June 15, 2005
Who Should the Timberwolves Draft? (Guest Column)
With the 2005 NBA draft quickly approaching on June 28, I asked David Crockett to pen a guest column about the Timberwolves' options. In addition to having a cool name, David is a frequent contributor at my favorite basketball blog, KnickerBlogger.net, and knows a whole hell of a lot more about most of these draft-eligible players than I do.
By David Crockett
Before I dive into players, let me say a few words about this outsider's perception of the Timberwolves. When thinking about Minnesota's recent history I am struck by how the Wolves seem like the good kid who gets caught the one time he hangs out with the wrong crowd; and what's worse he gets the book thrown at him. Thinking about this franchise's "what ifs" must be maddening for its fans.
What if Stephon Marbury hadn't forced a trade, but instead matured on a team with a better player, and more importantly a personality he couldn't dominate? What if the team's silly and illegal courtship of Joe Smith had been more reasonably punished rather than made into an example to end all examples? Of course "wouldahs, couldahs, and shouldahs" rarely elicit much sympathy in sports.
Still, it's interesting to contemplate the "ifs" from time to time. All ifs aside, the big question facing the Wolves is where do they go from here? In order to answer the question it might be wise to take a quick look at where "here" is exactly.
The 2004-2005 Season:
The Wolves finished on the outside of the playoffs looking in, despite a late-season push to get back into the race. Perhaps even more damning than the final standings, however, is the fact that the team ended the season in such disarray. After being the darlings of the 2003-2004 playoffs the team and the franchise took a big step backward this year, and in the process lost a lot of luster in an awful hurry. (I will spare you any rehashing of the season-long saga of untimely injuries, a fired coach, rampant selfishness, and one player's struggle to feed his family.)
Kevin McHale is now trying to dig out of the hole he largely dug for himself. He's staring at a future that does not appear nearly as bright as it did a year ago. McHale is managing a coaching search that hasn't generated nearly the interest one might hope, armed with only a franchise player, a late lottery pick (#14), and a late second-round pick (#47) capable of bringing immediate help. Though it seems cliche to suggest that this is a pivotal off-season in the franchise's short history, a look at Minnesota's contract situation confirms that cliches become cliches primarily because they're frequently true.
Since the Wolves have commitments to only eight players for the upcoming season, along with Sam Cassell's and Michael Olowokandi's tradable deals entering their respective final seasons, McHale & Co. at least have the luxury of being able to enter the draft truly thinking "best player available." The front office can also entertain potential trades involving the picks. As I look at what is currently on the roster, outside of Kevin Garnett the Wolves need to get a lot more athletic.
What Can You Find at #14?
The early indications are that this is a reasonably deep draft, though one without a bona fide "can't miss" talent. The NBA is filled with more irrational exuberance at this time of the year than Wall Street has ever been, yet there are no bust-proof players in this draft.
Everyone loves Marvin Williams, but they also concede that he is pure projection at this point. We know the athleticism is there, but no one is completely certain of where he will ultimately play or his basketball IQ. Andrew Bogut is extraordinarily skilled, but he's not Tim Duncan skilled. Chris Paul could be the most complete offensive player in this draft, but his blow-by speed may be somewhat off-set by his diminutive size. He also doesn't play on the defensive end.
Nonetheless, even recognizing that each player should come with "buyer beware" tattooed on his arm, talented players will be available throughout the draft. So a team with the right expectations along with quality evaluations should be able to walk away from this draft with a player it can use. Looking at the 14th overall pick over the past six drafts suggests that the odds of finding a player who can contribute aren't necessarily bad:
YEAR PLAYER SCHOOL DRAFTED BY STATUS
1999 William Avery Duke Minnesota Out of League
2000 Mateen Cleaves Mich. St. Detroit Non-Contributor
2001 Troy Murphy Notre Dame Golden State Starter
2002 Fred Jones Oregon Indiana Part-Time Starter
2003 Luke Ridnour Oregon Seattle Starter
2004 Kris Humphries Minnesota Utah Non-Contributor
Though none of the six players taken 14th qualifies as a star, three are starters or regulars in their respective team's rotations, and the jury is still out on former Minnesota Golden Gopher Kris Humphries, the 2004 draftee.
What Do the Timberwolves Need?
I would list Minnesota's priorities, in order, as: 1) point guard, 2) swingman, 3) center.
