Timberwolves

Who Will Start For the Timberwolves?

“The time will come when Winter will ask you what you were doing all Summer.”

To me, that’s a quote about hoops. It makes sense, right? Put in the work in the summer and you’ll be better when the season rolls around in the winter. Simple enough. Of course, that’s not what Henry Clay (a 19th-century politician) was writing about. But for me, ever since that quote showed up on a t-shirt I got after attending a basketball camp as a teenager, the association has been there.

I was reminded of that shirt — and the quote — at the Timberwolves practice facility earlier this summer when Josh Okogie, Cam Reynolds, Keita Bates-Diop and Jared Terrell were rocking matching shirts with Flip Saunders’ signature We Over Me “WE” across the breast. And as the group walked by, in bold lettering, “SUMMER SESSIONS” popped off their shoulder blades — the same place the Clay quote appeared on my shirt.

Summer Sessions have, in many ways, come to define the Timberwolves’ summer. The consensus across the organization — between the players who have been around for a few years, longtime team employees and the team’s new head coach — is that this summer around the facility has been different. The young Sessions crew, that has since added Jarrett Culver, Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid, has been around more this summer than any group of players have been for years. And the young guys have frequently had guests, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington and Jeff Teague — who have mixed in group workouts to their meetings with the new coaching staff and front office.

Of course, it’s no crowning achievement for teammates to practice together during the summer. Far from it. But it certainly beats the alternative. Last summer, of course, serves as an example, when the same practice facility was often left vacant — a physical manifestation of the schisms developing between certain players and between a few players and the coach.

Putting in the work and being around is only one part of the question Winter will ask, though, when this Summer comes to a close. Unlike a summer basketball camp, that just believes the results are derived from the work, an NBA winter asks a bigger question: What did you do to the roster all summer?

A time will come when Winter will confront Gersson Rosas with the question: Was this the best the summer?

On the surface, there was certainly a positive energy attached to the front office’s pursuit of D’Angelo Russell. But then there is also the other side of that coin — you know, like, what actually happened to the roster — that seems to have been somewhat veiled by the Russell pursuit.

Opinions vary on the post-Russell strategy implemented by Rosas. The new president of basketball operations opted to keep the powder dry by largely avoiding long-term financial commitments after Russell did not happen. The logic of this tactic is palatable to risk-seekers who are willing to wait for the possibility of exponential growth when cleaner books could permit The Next D’Angelo Russell to actually happen. On the other hand, some would have argued for more of a linear progression; one that retained talent or went out onto the market to replace it, even if that meant dampening the powder.

Both lines of thinking carry logic. But it is Rosas — the actual decision-maker — who is, of course, of the former mentality, and the proof of his logic (or lack thereof) will be in the pudding. The results of the process will not bear immediate fruit, and may not for years to come. Like any investment strategy, the results live in the future.

“That flexibility is incredibly valuable,” according to Rosas, who spoke on the strategy while attending the Minnesota State Fair last Thursday. “And it’s not only in terms of free agency, but it’s also in terms of trade. The ability to be able to make moves to create space, to have that flexibility is critical. We’re building our core, we’re targeting high-end talent.”

Because this is the current reality, bigger-picture questions exist only in the clouds. The only questions that can really be dug into are the ones that have looming and relatively imminent answers. These inquiries include what the style of play will be and who will actually be playing. But perhaps the biggest question — and one that touches both on style and personnel — is simple: Who will start?

So let’s dig into that.

Who Will Be the Timberwolves Fifth Starter?

The acknowledgment of Dario Saric’s departure and the vacancy he leaves in the frontcourt is the place to begin when looking to answer the ‘Who starts?’ question.

Saric and the Timberwolves’ lottery pick (No. 11 overall) were, of course, traded for the Phoenix Suns’ lottery pick (No. 6 overall) that became Culver — who measured 6’5.25″ (without shoes) and weighed 194 pounds at the pre-Draft combine, making him definitively not a direct Saric replacement.

Natural replacements for Saric from last season’s roster, Taj Gibson and Anthony Tolliver, departed in free agency, leaving a hole upfront. But, on draft night, Rosas threw in a plot twist when he made it known that the team wouldn’t necessarily need to look outside of the current roster to find its Saric successor. Instead, he suggested that the positions of incumbent roster pieces may just need to be looked at differently.

“Robert Covington is a guy that has the most success at the four offensively,” said Rosas the night he traded Saric, in what was his first player-specific example of how his team will implement a faster, more modern style of play.

“That’s how we want to play,” Rosas continued. “For us to be able to execute that vision, we have to be built differently.”

This adjustment in positional perspective on Covington led to a shift in how the roster — and thus the starting lineup — could be pictured. Post-Draft, the loose outline of the starting lineup had four slots nailed down — KAT at the five, Covington at the four, Wiggins on the wing and Teague at the point. And when no clear-cut starting-caliber player was acquired during the free agency process, the question mark of who fills that fifth slot became real.

