The 1st Round: Towns as the now-inevitable #1 pick.
Andy G: First off, Happy Draft Week. Whatever this says about us, and the team that we cheer for, this is usually the highlight of our NBA season and a time clearly marked off on our calendars. This is an especially big one, what with the Wolves picking first overall for the first time ever. (Eds note: But this year’s will join the last two top picks on the Wolves roster, who came over in the K-Love trade. Thanks, LeBron!) Also, the Wolves are picking high in the 2nd Round. There’s some question as to whether they’ll keep both picks, or use them on players that will immediately join the NBA, but the fact is they have them and that means more to discuss.
I’ve written some things about the Wolves top pick; specifically, whether they should use it on Karl Anthony-Towns from Kentucky, or Jahlil Okafor from Duke. For a while, it seemed like Flip was going to take Okafor, a player he was (reportedly) enamored with all season — possibly to the extent that the possibility of drafting Okafor helped motivate the season’s big tanking decisions, like holding Ricky Rubio out of games for much longer than he had to.
But late in the college season, the general scouting consensus (Draft Express and the NBA scouts who talk to Chad Ford) shifted from Okafor to Towns as the draft’s best prospect. The best stats projection models also prefer Towns to Okafor. Now it is widely believed that Flip’s mind has changed as well. There was a period of time when it was rumored that the Wolves personnel staff preferred Towns, but Flip still preferred Okafor. This was disconcerting to read, not because of the conclusion itself (I’m on record as loving Okafor’s potential, and even slightly preferring him to Towns based on what I watched) but because of what it suggested about the team’s structure and process.
Flip was coaching all year, while his personnel staff was watching games. The opinions of the latter group should trump his, ten times out of ten. One rebuttal of a Flip defender might be that he’s seen every game Okafor and Towns played. And that very well might be true. But his staff didn’t only watch Okafor and Towns play. They watched hundreds of other college games in the same timeframe, which inevitably sharpens their eyes to what skills stand out as being unusually good (or bad). As much as we all like to play pretend-scout, it is a professional craft, and Flip should heed any advice and input he receives from his trusted staff of talent evaluators. If they formed a consensus that Towns is the best guy, then Towns is the player that the Wolves should select.
Another rebuttal in defense of Flip would be to point to his recent draft record, which includes somewhat surprising draft picks that were initially unpopular, but now look wise. The problem with this is defense is that Flip was not coaching the team before the 2013 and 2014 drafts, so he presumably was working full time to prepare for them.
In any event, it seems from the reports that the Wolves will definitely select Karl-Anthony Towns with the top pick on Thursday night. Towns was, well, “in town,” over this weekend to work out and meet with the relevant Timberwolves people. He didn’t do this for any other teams. Along with the reporting, this signals as much as anything that there is no doubt about the pick. (Eds note: As I was typing this, I heard Flip talk about Towns to Sid Hartman, and he described him as, “by far” the best two-way player in college basketball. There seems to be no doubt that he’ll be the Wolves pick on Thursday.)
It’s impossible for me to not be affected by the solid consensus that prefers Towns to Okafor. I watched them both a lot and was more blown away by Okafor’s post game than any specific aspect of KAT’s game. I think Okafor is going to be an absolute beast, offensively, in the NBA, and if he improves as a defender and foul shooter, he’ll be on some All-NBA teams.
It was not always easy to observe KAT’s skills in the college setting, because he was just one of nine McDonald’s All-Americans on Kentucky’s team that usually blew out its opponents. He was not featured by Kentucky like Okafor was by Duke. He only averaged 10 points in 21 minutes per game.
But there was plenty to like when watching KAT last year, and — more importantly — I’m not arrogant enough to think I’m smarter than all of the analytic models, and the major scouts. When the Wolves draft Towns, I’ll be happy knowing that they’ve taken the guy that most of the smart basketball people view as the best player available.
Chad Ford just released his “Tiers” list, and Towns was the only player in Tier 1. In Ryen Russillo’s “NBA Draft Confidential,” the main takeaways from the anonymous scouts on Towns are that he’s the best prospect in the draft, and that he has no major weaknesses or risk of being a bust. On Jonathan Givony’s DraftExpress site (most essential reading/viewing on the web, every year) you can see video’s of Towns shooting and working out, and a comprehensive assessment of Towns in the April 6, 2015, post by Givony. The Wolves-specific sites are likewise high on KAT. At Canis Hoopus, Key Sang has not been shy about touting Karl-Anthony Towns as a generational-type player who will push the NBA’s evolution forward with his unique skill combinations. At A Wolf Among Wolves, Zach Harper dug into the “Okafor or Towns?” question in great detail, ultimately arriving at Towns as the better prospect.
