Friday, March 4, 2011

Looking Ahead: The NBA Draft

In a lost season, fans of rebuilding teams always have one glimmer of hope, even if it's months away, in the NBA draft. I don't check the standings to see how close my beloved Timberwolves are to making the playoffs, but rather how many more wins the Cleveland Cavaliers need to give the Wolves the worst record in the league, and therefore the most ping pong balls on lottery night.

The NBA Lottery is also a glimmer of hope. If you fail to make the playoffs, you have a chance to end up with the #1 pick. Sure, the team slotted into #14 has an extremely small chance of jumping to #1, but there's still a chance. When a team is in dire need of a star, fan bases across the country all dream of that star rookie taking their team back into contention and hopefully eventually a world championship.

As Wolves fans, we know this feeling. Every year of the NBA Lottery, we watch, secretly optimistic that this will be the year the team finally secures the #1 pick. But it never happens. When the team finished with the worst record in 1992, that meant they had the best chance at the #1 pick, which was Shaquille O'Neal. And even if someone passed them, they'd likely end up at #2 and get Alonzo Mourning. Instead, two teams jumped the Wolves, and picking third they selected Duke big man Christian Laetnar. It's really not fun to be a Timberwolves fan.

However, just because Wolves fans have dealt with numerous draft-day debacles and lottery failures doesn't mean we don't look to the draft with the same optimism every year. This year is no different. Here's a look at some of the players the Wolves should target.

Currently, the Wolves have the league's second worst record, sitting at 15-47. There are several teams the Wolves could still catch, though, if they start to play better basketball. The Cavaliers currently have the league's worst record with just 11 wins, so it seems unlikely that they'll win enough games to surpass the Wolves in the standings.

New Jersey is likely going to be much better than the Wolves over the last 20+ games thanks to the arrival of Deron Williams, but Toronto, Washington and Sacramento are all bad enough to possibly finish with a worse record than the Wolves. So, even if we are projecting an absolute worst case scenario, the Wolves would finish with the league's fifth worst record. Then, continuing with the "worst case scenario" the Wolves watch three teams that finished with better records land the top 3 picks, moving the team back to #8. 

Even in this scenario, the Wolves retain their first round pick, because it is protected inside the top 10. If somehow the Wolves had finished outside of the top 10, the Clippers would have received the pick. Instead, the Wolves 2012 first rounder is now going to the Clippers, with no protections, so the team really needs to improve a great deal next year or it's possible the team could give up the #1 overall pick. And Sam Cassell. For Marko Jaric.

With the 8th pick the worst possible scenario for the team in my opinion, I'm going to look at who I would have as my top 8 players in the draft for the Wolves. If two players are very similar talent-wise, the position they play in regards to the team's needs will be factored in, which is why Jared Sullinger isn't listed here. I think he could be a good player in the right system, but his strengths and weaknesses are much too similar to Kevin Love for the Wolves to even consider drafting him.

Top 8

8. Enes Kanter, C, Kentucky (Ineligible)

I'm not a big fan of Kanter, but that's for no real reason. I've never seen him play, and scouts that have seem to be high on him, but I just can't get excited about an international center I haven't seen play. However, most experts agree he's certainly a top 10 player, and with most teams in need of a true center, it's possible Kanter could sneak into the top 5 with solid workouts in a few months. 

He's reportedly very strong and athletic, so if that's the case he should wow NBA scouts and jump up many draft boards. For now, though, he's a huge question mark and he only makes the top 8 because the draft is fairly weak outside of the top 4 players.

7. Terrence Jones, SF, Kentucky

At 6'8, Jones has good size for a small forward. He's not a great shooter, which could be worrisome at the next level, but he's getting to the line nearly 7 times a game. He's only shooting 66% from the charity stripe, though, so to be an effective slasher at the next level he's going to need to improve his free throw shooting.

He has good athleticism but his shooting woes may make him a tweener at the next level, which is basically what has happened to Michael Beasley. But that's not fair to Beasley, because he was a much more efficient scorer and a much better rebounder while in college. Jones is talented enough to warrant a top 8 pick, but if the team comes out of the draft with a poor man's Mike Beasley I won't be too excited about the upcoming season.

