By: Alex Berg
If any of you readers are anything like me, I imagine most of you will be parked in front of a television for most of the next few days watching the NCAA tournament. Since us Minnesota Timberwolves fans have little to look forward to this time of year, it is sometimes hard not to look for potential future-Wolves in the “big dance.”
Since I am sure some of you will have your bracket busted early, I will try to give you a reason to keep watching the tournament to keep an eye on some players that may be a fit to play in Minnesota next season.
California - The Golden Bears get listed as a team because there is just so much NBA talent on this roster. The freshman duo of Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown are both likely lottery picks, and senior point guard Tyrone Wallace will probably fall somewhere in the late-first or early-second round. Rabb and Brown are both incredibly talented, but still fairly raw, which does not put either at the top of my wishlist. Brown is an absolute freak athlete that would fit in nicely with all of the dunkers on the Wolves roster, but unfortunately so would his lack of an outside shot. Rabb started the year a little slow, but has matured quickly into a player that averaged 12.5 and 8.5 rebounds while shooting over 62 percent from the floor. GIven the choice between the two, I would prefer Rabb over Brown, but I’m still not sure how soon Rabb would be able to step in and help the team. Wallace is a good floor general for this young and talented team, but lacks shooting ability from distance and the free-throw line. I would not be overly upset if the Wolves took a flier on him in the second round, but he is not high on my list.
Wichita State - This is purely a second round speculation, but the Shockers backcourt of seniors Ron Baker and Fred Van Fleet intrigues me. Neither players are particularly flashy and are not even guarantees to be drafted, but I think they are worth a look. Both are average-to-above average outside shooters and their experience in college might give them a chance to make a NBA roster as a deep-depth player as a rookie.
Buddy Hield - This Oklahoma senior guard is probably either my favorite or second favorite prospect for the Wolves. He would almost certainly step in and instantly be the team’s best shooter, as he is shooting 46.4 percent from distance and has shown no problem stepping back to NBA range. He’s scoring 25.0 points per game and is nearly automatic from the free-throw line. The only “knock” I’ve heard on him is that he is a senior. Which baffles me. Look around the NBA and look at the best guards in the NBA and see how long they played in college. Damian Lillard, four years at Weber State. Klay Thompson, three years at Washington State. Stephen Curry, three years at Davidson. Isaiah Thomas, three years at Washington. CJ McCollum, four years at Lehigh. I can keep going, but I hope you get the point. Experience matters. Plus, his name is Buddy, how can you be against that?
Brandon Ingram - The Duke freshman sensation is one of my favorite prospects in the draft, but if the Wolves do not get extremely lucky in the lottery, they will not get the chance to pick him as he will probably be gone within the first two picks. His tall and slender frame combined with his ability to score both inside and outside has drawn comparisons to Kevin Durant. Personally, I think it may be a tad lofty, but Ingram should be a very good pro nonetheless.
Brice Johnson - This senior forward is a double-double machine for North Carolina. On the season, he is shooting over 61 percent and is averaging 16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. The only concern for me is how he fits in the NBA against bigger players. At 6’9”, 228 pounds and no outside shot, he may have a little trouble finding a position early in his career. I imagine he will put on more weight and/or improve his range a little, but the Wolves will likely be picking a little too high for me to feel great about picking him in the first round.
Kris Dunn - Honestly, I am only including him because if I didn’t I know someone would say “how could you forget Kris Dunn?!” Well, I would not be forgetting him, I am just not very interested in the Providence guard. I don’t mind him as a player, I just do not think he is a good fit for the Wolves. Drafting Dunn would almost assuredly mean moving Ricky Rubio, which I think is a bad idea. Rookie point guards -- even the ones with three years of college experience -- rarely step in and can run an NBA team. Realistically it may take two full seasons of Dunn at the point for the Wolves to be a playoff-caliber team in his third season. The rebuilding has to be accelerated at some point. Plus, let’s look at what Kris Dunn is good at. Sure he can score against the Big East, but shooting is not his strong point. At just 34.0 percent from long range and a disappointing 68.9 percent from the charity stripe, Dunn leaves a lot to be desired as a shooter. He is an above-average passer, a plus-rebounder for his position and averages 2.5 steals per contest. Sound familiar? Call me crazy, but I will keep Rubio and get help elsewhere rather than further delaying the team’s hopes of being a playoff team.
Kentucky - Freshman guard Jamal Murray is one of my favorite players in the entire draft. He’s from Kentucky and is a Canadian, so he may have some sort of relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. More importantly, he can really shoot. He is shooting 42.1 percent from behind the arc and is another player who seems to have the ability to step back to the NBA line immediately. The only concern here is drafting him might create a logjam at the off-ball guard spot with Zach LaVine’s play demanding a big role next season. I would still list him as a top-3 or 4 guy for the Wolves.
If you look at freshman Skal Labissiere’s numbers, you probably would pass pretty quick. But he has emerged for the Wildcats as of late, including a game against LSU with 18 points, nine boards and six blocks. Originally near the top of draft boards and now back in the lottery conversation after falling out of it, Labissiere is an intriguing prospect but I would need to see a lot from him in the tournament to feel good about selecting him in the 5-7 range.
Sophomore guard Tyler Ulis is a name I have heard a lot recently. I would not object to using a second round pick on him, but selecting him would essentially be taking a mulligan on last year’s Tyus Jones pick. I’m not ready to do that quite yet and I really do not think the Wolves are interested in doing that.
Jakob Poeltl - The Utah senior big-man is someone I’ve basically ignored until fairly recently. The possibility of selecting Poeltl all depends on if the team views Towns as a center or a forward-center combo player. Drafting Poeltl would help fill the void that Nikola Pekovic will probably never be able to reclaim. Adding a big presence like Poeltl (a 65.6 percent shooter!) would give the Wolves a very versatile trio with Towns and Gorgui Dieng. If the Wolves can add a shooter through either free agency or a trade, Poeltl might be one of my favorite targets in the draft.
Denzel Valentine - Speaking of my favorite targets of the draft, this senior from Michigan State is probably neck-and-neck with Hield for me. Again he will have the senior bias against him, but I already explained why I think that is foolish. I’ve been referring to Valentine as “Baby Draymond” for over a year now and it is not just the school that they have in common. Valentine is listed at 6’6” and is more than capable of handling the ball as he serves as the point guard for Tom Izzo’s Spartans. While he does leave a little to be desired on the defensive end, his versatility on the offensive end cannot be matched. He is averaging 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game while shooting 44.7 percent (!) from distance and 85.3 percent at the free-throw line. While he does not quite have Rubio’s passing ability, his vision and passing IQ is better than anyone else in this draft class. Much like Draymond - a SECOND ROUND pick in 2012 -- this guy just has a sense of how to play the game of basketball. That often goes overlooked by NBA scouts who prefer to evaluate players in an empty gym. Valentine’s ability to handle the ball, make the players around him better, and keep things afloat would be more than welcomed on Minnesota’s second unit. It seems like most “experts” have him slotted as a mid-late first round selection. If Michigan State makes the championship run I expect them to make, maybe Valentine’s stock will raise. Regardless, I would absolutely consider him wherever the Wolves are picking in the first round.
Something I probably should have led with is that this is widely viewed as a fairly weak draft class. Which has led me to be an advocate of at least entertaining the idea of trading the pick for an established player that can help the team win next season. Nonetheless, the Wolves will likely be picking high enough where they can get a player that can step in and help the team immediately to some extent while being a valuable asset for the future.
Enjoy the tournament, everybody!