It would be hard for me to add much new to the “Why draft Towns?” discussion. One angle that I’ve been thinking about is less about KAT as an individual and more about what I hope his presence will mean for the team and its emerging core of players. Since lottery night, when the Wolves landed the top spot, I have thought more and more about the way certain Wolves players could be grouped as a “core” going forward. With Okafor, I’ve found myself thinking about he and Andrew Wiggins as a two-man nucleus to hopefully build around for the next dozen years. That’s a very long-term outlook, but when you think about the NBA, the way contracts work, and the way (most) great teams are developed, the essential core is usually a very short list of players. I’ve thought that Okafor could be the dominant offensive force that Wiggins could play well off of, and that Wiggins potential as a game-changing defender would take some pressure off of Okafor’s main potential weakness.
With Towns, I think more about how he might mesh with not only Wiggins, but also with Ricky Rubio.
I’ve written plenty about Rubio’s rookie year in Minnesota, when Adelman — due to the lockout-imposed short training camp — did not have time to install his preferred offense (high post, backdoor cuts, forwards create offense) and instead handed Ricky the ball and had his big men set high ball screens for him. With space, Rubio was an incredible creator of offense for teammates. Before his injury, the Wolves were in the playoff race, despite playing some mediocre players a lot of minutes. (Through March 9, 2012, when Rubio went down — 41 games in — the Wolves minutes leaders were Love and Rubio, followed then by Luke Ridnour, Wes Johnson, and Derrick Williams. Pekovic was next, followed then by Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic. This team was 8th in the West when Rubio was hurt.)
That rookie-year, instant-impact performance is something that Wolves fans will never forget. But more than remember it, we’d like to see it reincarnated, only with some better teammates who fit in with Rubio’s preferred style of play. Last year was obviously disappointing for Ricky as an individual, sitting out 60 games with ankle problems. But what we saw from Andrew Wiggins (and even Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine) was an exciting collection of new Wolves who seem eager to run the floor and finish athletic plays upon receipt of nice passes. The passes just weren’t there, last year. Without Ricky.
By adding Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves are opening themselves up to the possibility of the most spread floor in basketball, if Flip will adjust his offense accordingly (not a small “if,” for what it’s worth.) The thing about Towns is that he has a body that looks kinda like Derrick Favors — at least after a year or two on the weights. He can do those dirty-work tasks under the basket on defense, but he can also pose a shooting threat out to 24 feet on offense. In a best case scenario, he can add value like Andrew Bogut does for the Warriors, but without the possibility that he’ll have to sit out when the offense is struggling and needs more space. (For a cherry-picked, Finals-still-fresh-in-our-minds comparison.)
If Towns reaches his potential, the Wolves could have a very good, possibly great offense, and an elite defense anchored around supreme intelligence at the top of the key, on the wing, and under the basket. Each of Rubio, Wiggins and Towns has better-than-average physical attributes for their position, defensively. They won’t be doing the “switch everything,” thing, that Milwaukee and Golden State have en vogue, but they won’t need to. With elite defenders at each level of the defense, the Wolves could have a lasting formula for success.
Anyway, I’m excited for Towns. But there’s more to discuss. About that…
Patrick J: I agree with your thinking about Towns v. Okafor. Like you, I started out (pr)Okafor. He’s one of the best college bigs I’ve ever seen offensively. I believe he’ll be a completely dominant offensive center in the NBA for the next 12-15 years. Seeing him consistently pull off moves like the ones in this video last season, it’s hard not to see him as a special offensive player in the NBA.
I expect Okafor to shore up his weaknesses–especially his free throw shooting–over the next few years. I believe his defense will improve on the margins, as he gets into better shape, gains foot speed, and develops a better all-around understanding of how the game is played at the pro level. Okafor looks like a quick study, and I don’t expect him to take too long to adapt. And given his single-dominant characteristic, I won’t be surprised if Wolves fans end up having Towns-Okafor debates much longer into the future than most currently expect.
That’s another way of saying that I agree with another of Andy G’s points above: the conventional wisdom is usually just that for a reason–because there’s ‘there’ there. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what the pro-Towns fans see. The kid could, and probably will, be very, very, good.
That said, for me, the second round is where things really start to get interesting this year. We already know the Wolves are drafting Karl Towns. This is great, but it takes some of the mystique away from the first overall pick. We can argue until our faces turn purple about things like whether Towns’ upside projects as more like LMA or KG; we can wonder whether he can actually be as good at three-point shooting as Coach Cal swears he is; we can feel good about the Wolves’ front office for picking the guy the numbers suggest is the best player. But we all know the Wolves are going to draft Towns, and that’s kind of boring.
The 2nd Round: Possibilities for the 31/34 slots
I’ve found it much more interesting to think about what the Wolves should do with the two second-round picks they own, which are the 31st pick and the 34th pick overall. Having these picks is like having a bit of house money to play with at the casino: You can either try to invest it wisely, using it to play just a bit longer while keeping yourself barely above the red. Or you can use it for speculative investments, which have minimal risk, and widely varying rates of return on things like overall upside, wingspan, length and athleticism, standing and max vertical leaps, and coolness. These are volatile stocks.
Which stocks do I like this season? From my optic, there are three players who are especially interesting and who might be in play for the Wolves in the second round, or if they parlayed their two second-round picks to, say, move up to #18 in a trade with Houston.