6. Jimmer Fredette, PG, BYU

I've only seen Jimmer play once this season, but I've heard about the hype all season. I don't think he's going to be a star at the next level, but his ability to score should translate to the next level. He's a great shooter, but he also has a knack for creating space and getting an open shot. He may be a 6th man and backup point guard at his absolute best in the NBA, but for a team who is banking on a European point guard who to this point has shown no ability whatsoever to shoot, Fredette would appear to be the perfect change of pace player.

He obviously wouldn't fit well in a backcourt with Rubio, at least theoretically, because neither player is athletic enough to guard an opposing team's 2-guard for an extended stretch. Offensively they complement each other fairly well, as Fredette certainly can play off the ball, but because of his lack of athleticism his ceiling is considerably lower than most top-10 picks.

5. Donatus Motiejunas, PF, Lithuania

The 7 foot Lithuanian was expected to be a top-5 pick last season, but struggles in Europe led Motiejunas to remain there for another year, as he didn't enter his name in the NBA draft last season. He's expected to enter the draft this year, and there's at least an outside shot that a team falls in love with his workouts and takes him as high as number 1.

He's been one of the best players in the Italian league this season, and at just 20-years-old he's one of the youngest players in all of professional basketball. He's reportedly extremely skilled, and his only real weakness over the last few years has been his strength. This season, he appears to have bulked up and become a more physical player, which is why he's performing so well in Italy.

In a best-case scenario, Donatus will be a hybrid of Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. More likely is a player similar to Andrea Bargnini of the Toronto Raptors. A solid player with lots of skills, but his flaws need to be covered up by another player on the team. In this case that would be an elite interior defender, so pairing Kevin Love with Motiejunas could be incredibly painful to watch on defense, although the offense would be a joy.

4. Derrick Williams, SF/PF, Arizona

Williams has emerged as a potential number one overall pick with his play this season as a Sophomore. There's no doubting Williams has been special both offensively and defensively, but there are enough question marks around his game that make me place him as the #4 player.

Basically he's a better version of Kentucky's Terrence Jones, but he's also a year older. He's shooting a ridiculous 63% on 3-pointers this season, but he's only taken 45 3's all season so that number needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It would appear he will never have the range to consistently hit the NBA 3. That's okay, because you can be a successful small forward in the NBA by doing other things well.

Williams does a great job getting to the line, and he's averaging 8 rebounds a game to go along with his 19 points, but comparisons to Terrence Jones and Mike Beasley would appear to be fair. He's a good, not great, athlete that is a solid defender but is probably overrated at the college level because of his knack for the crowd-pleasing block that he'll swat their way. He seems a little small to defend power forwards at the next level consistently, and he may not be athletic enough to be a good wing defender.

The Wolves certainly could do much worse than Williams, but for a team needing to find an elite player, they need to swing for the fences and hope for a player with a higher ceiling.

3. Harrison Barnes, SF, UNC

Harrison Barnes was my dream draft pick a few months ago. He was the most hyped incoming freshman in a long time, and he even was a pre-season All American pick without playing a single collegiate game. The coaches clearly respected Barnes and felt he was going to be an elite player from the day he stepped onto UNC's campus. It's been an up and down season, though, and Barnes is no longer considered the slam dunk number one pick. He easily could emerge on draft night as the top choice, but for now he's simply in the discussion with Williams and the next two players on the list.

Barnes game would fit extremely well with what the Wolves are trying to build, but that's silly to say because the truth is Harrison Barnes would fit extremely well with any team. He does everything great. I don't mean he does everything good (but nothing great, like they said about Brandon Roy), I mean he does everything great. He's a great shooter with range out to 25 feet. He's almost an 80% free throw shooter. He handles the ball very well, he can jump out of the gym, and he's exceptionally unselfish. Pundits tend to mention this as a weakness for Barnes, that he's so unselfish he won't take over the game when it's necessary, but that notion has always been dramatically overstated. The truth is, Barnes unselfishness is almost certainly going to make him one of the NBA's elite all-around players in the next few years.

