Who Would the Wolves Have Taken First Overall?
Play along for ten minutes (or however long it takes you to read the next 1500 or so words): imagine that the Kevin Love trade happened prior to the NBA Draft instead of afterward. Pretend the Wolves acquired the first overall pick rather than the draft rights to the first overall pick who was already chosen, Andrew Wiggins. Pretend Flip Saunders, Milt Newton, Glen Taylor and the rest of the Timberwolves’ brain trust are in the war room when Adam Silver heads to the podium to announce that Minnesota is on the clock, the entire class of 2014 at their disposal. Whose name do they call?
It’d be pointless to ask Flip Saunders about it now, because he’d say that Andrew Wiggins would’ve been the pick all along, and while that might be true, it’s fair to wonder what he would’ve done if all the options were on the table. Cleveland presumably made the choice to take Wiggins without knowledge of LeBron’s plans to return home. But let’s say they knew the King was coming back to the Cavaliers, and let’s say it was public knowledge, and let’s say the Wolves and Cavs had hammered out their trade on June 23rd instead of August 23rd. Would Andrew Wiggins still be the first overall pick?
In descending order, my best guesses as who the Wolves might have selected…
Aaron Gordon, Doug McDermott, Joel Embiid
Before you dismiss this entire exercise because I’ve dared to mention these three names as remote possibilities for the top pick, keep in mind that due to the timing of the trade, all Timberwolves bloggers were deprived of the hand-wringing and pointless, noisy infighting that goes along with having the first overall pick. This hypothetical post is a way for me to get all of that retroactive uncertainty and angst out of my system. Plus, it’s really easy to like each of the four players mentioned above; I believe all of them will have successful NBA careers.
But none of the three would be right for the Wolves with their make-believe top pick, for various reasons.
Gordon: Would instantly shore up many defensive issues the Wolves face, mostly thanks to his size, athleticism, solid fundamentals, unselfishness and terrific footwork on that end of the floor. He plays the same position as the outgoing Love and could spend a year tutoring behind Thaddeus Young. The problem? Flip Saunders’ mantra of finding “two-way players” doesn’t fit the bill. There’s a lot to like about Gordon’s offensive game – such as passing, cutting and crashing the glass – but his jumper is lacking and he’s an abysmal free throw shooter.
McDermott: Scoop Jackson believed passing on McDermott with the first pick would be a mistake, but it’s one the Wolves (and, it turned out, ten other teams) would’ve been willing to make. Take everything about Gordon and reverse it. McDermott has pretty, pretty shot charts and pro-level catch and shoot skills, but lacks athleticism and doesn’t defend. And while he might remind some of Wally Sczerbiak, a former All-Star under Saunders, it’s doubtful Flip would spend the top pick on a prospect with somewhat limited upside.
Embiid: Unfortunately, in this fictional world I’ve created, Joel Embiid would still have an injured foot that would cause him to miss between 5 and 8 months, likely costing him the 2014-15 NBA season. Prior to the news about his foot, he was the frontrunner for the top overall pick, but even if he were healthy, would the Timberwolves really have selected him with $48 million committed to Nikola Pekovic through 2017-18 and an up-and-coming young(ish) big man in Gorgui Dieng? It’s unlikely.
4. Julius Randle
A confession: this is probably a bit of a stretch. But it would make some sense for the Timberwolves to at least consider the idea of drafting a guy who plays the same position as the guy they’re shipping out, and Randle’s the purest power forward prospect in the entire draft. At 6’9 and 250 pounds, he’s got the prototypical size, strength and rebounding acumen teams look for at the four position. Randle averaged 15 points and 10 boards during his lone season at Kentucky, showing off a complex set of post moves and even some ballhandling and agility to boot. He’s somewhat floor bound, but his strength and hustle on the boards enable him to be a so-so defender even though he fails to provide rim protection (sound familiar?).
