in Orlando last season, whereas Thompson is the second option for the Golden State Warriors behind Stephen Curry. While Afflalo may not be the go-to-guy for the Nuggets, he brings spacing, playmaking and defense to Denver’s already deep roster.

Make sure to check back as the series continues throughout the next two weeks with a look at the Pacific, Atlantic and Southwest Divisions!

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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