Who Would the Wolves Have Taken First Overall?

William Bohl —  September 3, 2014 — 8 Comments

Wiggins Parker Embiid

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…

Honorable Mentions

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.

GordonWould 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.

The Contenders

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.

Wiggins State Fair

William Bohl

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8 responses to Who Would the Wolves Have Taken First Overall?

  1. Another question might be … If the Wolves knew they were getting Andrew Wiggins, would have they still picked Zach LaVine with the 13th pick?

  2. I’ve thought of the exact same question in the recent past and after some back-and-forth type of thought, I’m glad some other team decided it for us. I hate to sound like a rube here but the Timberwolves’ draft has never been considered great or even good. It always seemed like a lucky shot in the dark over an educated pick when we grabbed Garnett (and actually kept him) or traded for Love on draft night. I know Flip is “a new regime” in the GM area but still, it’s hard to shake all the bad decisions the front office has made up to this point. I really like what Flip has shown so far so who’s to say he wouldn’t have made the “correct pick”? There’s a thought that kept circling in my head on my decision. I remember an interview on FOX (right when Garnett was blowing up) with Flip and McHale where they, on camera, laughed while they said “we didn’t have an idea who we we’re going to pick with number 5 but we decided to pick Garnett because he was a safe pick being out of high school. It was our first draft so we could just chalk it up to being new at this”. Of course this isn’t verbatim, so I’m paraphrasing a bit but that was definitely the message they sent. Based on that alone I wasn’t sure about the whole Flip/GM thing but he’s surprised me so far and I give him kudos for sure on how he has handled his role in this team’s future.

  3. I think it would’ve had to have been Wiggins on top for the reasons you suggest. I’d still guess Parker would’ve been 2, but Exum wouldn’t have surprised me at all if they’d been picking #2, and I think would’ve made more sense. Question to me is, if they had had the choice of LaVine and Mcdermott at 13, who they would’ve taken. I think LaVine would’ve been the right choice and fit with what Saunders has repeatedly said he’s wanted, but I have no insight into his private psychology.

  4. Yeah, if we know that the roster was going to work the way it did with hindsight in getting Thaddeus Young too, the Wiggins becomes the best fit. Also, Zach Harper provided some food for thought on his podcast about it being the first time the Wolves have a true two-way hyper-athletic wing, which is kind of “subtly obvious” but they’re pretty rare commodities when you look at the landscape of the league.

    @Uglyfunk, Actually, I remember reading an ESPN article naming the Wolves as the worst drafting team in the last 10 years. It went from bad with McHale to worst with Kahn, who was named the worst drafting GM. A lot of it was due to bad timing and circumstance, injury, positional overlap, drafting for need and a lack of innovation from the status quo. Like Rashad McCants was drafted a consolation prize because certain bigs that they had their sights on were drafted ahead like Charlie Villanueva or Andrew Bynum in a draft with not that much depth at center and they past over the best player available in Granger because they were locked into Szczerbiak’s bad max contract at the time. Randy Foye was drafted because they thought they could convert him into a point guard since combo guards were in vogue due to the success of Dwayne Wade and Gilbert Arenas. They both suffered knee injury early in their careers, McCants (microfracture) and Foye (stress fracture). Brewer was drafted in an uncertain transitional period before Garnett was traded. If they knew they were getting Jefferson, they’d probably have drafted Noah instead. Love was really the only innovative gamble that McHale did, other than Garnett, since he traded a highly touted and the consensus third-pick in O.J. Mayo for Love and Mike Miller, even though it’s sort of a weird pairing with Al Jefferson defensively. The worst pick was the Jonny Flynn because it was really inexcusable with taking him after Rubio and on top of that he suffered a hip injury and hasn’t played in the NBA since. Wes Johnson pick wasn’t too bad, it was unfortunate that it didn’t workout but I always stand by not taking DeMarcus Cousins and with Paul George, hindsight is 20/20. Derrick Williams was the consensus pick but positional overlapped killed him on the Timberwolves. That pretty much sums up their high draft picks in the last decade but for the first time in a while, everything seems to fit and the guy we’re building around is a rare blue-chip talent that a third of league tanked for.

  5. Agree that Flip would have landed on Wiggins, but I think it might be too revisionist to calculate Flips’ hypothetical decision on the basis that he wanted two-way players. I know that Flip has commented on this topic recently, but was that his attitude before the trade went down? If I remember right, it was Adelman complaining about the lack of two-way players on the team during the season, not Flip. It was also Flip who gave significant money and years to one-way players Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer (although it’s likely that Flip preferred JJ Reddick to Martin, and maybe even Kirilenko to Brewer, even at $10 mil.).

