Two number one overall picks in 3 years. 4 young players that are oozing potential. This is a story of “A Wolves Tale”. The Minnesota Timberwolves won 29 games during the 2015-2016 season, finishing with the fifth worst record in the NBA. For the 12th straight season, they failed to make the playoffs, and finished with 35 wins for the 10th time in 11 years.
And yet, having said all of that: forget everything you think you’ve come to know about them for the past decade, because the Timberwolves could very well be the most exciting team in the NBA during the 2016-2017 season, and find themselves playing in the postseason for the first time since 2004.
Most prognosticators believe that, with the nucleus of young talent they’ve assembled, coupled with the hiring of Tom Thibodeau as the team’s new head coach and president of basketball operations, Minnesota should win at least 10 more games this year than they did last year. The Las Vegas sports-books are on the more bullish side, putting the over/under for the ‘Wolves win total next year at 41.5 wins. And still, there’s a growing number of people who believe all of those win-total projections might actually be on the low side, and Minnesota could finish the season with the fifth or sixth best record in the Western Conference come next spring.
Such optimism is grounded in the two individuals who can — and likely will — change the trajectory of this organization for the foreseeable future: Thibodeau, and second-year phenom Karl-Anthony Towns.
There’s a growing sense among the NBA intelligentsia that it’s just a matter of time before we’re talking about Karl-Anthony Towns as one of the top 10 or 15 players in the NBA. If you polled the 29 other General Managers in the NBA about the one player they would choose in a hypothetical exercise of building a team for the next decade, many of them would likely choose Towns over any other 25-and-under stars, including Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, or Kristaps Porzingis. That’s how much people respect the multitude of talents and athletic skills he possesses, along with the fact that all of that is wrapped up in a legitimate seven-foot and 250lb frame.
Towns isn’t even old enough to legally purchase an adult beverage, and he’s already demonstrated the most complete offensive skill-set for a ‘big man’ in the NBA. As a post player, he walked into the league being able to hit the baby hook shot over either shoulder, and use a drop step counter-move, or even hit the fall-away jumper, when defenses started keying on the hook. With his soft touch around the rim, ability to finish with either hand, and uncanny footwork for someone his size, there is virtually no limit to what he can add to his arsenal of moves on the low block. When teams try to double him down low, Towns has the vision to find open shooters and deliver accurate passes to his teammates.
Add in the fact that there are very, very few players in the league who are more difficult to defend in both the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop games than Towns. As the “roll man,” Towns’ footwork and impeccable body control allows him to glide through the lane with the glide and grace of a shooting guard. As the “pop man,” he shot over 50% on two-point field goals from beyond 16 feet, ranking second in the league in that stat (among players with at least 100 attempts). If he works on extending his shooting range just a bit further — he only shot 34.1% from 3-point range last year — opposing teams are going to have a miserable time figuring out how to contain Towns on the offensive end.
Towns is undoubtedly the “Superman” of this group, but the harrowing fact for other teams in the West is the “Justice League” of freakishly talented teammates he’s surrounded by. A collection of Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Kris Dunn is something that pro-tanking NBA personnel guys could only dream — or have nightmares — about; that’s not even mentioning Zach Lavine, the young, little-bit-of-everything guard that might be one of the most athletically gifted players in the entire league.
With all the (well-deserved) gushing over Towns, people tend to forget that Wiggins was once the “can’t-miss” prospect that NBA lottery teams dreamed of getting their hands on. Blessed with his own blend of borderline unfair athleticism and length, Wiggins already cracked into the top 20 scorers in the NBA last season, becoming the youngest player to ever do so. His ability to post up smaller guards who try to guard him, and drive into the lane past bigger players, has made him a potent weapon on offense. His defense and rebounding remain a work in progress, but there’s a ridiculous amount of talent for the ‘Wolves new maestro to work with.
Once Minnesota realized Zach Lavine wasn’t a point guard, and placed him in the lineup at the off guard position, everything came together for him. He averaged 16.4 points once the move was made, unleashing a spot-up shooting game that was once buried behind his ball distribution responsibilities. As incredible as it might sound, Lavine might be the most athletically gifted player of all the young Timberwolves, and at only 21 years old, he still has an immense upside — especially in terms of his three-point shooting and defense — that has yet to be realized.
As if the basketball gods hadn’t given the Wolves enough young pieces to work with, they saw point guard Kris Dunn from Providence University fall to their selection at #5 in the 2016 NBA Draft. At 22 years old, Dunn is actually going to be somewhat of a senior statesman to this group of precocious basketball prodigies. But like all his counterparts, he’s got all the physical tools and basketball skills needed to excel as an NBA player. He’s an unselfish playmaker with a dangerous slash-and-kick game, equally capable of finishing around the hoop as he is dishing it to an outside shooter.
And finally, you get Thibodeau as the “master chef” who gets to create amazing results out of this intriguing blend of “ingredients” that he’s both been given, and/or went out and got. There’s almost no question that Thibodeau is one of the top five or six head coaches in the league, and he’s undoubtedly used his year-long sabbatical last year to reflect on his ups-and-downs in Chicago, and enhance his own coaching arsenal with the knowledge and insights he gained viewing the rest of the league from afar.
With the upgraded bench of serviceable veteran free agent acquisitions like Cole Aldrich, Jordan Hill, and Brandon Rush, all of whom can serve a purpose as both role players behind the young guys on the court, and mentors of sorts for the young guys off the courts, Thibodeau might very well be leading one of the most interesting teams in the NBA this upcoming season. We will have to wait and see how the story of “A Wolves Tale” ends.
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