Minnesota Timberwolves Draft Prospects: Shooters

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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 three-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, three-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 long-range shooting 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.

Darius Garland

Measurables: Age (19.5), height (6’3”), weight (174), wingspan (6’5”)
Prior Season Stats: Games (5), 3PA/40 min (6.6), FT% (.75), 3P% (.478), TS% (.657)
Sam Vecenie’s Big Board Ranking: 6

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Despite playing just five games as a freshman at Vanderbilt before tearing the meniscus in his left knee, Garland is almost universally predicted to be off of the board by the time the 11th selection rolls around. But if the Wolves uncover an opportunity to move up toward the draft’s top-five picks, this 19-year-old point-guard should have their undivided attention. A five-star recruit from Tennessee, Garland will have questions to answer about his defensive aptitude, but he’s been referred to as among the most exciting ball handlers to declare for the draft over the last several years.

Specifically, he excels as a shooter. Garland’s smooth style and form have delivered success off of the dribble, off movement and within catch-and-shoot situations; it’s easy to imagine this versatility from deep allowing him to play both on and off the ball at the NBA level. Yes, given Garland’s short tenure in the NCAA, all of the statistics he posted are rightly prefaced with a ‘very small sample size’ banner. But the tape would suggest that his 1.44 point-per-possession as a half-court jump-shooter (99th percentile) wasn’t a complete fluke.

If the Wolves find a way to nab a player of Garland’s ilk, it will likely be a double-edged sword as it relates to this franchise’s prospect for success moving forward.

On one hand, it’s easy and exciting to imagine Towns setting high picks on Garland’s defender for the next decade. If an opponent was preoccupied with Towns’ myriad talents, Garland could make them pay by pulling up from well behind the three-point arc. If a defender instead prioritizes slowing the ball-handler, Garland could enact a two-man game with Towns that would eventually have tantalizing potential.

On the other hand, though, point guards are seldom positive contributors toward winning basketball upon entering the league. So, if the Wolves’ number-one priority is to make the playoffs next season, leaning on Garland for 30+ minutes each night could be a counterproductive tactic. But in order to unearth his explosive potential, they’d be wise to give him the longest possible leash.

This isn’t to say that investing in Garland would be an unwise decision. On the contrary, it’d be the kind of aggressive approach that, down the road, could give the Wolves the star they so desperately need to play next to Towns. Even so, Garland’s lack of polish may simultaneously shrink the Wolves’ competitive hopes for the upcoming season.

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

  • Garland’s lack of size and elite athleticism are inspiring concerns about how effectively he’ll be able to defend the point of attack.
  • Garland appeared comfortable, confident and constructive when operating out of the pick and roll and organizing Vanderbilt’s lackluster offense.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Measurables: Age (20.5), height (6’5.5”), weight (204), wingspan (6’9.5”)
Prior Season Stats: Games (34), 3PA/40 min (5.3), FT% (.78), 3P% (.374), TS% (.586)
Sam Vecenie Big-Board Ranking: 19

Photo Credit: Michael Shroyer (USA Today Sports)

When analysts of modern basketball say that players are more appropriately segmented into three position groups (guard, wing, big) than five, Alexander-Walker is the kind of athlete they have in mind.

The two-year player out of Virginia Tech doesn’t fit a typical point-guard archetype because he’s never been a team’s primary ball-handler. Still, he wouldn’t fall into an antiquated definition of shooting guard, either, because he is productive with the ball in his hands.

Alexander-Walker averaged more than four assists per game last season, but by playing him off of the ball more often than not, Virginia Tech capitalized on his touted ability to catch-and-shoot. During his collegiate career, the Toronto native connected on 36 percent of 6.4 three-point attempts per-40 minutes of action. While those numbers may not scream sharp-shooter, his repeatable and quick release, combined with the volume and range he’s shown are positive indicators of future success from beyond the arc.

Regardless of where he’s drafted, it doesn’t take much to envision Alexander-Walker becoming a capable role player.

As it relates to his fit with the Wolves, then, more pressing questions may revolve around his high-end outcome as a prospect. Could Alexander-Walker someday be good enough to assume half of the Wolves’ starting back-court responsibilities? Or, would he be viewed as more of a complementary piece? And how would drafting him impact the front office’s approach to free agency this summer?

If he’s destined to be a sort of ‘utility guy,’ as they’re often referred to in Major League Baseball, the 20-year-old could take advantage of his plus-size and shooting abilities to complement almost any distributor in multiple-guard lineups. Conversely, should Rosas select Alexander-Walker behind a belief in his upside, Jones may become somewhat redundant as a long-term fit with this roster.

