Minnesota Timberwolves Draft Prospects: Defenders

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After registering 11 fewer wins last season than they did a year before, the Minnesota Timberwolves enter the summer of 2019 with myriad shortcomings upon which to improve.

For the fifth consecutive campaign, they finished 24th or worse by defensive rating and 26th or worse by 3-point attempts per 100 possessions in 2018-19. As the Wolves new president of basketball operations, Gersson Rosas, and his reconstructed staff put a plan in place to adopt more modern philosophies, rectifying the porous defense and dearth of 3-point shooting will be of the utmost concern.

Beyond that, though, this group is also in need of playmaking, particularly in the back court.

Both Derrick Rose and Tyus Jones are currently free agents who may or may not return next season. What’s more, Josh Okogie and Robert Covington — a duo of productive players who nevertheless struggle with the ball in their hands — will chew up considerable minutes on the wing, and the Wolves shouldn’t expect much creation from them. This leaves open the concerning possibility that Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins could be the only facilitators back from last year’s squad. Sure, big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Dario Saric should have the ball in their hands more moving forward, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for capable dribblers and passers along the perimeter.

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In setting out to improve upon these three areas of need, the Wolves’ revamped front office will possess limited financial leeway. The roughly $15 million of space they possess below the luxury tax line will need to be maximized when free agency kicks off on July 1. But before that frenzy begins, the Wolves will (in all likelihood) make at least one pick at the NBA Draft on June 20.

If their aim is to bolster the depth chart’s defensive ceiling, 3-point prowess and perimeter playmaking abilities, which prospects might Rosas and company covet? In this column, I’ll focus on the potential fit of four players whose pasts predict a better-than-average chance of defensive success at the NBA level.

Of note: this isn’t necessarily a list of players who the Wolves should draft with the 11th pick they currently possess. Most experts predict that the prospects below will be selected at some point after the first three picks and before the end of the first round. Depending on whether they stand pat at 11, find an appealing opportunity to move back or relinquish assets to move up several spots, one of these could be perceived as the best player available when the Wolves are on the clock.

De’Andre Hunter

Measurables: Age (21.5), height (6’7”), weight (225), wingspan (7’2”)
Prior Season Stats: Games played (33), Steals per 100 possessions (1.2), Blocks per 100 (1.2) Defensive Box Plus/Minus (4.4)
Sam Vecenie’s Big Board Ranking: 4

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Like Darius Garland, who was discussed in last week’s article about shooting prospects, Hunter is almost universally predicted to be gone by the time the 11th pick rolls around. But the Wolves’ front office is, in all likelihood, exploring opportunities to move up in the draft. And if they end up doing so, this forward from the University of Virginia would make for an interesting addition to their core of young players.

Though his steal and block rates are relatively low, scouts praise Hunter’s defensive poise, versatility and upside. His quickness meant that he could defend collegiate guards; his size allowed him to contain opposing bigs at the rim. The fact that Hunter was able to monitor all five positions in the ACC is undoubtedly appealing to NBA evaluators — his height (6’7”) and wingspan (7’2”) are ideal indicators of effective switchability.

And the Philadelphia native has an offensive game to boot, that’s why most predict he’ll be taken near the draft’s first five picks. Hunter shot 44 percent on 2.8 3-pointers per game last season. While he may not show tons of upside as a creator, that potential from beyond the arc in tandem with his defensive maturity will make him an exciting fit with whatever team he lands on.

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If Hunter is surprisingly selected by the Wolves, he would join Covington and Okogie to form a trio of wing defenders with the ability to become lethal over the next several years. All three of those players are intelligent, display consistent motors and have wingspans of at least 7’0” to go along with elite athleticism.

And though his draft stock suggests that Hunter will hope to be a starter, it’s highly unlikely that he could usurp Wiggins or Covington to enter the Wolves’ first unit as a rookie. He would, in the short-term, provide valuable wing depth to a Wolves team that will be looking for help in that regard before the 2019-20 season.

A more pertinent question may be: if the Wolves do what it takes to move up in the draft, should they target a wing like Hunter over a high-upside point guard like Garland?

How does he project in the other areas where the Wolves need help?

  • Hunter was effective from beyond the arc during his two seasons at Virginia.
  • Those that watched him consistently say that Hunter has made strides as a playmaker, though that’s not where his value is likely to be derived from.

Brandon Clarke

Measurables: Age (22.5), height (6’8.25”), weight (207), wingspan (6’8.25”)
Prior Season Stats: Games played (37), Steals per 100 possessions (2.3), Blocks per 100 (6.3) Defensive Box Plus/Minus (10)
Sam Vecenie’s Big Board Ranking: 13

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Not many collegiate players can be appropriately described by just one statistic, but Clarke — a 22-year-old forward/big from Gonzaga University — can be: last season, he registered more blocked shots than missed field-goal attempts.

Though Clarke’s size (6’8.25” and 207 pounds) is a concern if he’s to be categorized as a big, he averaged a staggering 3.3 blocks per game in 2018-19, or 6.3 per 100 possessions of action. For the most part, that’s not because he’s taller or stronger than many of his opponents; it’s because he’s more instinctual. And that very defensive intelligence, along with his slowly developing offensive game, makes a Clarke who’s reached his potential a fascinating positional fit with the Wolves.

