At 2019 media day, it was all about aura for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Gersson Rosas, the team’s new president of basketball operations, spoke about the “tangible change” that’s occurring within the organization and his “vision and philosophy” for achieving sustained success. Head coach Ryan Saunders emphasized his desire to “lay a foundation” while “[looking] to the future.” And players like Karl-Anthony Towns insist that they’re “[doing] great things” like convening in the Bahamas in order to establish an identity.
Even though it all felt somewhat forced, it was a refreshing juxtaposition against the chaos and mystery that dominated the same event on last year’s calendar, when Jimmy Butler skipped the festivities altogether in the midst of his public trade demand. That day was a preview to a 2018-19 season that was mostly destructive, so it makes sense for this overhauled group — newcomers and holdovers alike — to take control of a new narrative.
Still, as Rosas begins to make his mark, it also feels timely to acknowledge some of the prior regime’s more palpable “wins” and contemplate how those pieces fit into the puzzle moving forward.
Because Tom Thibodeau did reinvigorate an expectation of success among a fanbase whose aspirations had been depleted, his series of win-first transactions did net Robert Covington — a player who could be a foundational part of any new direction — and Dario Saric, whom Rosas already traded to the Phoenix Suns in order to land Jarrett Culver.
And Thibodeau’s front office did execute a very successful 2018 draft in selecting Josh Okogie (20th overall) and Keita Bates-Diop (48th). Through last season’s bleakness, the duo of rookies was a consistent bright spot. Okogie’s energy and defensive effectiveness was as exciting as anything else that happened; Bates-Diop — though he only really found his way into the rotation after any playoff hopes were dashed — showed as much NBA upside as you would hope to see from a player taken in the middle of the second round.
Nevertheless, neither has the inherent equity of a lottery pick nor have they demonstrated a “future-cornerstone” level of success. To make matters more murky, turnover is working against them as well: they finished their inaugural season with a different coach than when it began and they’ll commence their sophomore campaigns with a new tree of decision makers in the Wolves’ front office.
Decision makers who didn’t play any part in bringing them to town.
So, as is the case with a handful of other players on this roster (like Covington), it’s worth wondering — and monitoring — just how Okogie and Bates-Diop fit into the new regime’s long-term roadmap. But with the Wolves hitting the ground running at training camp in Mankato, it’s more pressing and fun to look at this situation with a narrower lens, because there are certain things that both players can do on the floor to prove themselves as invaluable parts of the present.
For a team that’s been so shallow on the wing in recent years, selecting a player of Okogie’s ilk (6’4.5” tall with shoes on and a 7’0” wingspan) in the second half of the first round made tons of sense, especially given his two-way acumen.
And Okogie was afforded an extended opportunity to demonstrate his potential as an NBA rookie. In total, he averaged nearly 24 minutes over 74 contests. During that playing time, he showed flashes of the elite defender he could soon become — and critically, there was substance behind the highlights.
Okogie was one of two first-year players (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) to post a block rate greater than 1.5% and a steal-rate greater than 2.0% in 2018-19; he ranked 40th of 111 qualified shooting guards by defensive real plus-minus and 27th of 138 qualified shooting guards by player impact plus-minus, two advanced metrics that tend to treat rookies rather tough; and, perhaps most importantly, he was both Towns and Andrew Wiggins’ most effective partner on that end of the floor as measured by defensive rating (among lineups with more than 750 minutes played).
Okogie has the makings of a lock-down option at the point of attack, be it against opposing guards or wings. Length and athleticism allow him to stay in front of his opponent, improving intuition helps him read the play in front of him and impressive agility precedes his knack for fighting over screens.
Even when he can’t make it over one smoothly, he’s shown the acceleration necessary to recover.
Okogie’s rookie season left great confidence that, unless his development is unexpectedly halted, he could become a pillar of the Wolves’ next stout defense. The reason that there’s any uncertainty about his role on the team, then, speaks to what little he’s shown on the offensive end to this point in his career.
The 21-year-old was one of five players in the league last season to connect on fewer than 30% of 200 or more 3-point attempts. And, as was the case at Georgia Tech, he struggled with his handle and body-control when navigating through traffic — it wasn’t uncommon to see him barrel into the lane without appearing to have a plan only to force up an errant attempt or pass the ball into traffic.