These three players are (in no particular order): Christian Wood, Rashad Vaughn, and Tyus Jones. (Eds Note: Patrick J’s heart tells him to include CHRIS WALKER in this list, but even the biggest degenerate gambler would be weary of taking WALKER toward the top of the second round.)
What Wood and Vaughn have in common, apart from having length, athleticism, and scoring ability is a shared pedigree of sorts. Both spent time at Findlay Prep, named after its founder, former UNLV player and magnate CLIFF FINDLAY!, which is Vegas’ prep hoops factory and a pipeline of sorts to UNLV. Here’s a shot of the campus.
Also, all of Findlay Prep’s players apparently live in a mansion owned by….wait for it….CLIFF FINDLAY!
This is the Las Vegas house where Findlay students live. It has been described as a ‘near million-dollar home with big-screen TVs and custom extra-long beds,’ by http://www.sportsnet.ca/, in their story about Findlay entitled “Prep School Conflidential.”
Who is Cliff Findlay? Your guess is as good as mine. He has been described as “a man of few words with a large footprint” by the Las Vegas Sun. Findlay he has money, or he’s backed by money for this project. Either way, he has built up a devastatingly good and interesting prep hoops monster. Lots of extremely cool players have gone through Findlay Prep, and there have been widespread allegations that not all of its practices have always been on the up and up. To be clear, one might think of Findlay as somewhat analogous to Coach Cal’s Kentucky program, from which we’ll likely be receiving Karl Towns on Thursday.
However you feel about Findlay Prep, what is most tantalizing to me about Wood and Vaughn as late first/early second round picks is their size and scoring ability. Both have outstanding length, but need to add some strength to compensate for the fact that neither will ever be the most athletic guy on an NBA court (even though both do have very good athleticism). Vaughn averaged over 18 ppg last season and over 49 percent from inside the arc and over 38 from outside the arc.
Vaughn has a rap for being a me-first guy, and for not being a very heady player. Some of this may be true, but he’s also able to offer some thoughtful responses to questions about how he approaches his craft, which shooting guards he watches and learns from, and how he’s been preparing for the NBA. This interview is a good illustration.
Christian Wood is a Power Forward who has legitimate size for the PF position at 6’11’’, 216 lbs. Wood averaged almost 16 ppg and shot almost 56% from inside the arc. He doesn’t appear to be a stretch four–at least not yet, averaging only 27% on 3PFGA last season. However, his shot is far from broken. In this vid, you can see that he actually has a pretty nice release, with good range on his shot.
Can the Wolves get either or both former Findlay Prep players in the second round? Vaughn, for example, has moved up in most mock drafts from the second round to the first. Meanwhile, Wood’s stock appears to be dropping, due to supposed questions about his “motor.” (Eds. Note: Unless “questionable motor” is a codeword for “missed multiple pre-draft workouts because of hard partying,” how can these concerns just be surfacing now?)
Finally, what of Tyus Jones? Have the rumors about Flip trading the two second-rounders for a shot at Tyus in the mid-first round died down now that Flip appears to have abandoned Okafor for a ride on the Towns train?
Andy G: That’s a great description of FINDLAY PREP and what it seems to represent in the modern, increasingly-hybrid landscape of NCAA Basketball and training for hopeful NBA prospects. I guess this is where we mention that PDW-favorite Anthony Bennett also hails from Findlay.
Regarding those three guys — two of which grew up in the Twin Cities area — I agree they all should be on the Wolves’ radar. The problem with Jones, and to a lesser extent Vaughn, is that they will be drafted before 31, and Flip will need to arrange a trade-up to get them.
Both Ford and Givony have Jones going to the Rockets at 18, so it seems like they must know something. Houston starts Pat Beverley at point. While he’s a gritty defender and adequate starter, nobody could blame them for seeking an upgrade. Jones does not have the physical tools of a lot of modern NBA point guards (Wall/Rose/Bledsoe/Westbrook) but it’s hard to escape the feeling that he’ll be quite good, and maybe even special. He was always pegged as the best in his entire class, as a recruit, and he was Duke’s most valuable player in the Final Four when they won the title. For a cross-sport comparison, he reminds me a little bit of what Russell Wilson was like in college, before sliding in the draft and later becoming an elite quarterback. All of the evidence suggested he’d be great, but there were questions about his size. I feel that way about Jones, to some extent, and wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes an All-Star in 4 or 5 years, after he fills out with age and NBA training.
Christian Wood intrigues me a lot. Hell, his purported motor problems might even make him “more” intriguing, in the same ways Hassan Whiteside and DeAndre Jordan slipped in the draft. That’s the whole reason that special athletes fall in the first place. If they had it all together at age 18, they’d be in the lottery. But they don’t, so they’re not.
You spend less to get them, do your best to develop them, and go from there. If the Wolves pride themselves in their shiny-new facilities, and first-class development program, maybe they should add a guy like Christian Wood, and see if they can get similar returns to what they’re kinda-sorta getting from Zach LaVine, already.
Patrick J: The draft isn’t until Thursday. In the meantime, here’s a ‘Shad Vaughn mixtape to predraft to.