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With Saric’s free agency looming, the Wolves’ long-term plan for the front court spot adjacent to Towns remains less than clear. And Clarke, unsurprisingly, told ZoneCoverage’s Dane Moore at the draft combine in Chicago that he “would love playing with KAT.”

It’s a pairing that could pay dividends down the road given that the Gonzaga product excels in areas where Towns has struggled, especially on the defensive end. The Wolves’ center can be puzzled when tasked with making quick decisions in pick-and-roll containment, but Clarke is recognized as a prospect with enough smarts to be a great help defender, with the agility to switch onto guards and with the sense of timing necessary to pile up weak-side blocks.

On the offensive end, he does have a good handle for his size. What’s more, his leaping abilities could make him an effective rim-runner. But despite overhauling his shot upon transferring to Gonzaga, Clarke made just 27% of 0.4 3-point attempts per game last season. So, as of now, he’ll be forced to play a limited role on that side of the ball.

In theory, this is a manageable fact if Clarke is playing alongside a center that can shoot like Towns — in some regards, he’d function similar to the way Taj Gibson has over the last two seasons. In reality, though, the Wolves need to complement their all-star with a deep threat who can spread the floor and maximize Towns’ talents in isolation.

Should Clarke develop his shot and prove that his size won’t hinder any defensive capacity, he would become a near-ideal fit next to Towns. But if he can’t, he’d struggle to find playing time among a crowded Wolves’ front court and make onlookers wonder why such draft capital was allocated toward a limited big man when Saric was acquired just last November.

How does he project in the other areas where the Wolves need help?

  • Clarke has been a non-factor from deep to date, but he did improve his touch and free-throw percentage upon overhauling his shooting form last season. Thus, there’s hope for his development.
  • Clarke is a solid playmaker at his position, displaying good vision and a plus handle for his size.

Matisse Thybulle

Measurables: Age (22), height (6’5”), weight (200), wingspan (7’0”)
Prior Season Stats: Games played (36), Steals per 100 possessions (6.7), Blocks per 100 (4.4) Defensive Box Plus/Minus (10)
Sam Vecenie’s Big Board Ranking: 34

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Thybulle’s defense — though praised without exception — is more difficult to assess because of the zone scheme that he was a part of during his last three seasons at the University of Washington.

By most accounts, he’s as stout on that end of the floor as almost anyone else in this class. Like Hunter, Thybulle is both athletic and smart; he’s praised for his anticipation, hustle and length. Just 6’5” tall, he became the first player in more than 20 years to post at least 100 steals and 80 blocks in a single NCAA season.

But while playing within a zone system highlighted Thybulle’s prowess as a team defender, it did little to demonstrate his abilities in a one-on-one setting. Still, such a slew of positive measurables and statistics would predict some level of success in that regard.

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Interestingly, Thybulle is just one-inch taller than Okogie, the Wolves’ first-round pick from 2018, and the duo share matching 7’0” wingspans. Both players would — by most — be labeled as guards, though they certainly have the upside to defend most NBA wings. And while Okogie’s youth gives him much more potential, both players have suspect offensive games.

On some level, these similarities could invite concerns about their redundancy within the same roster. But Thybulle has never shown much of a desire to be a focal point of his team’s attack; at present, he projects as a 3-and-D role player if his career pans out. And as the NBA playoffs demonstrate year-after-year, a team can never have too many defensive-minded wings with the ability to connect on catch-and-shoot three’s.

If Thybulle is selected by the Wolves, it will most likely mean that Rosas traded down from the 11th pick. In that scenario, he’d be the kind of post-lottery player taken specifically to bolster an area of need.

How does he project in the other areas where the Wolves need help?

  • Thybulle never showed much as a playmaker at Washington, but he wasn’t one to make a disproportionate amount of mistakes, either.
  • Thybulle had his worst 3-point shooting season as a senior (30 percent), but his solid history from deep, encouraging free-throw percentage and touch around the rim do predict some upside as a shooter. He will, however, need to speed up his release.

Whether it’s an indication that this draft class is relatively shallow or not, there are only a handful of projected first-round picks — outside of Zion Williamson and the centers that the Wolves would do well to avoid — who are highly touted for their defensive abilities. But beyond Hunter, Clarke and Thybulle, there are plenty of prospects who have yet to tap into considerable upside on that end of the floor.

Photo Credit: Bob Donnan (USA Today Sports)

Coby White (pictured, above left), a freshman point guard out of North Carolina, is more known for his speed, scoring and shooting abilities at the point guard position, but he has all of the tools necessary to become a plus when containing the point of attack. Of note: despite the fact that White will most likely be taken before the 11th pick, the Wolves had him in town for a one-on-one workout last week.

Nassir Little (pictured, above right), White’s teammate at North Carolina, is noted for his defensive potential on the wing. Though he was often criticized for falling asleep when he wasn’t defending the ball-handler last season, many believe that his instincts could catch up with his athleticism in time.

Sekou Doumbouya, a forward from France with an almost ideal combination of height (6’10), length and athleticism, is the sort of lottery ticket the Wolves could nab if they’re looking for a more boom or bust option. Doumbouya hasn’t shown much of any poise on either end of the floor, but such outstanding physical tools mean that, if his skills develop, the sky’s the limit for this 18-year-old.

Up next: Playmakers

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Photo Credit: Bob Donnan (USA Today Sports)

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