Okogie’s route to heaps of playing time — even more than he’s already likely to receive — involves taking the first step toward becoming a productive offensive threat. That could imply improvement from beyond the arc; if he can make closer to 36% of his catch-and-shoot 3s (he shot 29.4% on those in 2018-19), he’ll quickly become a capable 3-and-D wing and one of this team’s more productive players.
But given his high-volume struggles from deep last season and the lack of overall touch he’s shown in the past, it may be optimistic to imagine that he’ll make that jump this soon. Rather, a more likely short-term improvement could come from Okogie utilizing his tenacity to become a more creative and active off-ball threat — last season, he registered just 0.6 possessions as a cutter on a per-game basis, fewer than all but two of 13 qualified teammates.
If he’s unable to improve upon any of these facets, the presence of newcomers like Jarrett Culver, Treveon Graham and Jake Layman could cause Okogie to slip down in this roster’s pecking order. But if he is able to take a jump, then Okogie — by virtue of his defensive prowess — will turn into an even more integral part of the 2019-20 Wolves. In many respects, it’d become very difficult to keep him out of the starting lineup.
“Last year, I was…doing what the team needed, playing with a lot of energy,” Okogie said on Monday. “This year, I’m gonna play with a little more focus.”
Bates-Diop played 503 minutes over 30 games as a rookie, a majority of them coming toward the end of the season. His most notable traits are height (6’8.5” with shoes) and length (7’3.25” wingspan) that provide him with a versatile upside on both ends of the floor.
As a defensive option, he’s shown enough quickness and smarts to suggest that he could — with some development — contain a wide variety of front-court opponents, especially if he continues to add weight to his frame. And despite struggling to find a groove on the offensive end, he improved throughout the season by playing to his strengths and showed that he’s a forward who’s comfortable with the ball in his hands.
But overall, he still wasn’t able to put forth much positive value on that side of the floor. Bates-Diop’s 4.6% assist rate was dead last of 21 players who got any amount of run with the Wolves last season. To make matters worse, His 25% from beyond the arc ranked 315th of 321 players to register more than 50 attempts. A 23-year-old with middling NBA-athleticism, his high-end outcome is as a multi-talented role player — conveniently, he may be a dependable 3-point shot away from becoming something resembling just that.
When asked at the Las Vegas Summer League what Bates-Diop felt he most needed to improve upon during his second season in the league, he said that “3-point consistency is obviously a big thing.” And when pressed, as a follow-up, whether there’s a threshold he’s hoping to meet in that regard, he mentioned “35 percent or higher” as being part of his thought process.
There are reasons to be skeptical about the likelihood of this outcome — and if it doesn’t become a reality, it’s difficult to imagine Bates-Diop garnering all that many meaningful minutes as the season goes on. But it’s also not an unattainable aspiration, and should the Ohio State product reach it, he would become a very intriguing option deserving of minutes at either the three or the four in any number of Wolves lineups.
Okogie and, to a lesser extent, Bates-Diop, were reasons to follow along while the Wolves stumbled into the draft lottery a season ago. In fact, it’s easy to imagine that they would have been among the most excitable aspects of Rosas’ decision to move to Minnesota. But the new president has also been persistent in communicating his desire to shoot for the stars. At media day, he explained it like this: “The more superstars you can get, the easier our life is. And that’s my goal. That’s what I’ve known, that’s what we’ve done in the past and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
If one of his top priorities is to acquire improved talent via trade, that will require sending away positive assets like draft capital and young players with promise. Naturally, Okogie and Bates-Diop are valuable in that way: both have upside yet to be tapped into, both are on attractive rookie-scale deals and neither’s past is at all intertwined with Rosas’.
That being said, the former Houston Rockets executive continued his message about star-hunting by making clear that, “number one, it’s developing our players. We believe there’s high-end talent here. There’s guys here that are young, growing and developing. We’re going to put everything in them to see if they’re all-stars or superstars to surround around [Towns].”
Amidst all of this year’s chatter about culture, tangible change and elite players, last year’s rookies have plenty to prove.