It stands to reason that Alexander-Walker and Okogie — if their shooting and playmaking abilities were to develop — could someday become the sort of low-usage, versatile and defensive-minded guard combination that would maximize Towns’ abilities on both sides of the floor. Nevertheless, those would be lofty (and most likely unrealistic) aspirations for the future of two mid-first-round picks.

At the very least, Alexander-Walker’s multitude of skill-sets should be appealing to a team with a diversity of needs.

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

  • Alexander-Walker’s size, length and aggression inspire confidence that he’ll be able to defend both guard spots.
  • Alexander-Walker has been a solid to above average facilitator, often commended for his pick and roll play and ambidextrous passes.

Tyler Herro

Measurables: Age (19.5), height (6’6”), weight (192), wingspan (6’3.25”)
Prior Season Stats: Games (37), 3PA/40 min (5.6), FT% (.935), 3P% (.36), TS% (.580)
Sam Vecenie’s Big-Board Ranking: 20

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If the Wolves new decision makers — fully aware of their team’s three-point shooting woes — are intent on taking the prospect with the highest ceiling as a long-range assassin, Herro may very well be their target.

That could come as a surprise given that, during his 37-game freshman campaign with the Kentucky Wildcats, Herro shot a middling 36 percent from beyond the arc. But if that fact can be overlooked, there are a bevy of signs that would indicate improvement is likely moving forward: he set a Wildcat record for highest free-throw percentage (.935) among players to register at least 50 attempts; his relentless movement and ability to shoot off balance make it possible to imagine him becoming a peripheral problem for NBA defenses; plus, the flashes that he’s shown shooting off the dribble raises the ceiling of what he could eventually become.

For these reasons and more, Wolves’ brass may well be intrigued by Herro — he would quickly join Covington as one of the Wolves’ most willing three-point threats.

More concerning, though, is to imagine how he might mesh within a lineup of current Wolves. It’s difficult to think that Teague and Herro could slow down opposing back-courts as a defensive duo. The same can be said for Jones and Herro, a pair that may also struggle to fashion shots on the offensive end. Moreover, a wing combination of Okogie and Herro would be comparatively slight in stature given that both are measured at 6-foot-5 or shorter.

But because none of those three young players (Jones, Okogie and Herro) are bonafide starters at this point in time, it would be counterproductive to make such a significant draft decision around their theoretical ability to share the floor. If Herro is deemed to be the best player available when the Wolves are on the clock, he’d be an exciting addition to a team that’s struggled to forge a more modern path forward.

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

  • Herro was a competent defender of multiple positions at the college ranks, but his wingspan (an unusual three inches shorter than his height) and relatively middling athleticism are causes for concern.
  • Herro uses his height to make good passes, but there’s little in his college film and stats that would suggest he’s destined to become a better than average playmaker at his position.

Cameron Johnson

Measurables: Age (23), height (6’8.5”), weight (205), wingspan (6’10”)
Prior Season Stats: Games (36), 3PA/40 min (7.8), FT% (.82), 3P% (.457), TS% (.648)
Sam Vecenie’s Big-Board Ranking: 24

Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj (USA Today Sports)

At the University of North Carolina last season, Johnson averaged more than 16 points per game on fewer than 12 field goal attempts. He heaved 6.2 three-pointers each contest and connected on a staggering 45.7 percent. Johnson, meaningfully bigger in stature than the other prospects discussed above, was one of college basketball’s very best shooters.

Frankly, Johnson’s positional or structural fit would be less of a concern if he’s drafted by a team like the Wolves — he’s a wing, and productive wings are few and far between.

Already 23 years old, his game also leaves fewer question marks than some of his peers’. Scouts tout the defensive improvements he made throughout an extended amateur career, but his large, slender frame invites questions about just how versatile he can become on that end of the floor. And he rarely served as much of a facilitator in college, though his improved two-point shooting percentage would suggest that he got better fashioning shots for himself.

Johnson does, however, have at least one skill that already appears to be polished at a professional level: he’s a shooter, and the Wolves need shooters.

If his game is as mature as his age, Johnson would fit well within the Wolves’ second unit. He could, on paper, slot between Okogie and a player like Anthony Tolliver or Luol Deng in an excitable lineup.

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

  • Johnson’s height and wingspan will give him a leg up in today’s NBA, but he’ll need to get stronger to defend larger opponents and prove that he has the lateral quickness to contain more shifty attackers.
  • Johnson wasn’t asked to be a playmaker at North Carolina, nor did he do so with above average success when the opportunity arose. He’s more of a typical 3 & D prospect than any sort of potential creator.

Up next: Defenders.

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