Why he wouldn’t work – his jump shot is not very good. Flip Saunders’ offenses have traditionally relied heavily on converting midrange looks, so that would be an issue. Stretching the floor – a growing necessity given the shift in league-wide offensive focus – would be problematic when Randle would be paired with Gorgui Dieng or Nikola Pekovic. Plus, drafting solely based on position need is generally not wise, especially when you bypass higher upside players to do so. Speaking of which…
3. Jabari Parker
Coverage of Parker began when he was in seventh grade, and his college recruitment was both lavish and intense. He eventually settled on Duke, where he entered his freshman season as one of the NCAA’s new mega-stars, a certain one-and-done player destined to dominate at his stepping stone school on his way to the NBA Draft. It didn’t go quite that smoothly. While the 6’8, 240 pound small forward / power forward averaged 19 points and 9 boards on 47/36/75 shooting splits (all respectable numbers), questions emerged about his defensive prowess, conditioning, athleticism and whether or not he was a “tweener.”
The tweener label might scare a sizable contingent of Wolves fans away, shuddering at memories of Derrick Williams, but Parker sports greater pedigree and much more reliable upside. He’s got great shooting range and handle for his size, and has a pro-ready offensive game. He’ll certainly succeed in the NBA. But would he be the right fit in Minnesota? Again, Flip’s mantra this offseason has centered around defense, and while Parker’s wingspan (7’0) seems to indicate the potential is there, the intensity, focus and foot speed didn’t show up enough during his season at Duke to warrant the top pick.
2. Dante Exum
Come on, I couldn’t write even a hypothetical Timberwolves draft column without throwing at least one curveball at you! It’s the Timberwolves! They do unexpected things sometimes! Selecting a relatively unknown commodity from Australia would be right up their alley, if you think about it.
All joking aside, I can’t shake the notion that Flip Saunders would’ve looked long and hard at taking Exum with the first overall pick. There are rumblings that Saunders isn’t sure Rubio is the right fit at point guard moving forward, despite all his good vibes, defensive effort and passing wizardry. Ricky’s lack of jump shooting and ability to finish at the rim hold Minnesota’s offense back, particularly late in shot clocks or late in games when the threat (or better yet, the reality) of the point guard putting the ball in the basket is vital.
Enter Dante Exum, a 6’6 combo guard whose size (6’6) and athleticism make him a threat to drive and finish, or drive and create for others. The son of former UNC basketball player and Australian Leaguer Cecil Exum, Dante’s high IQ and basketball savvy make him an intriguing point guard prospect, even if he is a bit rough around the edges. His jumper needs some work, and he needs to take better care of the basketball (less than 1-to-1 assist to turnover ratio during Summer League play) but due to his size, he could play with Rubio for a season while he adjusts to the point guard role.
A decision on Rubio’s future is coming in the next few weeks; it’ll be very interesting to see what kind of extension he gets from the Timberwolves, if he gets one at all. Minnesota may be left wishing they’d had the chance to select their point guard of the future during the Draft.
1. Andrew Wiggins
Not much of a surprise, I know, but given all the criteria mentioned throughout this post, as well as the often-repeated Saunders buzzwords of “athleticism”, “defense” and finding “two-way players”, it’s tough to envision the Timberwolves passing up the chance to draft Andrew Wiggins. The 6’8, 200 pound Toronto native averaged 17 points and 6 rebounds on 45/34/78% shooting splits during his lone season at the University of Kansas, where he was a 2nd-team All-American.
Possessing a 7’0 wing span and quick feet in addition to his size, Wiggins is able to guard multiple positions while containing penetration, jumping lanes on the perimeter, frustrating passers and blocking shots from the weak side. Offensively, he does most of his damage in transition. His jumper is a tad streaky, his ballhandling leaves something to be desired and he still needs to add muscle to his somewhat thin frame, but the potential for him to be an impactful two-way player is undeniable.
Even though the Wolves already have something of an awkward glut at the wing positions, due to the spending/acquisition sprees of the last two offseasons (detailed beautifully by Britt Robson here), taking the long view with Wiggins is important. Budinger, Martin, Brewer, LaVine, Muhammad and Wiggins must all split the shooting guard / small forward minutes, which will be tough in 2014-15. Picking Andrew Wiggins gives the Wolves both a solid player who can help immediately as well as a building block for the future of the franchise. In a few years, no one will remember the crowded wing situation when he arrived.
So while Minnesota didn’t technically get to select Wiggins, and those photos of him in a Cleveland hat will always be an odd reminder of the peculiar timing of this trade, he’s still, in my estimation, exactly what the organization was looking for. The fact that Flip Saunders managed to turn Kevin Love into Wiggins seemed like a hypothetical dream once upon a time, but it actually came true. Imagine that.
Wait… you don’t have to.