As it currently stands, entering training camp, the candidates for that role cast a relatively wide net. Reasonable guesses for the nominees include one incumbent player (Okogie), a rookie (Culver) and Rosas’ three free agency signees (Jake Layman, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh). All five players bring something different, which means the answer will come from the subjective tastes of Rosas and Ryan Saunders. Over the course of the summer, through various media gaggles, both Rosas and Saunders have been dropping hints as to what their flavor preference may be. From those interactions, below are my best estimates of what they see in each of the five candidates.

Jake Layman

While admittedly an educated guess at best, two separate sets of comments from Rosas and Saunders lead me to believe it will be Layman who starts alongside KAT, Covington, Wiggins and Teague — at least to start the season.

After the introductory press conference for Layman, Bell and Vonleh, Saunders said “there is a strong possibility” that Covington is the team’s starting power forward entering the season. But he also followed that comment up by saying he has “liked Andrew Wiggins playing the two at times, too” — suggesting the fifth starting spot could be filled by a small forward.

“Then you can plug Jake in,” Saunders continued in a hypothetical tone, “and you’re switching all the same sizes.”

As for Rosas, the one note that stood out in Las Vegas, the first time he could publicly speak on the signing of Layman, was when he said Layman “is going to be a guy who makes our offense go.” This comment had a feel similar to Rosas’ Draft night assertion of Covington’s best position being the four. Before Rosas dropped this Layman line, he paused — loading the comment to feel like it was something more than a passing thought. The use of our offense rather than just offense in that quote, to me, implied Layman’s involvement in a group. Could he have meant Layman will make our second-unit offense go? Sure. But, if it were me, I wouldn’t have used our offense to describe a player that will be playing 14 minutes per night off the bench.

Last week, Rosas added some fuel to this notion when he described an offense that will have the ball in KAT’s hands frequently, functioning similarly, according to Rosas, to how Nikola Jokic was the fulcrum the Denver Nuggets offense a year ago.

“I think that’s fair,” said Rosas of the Jokic comparison to Towns. “Jokic is the primary function of their offense in terms of his playmaking.”

Rosas went on to suggest that Layman is the archetype of a role player that fits that system.

“A lot of our offensive creativity is going to be with Karl and the ball in his hands, whether that’s top of the key in a lot of our series or even at the elbows or even out of the post,” said Rosas. “Guys that can space the floor, run the floor, cut away from the basket with high IQs are going to be important for us. A guy like Jake Layman can really do that and has done that throughout his career.”

Beyond parsing words though, there are also more concrete dots to connect that suggest a greater commitment to Layman.

In the most literal sense, the Wolves committed more annual salary ($3.6 million) to Layman than they did to Vonleh ($2.0 million) or Bell ($1.6 million). But perhaps more noteworthy is the length of Layman’s contract: three years (two more than both Vonleh and Bell). Particularly in an offseason where future financial flexibility was prioritized, that feels noteworthy, even if $3.6 million isn’t traditional starter money.

There is also Layman’s size. At the 2016 pre-Draft combine, Layman measured 6’8” without shoes — making him a tall small forward and even taller than a handful of players who were utilized as small-ball power forwards last season.

While Layman is tall, he is neither thick or long. At the combine, he weighed in at 209 pounds, and his wingspan of 6’9.25″ was only 1.25 inches more expansive than his height. Comparatively, despite measuring 1.75 inches taller than Covington (6’6.25″), Layman’s wingspan is 4.5 inches shorter — a part of the rationale for playing the three in lineups he is alongside Covington.

Still, together, if you squint hard enough, Layman and Covington are two players who are small-ball power forward size in this NBA. Sure, there will still be problems against bruising frontcourts. But Layman and Covington’s size at the forward positions beats the size of Covington and Culver pairing and the Covington and Okogie duo. Using combine measurements, Culver measured three inches and 15 pounds less than Layman when he was measured this June, and Okogie (211 pounds) weighs as much Layman but is five inches shorter (6’3″ without shoes). Include Wiggins (who is essentially the same height and weight as Layman) in that group and the Wolves may lack girth but that’s not a small wing trio — even if one of them is the de facto power forward.

Jarrett Culver

To start Culver would be a player development play. It comes with the territory of being a rookie, but Culver is probably the most likely player on the roster not named KAT to be on the roster, say, four years from now — a reasonable window for when this team is actually ready to compete in the West. Because of that, investing as many resources as possible into him as early as possible is a logical pursuit. If Culver does not appear to be extremely raw in training camp, there is an argument to be made that one of those invested resources should be playing time, and maybe even a starting job.