    Flip also insisted in the months leading up to the trade that he wanted more than just prospects and assets in exchange for Love; he wanted players that could contribute to a winning team right away. With that in mind, wouldn’t Jabari Parker – who was seen as one of the most NBA ready players in the draft – be a better fit than Wiggins? While Jabari is far from a finished product, he already has an impressive arsenal of offensive skills at his disposal, which could definitely be used in the absence of Love’s 26 ppg.

    Also, at the time of the draft, Jabari was also seen as a more “can’t miss” prospect than Wiggins. Given the Wolves’ sour history with high lottery picks in recent years (especially the “athletic freak” variety in Wesley Johnson and Derrick Williams), wouldn’t they want to hedge their bets on the side of a player who has the best chance not to be a bust?

    For me, and I think most people, putting Exum on this list ahead of Parker is preposterous. This always would’ve been a two horse race, even if Embiid was healthy (for the reasons you mentioned). Sure, Rubio may not be Flip’s guy, but how do you pass on two of the most highly-touted wings to come out of college since KD? The Wolves never have had an elite wing with the upside of a Wiggins or Parker. If Flip had really risked the #1 overall pick in a stacked draft on a player whom only a handful of NBA scouts had seen play in person pre-draft (outside of the Hoops Summit), fans would be flocking to 1st Ave with signs demanding Flip’s resignation, and rightfully so.

    If I had to put a percentage on it, I’d say it’s 60% Flip goes with Wiggins, and 40% he goes with Parker. For all of his great offensive attributes, Parker doesn’t run the floor like Wiggins, and this team should be able to make hay in transition this year. Also, if there’s a common thread with championship contending teams, it’s that their defense is almost always as good as their offense (only team to win the title in the past 25 years with a below average defensive rating was the ’01 Lakers, and they were the top defensive team come playoff time). Building your team around an excellent defender like Wiggins makes a ton of sense from that perspective, and hopefully he can make a similar impact on the other end, as well.

  6. Calling the Exum- over-Parker thing “preposterous” may be a liiiiiitle strong. It’s supposed to be more a fun hypothetical than a serious thought exercise, and I thought the first paragraph of Exum’s section showed that.

    But to defend the ranking, if I may: it’s fair to speculate (especially since we’ll never know what Flip and the rest of the brain trust really thought of the top crop of prospects) that Flip, a former point guard whose offenses have historically relied heavily on PGs who can score, might be enamored with the top point guard prospect in the Draft. Secondly, his “players who can win now” mantra is hardly Gospel. He took Zach LaVine, a player whose appeal almost exclusively upside, over more pro-ready guys like Gary Harris and Adreian Payne.

    At any rate, thanks to all three of you (Sean, Wonzi and Uglyfunk) for taking the time to respond the way you did. Even if you disagree with my rationale, it’s cool to see you engage with the topic, because I for one find it fascinating. So, thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate it.

  7. Thanks, Bill. Solid point on LaVine not being the most NBA ready, but Flip did kind of back up those leaked statements that he wanted players who could “win now” when he sent that pick over for Thad. Either way, I appreciate the article and you entertaining a hypothetical for a bit of fun, and sorry for getting all “preposterous” on your ass. Interestingly enough, pre-draft, maybe back in early June, @steveturous had tweeted something along the lines of that the best scenerio for the Wolves would be to trade with Cleveland for the #1 pick. Even back then, most people, including Steve, supported taking Wiggins with the pick. For all that to fall into place, and get Bennett and Thad in the process, is beyond surreal.

  8. Nice article.

    You could parlay this into, “What would we have done at 13 in this sceario?” too. As you point out, we have a glut of wingmen, and with Andrew Wiggins being an athletic, high-flying transitional talent, there’s no way we’d have taken the poor-man’s wiggins in Zach Lavine at 13.

    If Flip really doesn’t like Rubio like some have suggested, then I think they trade Rubio and #13 to move up and grab Exum or Marcus Smart. Afterall, we had Mo Williams by then if my memory serves, so a rookie PG could have learned from him for a year or so before fully taking over the 1.

    If Flip does like Rubio, then I think we’d have drafted either a 2 with a nice stroke like James Young or Gary Harris, or a stretch 4 like Adreian Payne to replace Love’s game. Could have gone backup PG too to hedge the bet on Rubio a little (Tyler Ennis, Shabazz Napier). That would have given us a monopoly on people named Shabazz at least.

    But even though LaVine contributes to the glut of wings, I love the notion that if he can develop into a playmaking PG, he and Wiggins could be one hell of a duo in a few years. Obviously LaVine is a boom or bust type of pick, but maybe he and Wiggins push each other a little.

    I can’t recall a time at which the future was brighter for the Wolves than it is right now.

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