So with such high praise for the kid, how can I not have him number 1? Especially because he would fill a major need on the wing for the Wolves. For some reason, Barnes hasn't managed to use all of these skills on a consistent basis. He's shooting just 32% on 3's this season, but his shot is so smooth and his mechanics are so great and the shot was so pretty last year that it's clearly a fluke, or at least that's what all the experts will say. I'm not sure what the reasons are for him shooting 32%, or only averaging 5.7 rebounds, or only scoring 13.5 points--but whatever they are, they're worrisome enough to move him down below the next two players.

2. Perry Jones, SF, Baylor

Perry Jones reminds me so much of a young Kevin Garnett it's crazy. This isn't to say I think Jones will be nearly the player KG was, but simply that the potential is very clearly there for him to be that good. We never got to watch KG play in college, because he didn't qualify and then declared for the NBA draft. It obviously was a good thing for the Wolves, because they ended up with a franchise cornerstone, but I think if KG had gone to college we would have seen an inconsistent scorer who flashed absolutely brilliant stretches of basketball.

To me, KG would have been a great college player, of course. But he would have been more along the lines of Jones and Barnes as a freshman, I think, where his clear athletic gifts didn't quite result in the kinds of numbers people would expect. KG averaged 10.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in the NBA in what would have been his freshman year of college. When I watch Jones, I can't help but think he could come close to that kind of production.

Jones is a 6'11 player but his skills are very clearly those of a small forward. That gives him an extreme advantage, as even in the NBA most small forwards are 6'7 or 6'8. Jones handles the ball as well as any non point guard in the country, and there aren't even very many point guards that are considerably better ball handlers.

He's not a great shooter and his range doesn't extend all that deep, as he's just a 20% shooter this year on 3's. However, his athletic ability would suggest he will improve there over time, but it still probably won't be an asset. That's how I would describe KG's 3-point shooting ability during his career as well, so we'll see.

I have no idea if Jones will be anywhere close to the defender KG is. Kevin Garnett is one of the top defenders in NBA history in my opinion, so it seems unlikely Jones will be in the same league there. I don't expect Jones to necessarily be as good as KG was in his prime, but rather the skills he possesses are very similar. Jones would allow the Wolves to try a lineup that saw Kevin Love start at the 5 and Beasley at the 4 for stretches that would probably work extremely well offensively and not be entirely awful defensively.

1. Kyrie Irving, PG, Duke

I expected Irving to fall in around 5th when I started looking at these players. First, the Wolves have been banking their future on Ricky Rubio, who happens to play the same position as Irving, and has been hyped and hyped by some people. Secondly, Irving doesn't strike me as the same kind of athlete the previous #1 overall point guards were. That's of course unfair because almost nobody is the kind of athlete Derrick Rose or John Wall is, and then I watched one of Irving's last games before he hurt his foot and I was reminded of someone else: Chris Paul.

Paul is a great athlete, of course, he's an elite NBA point guard, so compared to most of the population he is a fantastic athlete. But compared to NBA point guards, Paul is slightly above average athletically. He's quick, but not lightning quick. He is an elite ball-handler, though, and he's one of the best decision makers around. He sees the court exceptionally well, and his other gifts allow him to use this skill particularly well. That's how I felt when I watched Irving.

He is averaging 2.8 turnovers per game, which seems somewhat high, but considering he's a freshman playing a ton of minutes it's not a big deal. It looks even less worrisome when compared to Wall's 4 turnovers per game last year for Kentucky. Rose turned the ball over 2.7 times per game his freshman year at Memphis,

Irving is shooting an impressive 45% from 3, and 90% from the free throw line, although he's only played in 8 full games so it's impossible to know if both are sustainable. Irving appears poised to become one of the league's best point guards, and as far as 'natural' point guards are concerned, he should be in the conversation with Chris Paul in the near future. I think he's going to be something really special.

If the Wolves manage to win the lottery, they would have lots of options, but as much as I love Rubio, I would suggest the team drafts Irving and trades Rubio to a team he actually wants to play for, getting hopefully a young, blooming 2-guard somehow.



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