You see, this profession is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherf***ers. Motherf***ers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don't.
Up until this year, Sam Cassell almost had me convinced that he might be the exception to Marsellus Wallace's dictum. But although Cassell has aged reasonably well, he has indeed begun to sour. He played well offensively when healthy last year, but played his lowest game total (59) since 2000. Sam-I-Am's offensive production was good (PER of 18.6 on 48.4% efg), but was basically offset by his abhorrent defense. According to 82games.com Cassell "held" opposing point guards to a PER of 17.9 on 47.9% efg, with 26% of their shots coming from close.
With Cassell missing so much action, much of the burden for running the offense fell to Troy Hudson. This season was, to put it kindly, a struggle for Hudson. Always a scoring point guard, he apparently never found his rhythm. His PER of 12.1 on 46.8% efg simply confirms what must have been painfully obvious to every Wolves fan; Hudson couldn't throw it in the ocean this year. However, he was an even graver disappointment on defense. Opposing points shot 47.9% efg and compiled a PER of 18.4.
Though both Cassell and Hudson are due to return for the upcoming season, it would be unwise to expect much better defense from Cassell or a gigantic bounce-back in offensive production from Hudson. The Wolves could certainly use a young point guard to groom, particularly one who is a defender and playmaker. So let's take a look at the college candidates, ignoring in this entry high schoolers and international players for whom I do not have access to stats or game recordings.
Player, School: Chris Paul, Wake Forest
Availability: Top 5
Comment: A primo offensive player, but not much on defense. McHale would have to trade up to get him.
Player, School: Deron Williams, Illinois
Availability: Top 6
Comment: My favorite point guard in this draft; strength, handle, and IQ can contribute on any team. He's reportedly now down to 200 lbs.
Player, School: Raymond Felton, North Carolina
Availability: Top 12
Comment: No college player is better than Felton at pushing the ball at the defense. He's a comparable, but better prospect than T.J. Ford was because of his strength and improving shot.
Player, School: Jarrett Jack, Georgia Tech
Availability: 13 to 27
Comment: I love Jack's all-around game, particularly his on ball defense and athleticism.
Player, School: Nate Robinson, Washington
Availability: 31 to 38
Comment: Exceptional on-ball defender and may be the best pound-for-pound athlete in the draft.
Player, School: Luther Head, Illinois
Availability: 31 to 40
Comment: I have little doubt Head will make a roster and contribute his rookie season.
Player, School: John Gilchrist, Maryland
Availability: 35 to free agent
Comment: He has everything you could ask for from a physical standpoint, but comes with limited maturity and low basketball IQ.
Player, School: Aaron Miles, Kansas
Availability: 35 to free agent
Comment: Miles has all the intangibles, but lacks size and anything resembling a jump shot.
I see Williams as a perfect fit for the Wolves. He's an excellent passer and defender. Even without eye-popping speed he can play at any tempo because he understands when to get rid of the ball, and to whom. He would provide the Wolves a player who could come in and set up KG rather than simply live off his playmaking. Of course, this would mean the Wolves would need to explore trades to move up.
Jack may be a possibility at 14, though the Wolves might be able to trade down and still nab him. Jack's calling card is his defense and penetration. Should the Wolves wait to address point guard until the second round, Gilchrist has as much natural ability as any player at the position. He's also had a series of well-publicized disagreements with Maryland coach Gary Williams, who appears to have all but begged Gilchrist to go the pros.
The situation for Minnesota's swing players was a real mixed bag. Latrell Sprewell, who played over a quarter of the team's minutes at either off-ball guard or small forward, is not aging like wine. His age-34 season has left the taste of vinegar (sans collard greens) in the mouths of many in the Twin Cities.
First, his efg (45%) and overall PER (12.1) were Hudson bad. Second, though still a good defender, his reputation as a shut-down defender seems a thing of the past now. Opposing shooting guards and small forwards shot 48.2% and 48.7% efg respectively against him (PERs: 15.8 and 16.7), both far above what he could produce offensively. Finally, he destroyed virtually all the good will he'd built up from the previous season with the fans.
Wally Szczerbiak, on the other hand, played well offensively. He certainly shot the ball well (54% efg and 17.1 PER), which is good since he offers so little as a rebounder. Perhaps more importantly he managed to see 80 games and more than half the team's minutes at small forward. He also did a surprisingly decent job on the defensive end, holding opposing small forwards to a below average PER of 13.2.
