As you already know, the draft was last Thursday, and it was a big one for our favorite team. I decided to take it in over at the new Mayo Clinic facilities, and swing through the arena for the announcement of the first pick. What follows is some parts recap of that night, with some thoughts about the Wolves two draft picks and where the team finds itself right now, heading into Summer 2015.
The Wolves first draft selection was equal parts boring and exciting. For at least a few days, the media had been reporting that Flip was going to draft Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky. Brian Windhorst went on ESPN — live, from Minneapolis — shortly before the pick was officially announced by Adam Silver, to confirm that this was still the case. So there was not the unpredictability that has come to define Timberwolves drafts of the past decade. As expected, the Wolves chose Towns.
Perhaps that was a good thing this time around, because in taking Towns the Wolves set the Target Center crowd on fire with cheers. Its team had just taken the consensus “best player in the draft,” for the first time in franchise history. In his conference call with Minnesota media on Thursday night, and especially at his introductory press conference the next day in Minneapolis, Towns said all the right things. He compared joining the emerging nucleus of young Timberwolves talent to playing for Kentucky. He looks forward to being mentored by Kevin Garnett, because he wants to learn what it takes to become a champion. He looks forward to taking care of his parents, who sacrificed so much for him to reach this point. He is emphasizing “playoffs” as a goal for this team. Like, right away. Whether unrealistic or not, that’s a refreshing thing to hear said, after a season spent losing on purpose.
The psychoanalysis that we all perform on these 20-year olds is unfair for a number of reasons; perhaps most of all because of the unusual venue in which we observe them. But we do it nonetheless. Andrew Wiggins is a man of few words. He’d rather let his actions on the court speak for themselves. Zach LaVine has a well-intentioned cockiness about him. When most of the new, young Wolves looked nervous on Media Day last year — usually sharing the press conference table with a teammate — the 19-year old, looked-more-like-15-year-old, LaVine sat by himself and began his own presser with a, “Sup wit y’all?” to the media before him.
Towns is thoughtful and gregarious. He enjoys speaking to an audience, but carefully considers a question before answering it. In the past year, he has listed Len Bias as his favorite player, and shouted out Felipe Lopez as a fellow Dominican baller. For a 19-year old, he’s showing off impressive knowledge of basketball esoterica. Whether any of this matters once he steps on the court is a fair question, but for now the personality is all we’ve had a chance to see, and Karl-Anthony Towns “won” his press conference. Assuming he can play like most expect, Towns is going to be a fan favorite.
The second portion of the draft was a lot less predictable than the first pick. What was Flip going to do with those early second rounders? There were rumblings that he liked Tyus Jones from Duke (and, perhaps more importantly, Apple Valley, Minnesota) but would need to trade up to get him. At what cost? If they had to trade all the way up to 18 — where Houston was reportedly going to pick Jones — it might come at a steep price. Too steep. If they couldn’t land Jones, would the Wolves continue their shameful tradition of selling second rounders, instead of using them for — you know — real players?
Right as Minnesota media huddled around the conference call with Towns, the big events transpired.
While ESPN was showing the Cavs select Jones with the 24th pick, Twitter was a step ahead (well, Adrian Woj was a step ahead) in reporting that the pick was actually for the Timberwolvs, who would trade 31, 36, and a future 2nd Rounder for Tyus Jones. There was a funny moment when the press was asking Towns how he felt about playing with Jones, but all he could see was the TV in his room where Tyus was a Cavalier; not a Wolf. When the confusion couldn’t be fixed over the phone lag and difficult conference-call audio, it eventually ended with, a “moving on…”
It seems to me there are a few different lenses through which the Tyus Jones acquisition can be viewed.
There is the perspective of Joe Casual Minnesota Sports Fan. He just LOVES it. This is bringing back one of Our Own. A proven Winner. With Flip back in charge, and now Tyus on board, too, who is gonna stop us?
There was a palpable excitement on Friday afternoon when the new guys were introduced, and it was sometimes hard to detect whether it had more to do with Towns — the potential superstar — or Jones, the pride of Minnesota.
Another perspective would be that of a critical NBA thinker who is annoyed by Joe Casual Minnesota Sports Fan, and the way that his interests are being catered to with this type of a move. It sort of reeks of the same thinking behind the Thad Young/Kevin Garnett trade, which seems to have been as much about selling tickets as winning basketball games. For a great example of this perspective, check out Wiliam Bohl’s remarks in his Tyus Jones exchange with Steve McPherson.
A third way to view it (if possible) is just on the basketball merits, straight up. I don’t consider myself much of a Duke fan, or much of a Minnesota Parochialism Fan, so I think my own approval of the Tyus Jones pick falls in this category.
This was great use of second round picks. Tyus will be good. He’s always been rated as a top-tier player, and his understanding and execution of team basketball will have a pretty obvious place in the NBA, once he physically matures. He threads pick-and-roll passes through the needle as well as you’ll see from a young guard. Whether he becomes a good starter or just a reliable backup for Rubio — something the Wolves have never had — he will be worth the cost of a few second round picks, when it’s all said and done.
Where are we now?
The reactions to the Timberwolves draft have been overwhelmingly positive. Chad Ford gave them an “A” grade for not screwing up the top pick, and for the Jones move. In a roundtable post discussing the Wolves draft at Canis Hoopus, each of the five contributors also gave them an A grade. In the Grantland draft recap, Chris Ryan lauded Flip’s moves and even asked (sincerely, I think) whether any team in the NBA has a brighter future than Minnesota? This type of positive buzz is probably only matched in franchise history by the early days of Marbury and Garnett, and the 2004 playoff run.
I suppose this is where we tap the brakes. The Wolves had the worst record in the league, the worst defense by a significant margin, and also one of the worst offenses. They have third-world-NBA issues to face, like developing a core group of players, a collective intelligence on defense, and an offensive system that can survive — let alone thrive — in the modern NBA. These are the big steps; the ones that teams like Golden State, Memphis, Oklahoma City, and the Clippers have already taken. Where those teams are fine tuning, the Wolves are still trying to lay a foundation.
But it really does seem like their notoriously bad luck took a sharp turn last summer when LeBron went back to Cleveland. His second Decision set the wheels in motion to make Andrew Wiggins available for Kevin Love. Then Rubio sprained his ankle, the playoff pipe dream became unrealistic, and Flip’s tanking orchestration was rewarded with Karl-Anthony Towns. Sustainable NBA success is usually built around two or three great players. Think Magic/Worthy/Kareem, Bird/McHale/Parish, and Michael and Scottie. In modern times, think James/Wade/Bosh, or Russ and KD. Acquiring a few superstars will always be the surest path to a stretch of deep playoff runs.
It’s quite possible that between Wiggins, Towns, and the rest of the young roster, the Wolves will have a lasting foundation. It’s a group diverse in background and basketball skills. Andrew Wiggins from Toronto is the son of a former NBA player, blessed with spectacular physical tools and a serious determination to cash in on every ounce of them. Ricky Rubio from Barcelona is the most creative passer in the world. Karl-Anthony Towns from New Jersey entered John Calipari’s powerhouse Kentucky program with a reputation as a very skilled, but possibly “soft” big man who floated too much on the perimeter. He left it with a new rep as a defensive monster and the consensus best prospect in his class. On the periphery of this emerging nucleus are some other fascinating players, like the reigning slam-dunk champion, Zach LaVine, and Shabazz Muhammad, who just led the entire NBA in points per times he touched the ball.
There is a lot to be excited about.
One brief parting note: I participated in a roundtable discussion with the team of writers at A Wolf Among Wolves. Link here. Be sure to check that out, if you haven’t already.