Jarrett Culver beamed as Minnesota Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas sat next to him, describing the player he traded up to select at No. 6 in this year’s draft. In front of him sat admiring young basketball players from the Conway Community Center in St. Paul. The son of a preacher in Lubbock, Tex., who led his hometown college team to the National Championship Game, was drafted to help turn their local team into a contender.
Like the two other players who sat next to him, Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid, he thanked God for this opportunity. Like them, he couldn’t legally purchase alcohol from the Cub across the street in the Sun Ray Shopping Center had he wanted to after the press conference. And like Nowell, who went to Garfield High School in Seattle and the University of Washington, he was leaving a place where he was very rooted in to pursue his basketball dream.
Paired with Rosas (41) and Ryan Saunders (33), in a vacuum this was the image of a young, rebuilding team gearing up to face the titans of the Western Conference. Framed this way, it came off as any normal press conference. Build some hype around the youth. Sell the fans on the regime. Assure everyone that the team will start winning soon.
But Rosas and Saunders started things out with a surprise — Naz Reid had been signed to a multi-year contract. “It’s almost like getting an extra pick in the draft,” said Rosas. And unlike most press conferences celebrating a youth movement, this year’s team will be made up with a few expensive veterans, remnants of the Tom Thibodeau reign.
Rosas made a point of saying that he will be aggressive in free agency and through trades in transforming the roster. It looked like he was going to deliver on his promise immediately this off-season, until D’Angelo Russell decided to join the Golden State Warriors instead of accepting a sign-and-trade to join his buddy Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota. And there was some speculation that Rosas dealt Dario Saric and the No. 11 pick to the Phoenix Suns in order to draft Darius Garland, only to be caught off-guard when the Cleveland Cavaliers took Garland.
Regardless of if that’s true, we all know what often happens to the best laid plans. And honestly, we don’t know if the D’Lo-KAT Wolves even make the playoffs this year. Perhaps the most prudent thing to do is to wait a year until Jeff Teague comes off the books and Gorgui Dieng has one year left on his contract. By then they’ll know how Andrew Wiggins has responded to new coaching and a different culture, and how Towns has developed as a defensive player. And because the Wolves let Tyus Jones sign with the Memphis Grizzlies, they should have the flexibility to trade for a star player next year.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is this team is built around Towns, and Culver, Nowell and Reid will have a role on this team if they can play off him.
“Our style of play, whether it’s offensively, execution-wise, we’re gonna have multiple ball-handlers,” said Rosas. “We’re very fortunate to have a very talented player in Karl-Anthony Towns, who not only can score, but also pass.
“Our ability to play through him gives a guy like Jarrett or Jaylen,” he added, pausing to look at the assembled media. “I mean you guys saw a lot of what Naz did in Summer League with his passing ability, but we want to be hard to guard, and we want to be dynamic. And by that it means guys get multiple opportunities to make plays.”
“I’m in favor of having multiple ball-handlers, and you can play two point guards together,” echoed Saunders. “We want to be a team that has general sets, but then (have) players, intelligent basketball players that read off those sets.”
Interestingly, Nowell was expected to go undrafted, while some experts had Reid going in the second round on their draft board. Reid was upfront in saying that he took plays off in college, which may have been why he wasn’t among the 60 players selected in the draft. Rosas said he was a hot commodity when the Wolves were pursuing him, indicating this signing wasn’t completely against conventional wisdom, and Saunders commended him for acknowledging his lack of effort at times and said that will change under his coaching.
It wasn’t all that different from the messaging Thibodeau and Scott Layden used when they took Keita Bates-Diop in the second round last year, and a reminder that underneath the debris of their win-now roster built with crude methods sprouts a green core of players who could be part of the recipe to the keep KAT in town for the long term.
Wiggins figures it out under Saunders. Robert Covington returns from his injury. Josh Okogie, Bates-Diop, Jake Layman, Culver, Nowell and Reid either become complementary players around them. It all sounds great in July.
The more realistic outlook is one of establishing culture first, then rounding out the roster next season. But on Thursday we saw what Rosas and Saunders want. They want handles. They want versatility. They want a team built around KAT. And they appear to be replacing the fog of dread with a shine of optimism.