With Sprewell very unlikely to re-sign, should the Wolves look to address this position via the draft I suspect they will narrow their focus to true wing players rather than "tweeners" that play both forward positions.
Player, School: Marvin Williams, North Carolina
Availability: Top 4
Comment: We know the athleticism is there. What we don't know is how much game he actually has.
Player, School: Danny Granger, New Mexico
Availability: 10 to 20
Comment: I think he's the best "true" small forward available. He's a do-it-all type; think of Josh Howard with a more efficient offensive game.
Player, School: Antoine Wright, Texas A&M
Availability: 10 to 18
Comment: He's a willing defender and a potentially dynamite scorer. He has an NBA-ready body.
Player, School: Kennedy Winston, Alabama
Availability: 20 to 35
Comment: Winston has a great body and a great stroke, but can be lazy defensively and is turnover prone.
Player, School: Francisco Garcia, Louisville
Availability: 20 to 35
Comment: Very skilled and has a high basketball IQ. He'll need to find a team able to live with his athletic deficiencies.
Player, School: Tiras Wade, LA-Lafayette
Availability: 35 to 45
Comment: Big-time scorer with nice size from a small conference (Sunbelt).
Player, School: Salim Stoudamire, Arizona
Availability: 31 to 45
Comment: A shooting specialist whose defense will allow him to stay on the floor. Also, he can run the point for a few minutes a night.
Of the players listed I think Granger (note his consistent rebounding and rising points per shot attempt) is the best overall fit in this draft for Minnesota when you consider which players will likely be available at #14. With several teams targeting Williams it seems unlikely that Minnesota could come up with a package enticing enough to move into the second overall spot. At 6'8" and 225 lbs Granger already has NBA athleticism and size. He can play either wing position. He's a good defender, excellent rebounder, and he can handle the ball.
Nearing the end of the Olowokandi experiment, the Wolves may wish to identify a young center to begin to groom. Certainly, the team hopes that Ndudi Ebi continues to progress at power forward, but he seems a long way away from contributing. Given the length of this article I won't detail how little production the team got from whoever played alongside Garnett at center this season once Mark Madsen was injured. I'll just introduce the candidates.
Player, School: Andrew Bogut, Utah
Availability: Top 5
Comment: He is a good -- not great -- athlete who can control a game with his skill and passing.
Player, School: Chris Taft, Pittsburgh
Availability: 8 to 15
Comment: The size and willingness to use it are all what you're looking for in a big PF/C, yet Taft has never dominated. People keep waiting for the light to come on. He could slide based on interviews.
Player, School: Channing Frye, Arizona
Availability: 8 to 15
Comment: Disclaimer: I'm an Arizona grad. Frye doesn't have superstar potential, but he also doesn't have a lot of holes in his game. He's a more athletic version of Michael Doleac, a version that blocks shots.
Player, School: Charlie Villanueva, Connecticut
Availability: 8 to 20
Comment: There is much to like about Villanueva. He runs the floor well. He shoots a high percentage. He rebounds and blocks shots. He is 6'11". Can he play center at all?
Player, School: Randolph Morris, Kentucky
Availability: 15 to 28
Comment: I know the league is starved for big players but if this kid doesn't go back to Kentucky something is dreadfully wrong with the NBA. He struggled to stay on the floor at Kentucky when he was basically the only center in the entire SEC.
Player, School: Jared Homan, Iowa State
Availability: 40 to free agent
Comment: If you're looking for a Madsen type who ONLY rebounds and blocks shots in the second round, he's your guy.
Of this group, Taft, should he slide into the teens, might be worth the risk. He's very physical, has the body to play center, and has a lot of upside. He could be the true power player the team has coveted. He'll need to be coached up though. It's not clear that the light has necessarily come on for him just yet. Frye could ably backup either center or power forward. His offense in the NBA will come primarily from running the floor and off the pick-and-pop. He's deadly out to 20 feet. Villanueva has a somewhat similar game.
Today's Picks (54-50, +$145):
Pittsburgh (Perez) +200 over New York (Johnson)
Arizona (Webb) -100 over Cleveland (Elarton)
St. Louis (Morris) -190 over Tampa Bay (Hendrickson)
Houston (Oswalt) -140 over Kansas City (Carrasco)