In recent history, players selected in the range Culver was typically got that chance to develop in a starting role — particularly in situations, like Minnesota’s, where there wasn’t an established, veteran piece ahead of them on the depth chart.

2018 NBA Draft

5th pick: Trae Young — started all 81 games he played in as a rookie.
6th pick: Mo Bamba — started one game, serving as Nikola Vucevic’s backup the other 46 games he played
7th pick: Wendell Carter Jr. — started all 44 games he played in until he got hurt
8th pick: Collin Sexton — came off the bench first 10 games, started next 72
9th pick: Kevin Knox — began starting in mid-December, totaling 57 starts

2017 NBA Draft

5th pick: De’Aaron Fox — began starting mid-November, totaling 60 starts as a rookie
6th pick: Jonathan Isaac — missed the majority of his rookie year with an injury (10 starts in 27 games)
7th pick: Lauri Markkanen — started every game he wasn’t injured for (68 starts)
8th pick: Frank Ntilikina — started 9 of 78 games as he really struggled to acclimate to the NBA
9th pick: Dennis Smith Jr. — started all 69 games he was healthy for

If the two clear-cut development projects from the past two drafts mid-lottery, Bamba and Ntilikina, are removed from the ten-player sample, those other eight picks started 89 percent of the games they played in as a rookie. Along those lines, maybe Culver will take a similar arc to Collin Sexton — who backed up George Hill for the first 10 games of the season before moving into the starting lineup. Maybe Layman is the Wolves’ Hill — moving to a bench role once Culver is ready.

Whether it is to start the season or somewhere along the line, the basketball argument for giving the fifth starter role to Culver is his ability to be a secondary ball-handler. Even without any NBA experience, Culver comes in Day One as a better offensive initiator than both Layman and Okogie, and of course Vonleh and Bell.

It is clearly part of Rosas’ vision to have his franchise emulate much of what the Brooklyn Nets did last season. He and Saunders want the team to play fast and push the pace in transition when the game calls for it. But in the halfcourt, how exactly they shape the floor remains a bit ambiguous. Again, Rosas confirmed that Towns will be a fulcrum. But how much of that is actually operating from the high post, Jokic-style? Will Towns also be utilized as pick-and-roll rim-diver/popper? A suped-up Nikola Vucevic? The answer is that KAT will probably function similarly to both of the Nikolas. But when they do lean on the pick-and-roll game (Vucevic-style), as Brooklyn often did last season, there will be an advantage to having numerous ball-handlers that can initiate the action. Last season, Teague and Wiggins were, at best, decent in those situations. Culver could be the third bullet in the pick-and-roll chamber in ways the other fifth starter candidates are incapable of — and through that, he could help unlock something in Towns.

Noah Vonleh

The argument for Vonleh is size, plain and simple. At 6’8″ (without shoes), Vonleh marks a typical height of a big man, but his 250-pound frame with a 7’4.25″ wingspan makes him, physically, almost a rare breed. While Rosas and Saunders have made it known they want Covington to play the four, there may be bigger opponents that using Covington against just doesn’t work.

At Vonleh’s introductory press conference, Rosas said, “more often than not we want teams to adjust to us.” But he also acknowledged that “there are certain teams that you might have to make the adjustment with.” Vonleh and, to an extent, Bell would be that adjustment. “For us,” said Rosas, “the ability to play different lineups, to go short or long, to be able to match up to certain individuals and go big, if we feel that gives us our best strength.”

At a minimum, indications are that this is Vonleh’s role. The modern NBA is shrinking but those “certain teams” — the big ones — Rosas describes exist; in fact, there may be more of them this season than any recent year. While the concern in these situations is not born out of a fear of being pummeled in post-up situations, it is about being able to defensive rebound against them. Even with sizeable frontcourt partners next to Towns — like Gibson, Saric and Gorgui Dieng — the Wolves have never finished better than 25th in defensive rebounding rate in any season of Towns’ four-year career. Now, a lot of that falls on weak rebounding from the wings that have surrounded Towns, but it’s safe to say that subtracting a true big from the starting lineup and replacing it with a wing-sized player is unlikely to help those numbers.

If there is one characteristic to be excited about with Vonleh, it is in his defensive rebounding ability. Of players who played substantial roles in 2018-19 (25-plus minutes per night in 50 or more games), the 23.4 percent of available defensive rebounds Vonleh hauled in was the 15th best mark in the league, per NBA.com. That rate certainly played a role in Vonleh ranking eighth amongst power forwards who played 25 minutes per game last season in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric.

Vonleh doesn’t pop out of the film as a defensive tactician; it’s his size and the way he utilizes it to get paid on the glass that makes him attractive as a defender. Put simply: it’s tough to stop a 250-pound dude that wants the board if their standing reach is 9’0″ — like Vonleh’s. Which brings us back to his fairly rare anatomical configuration. To use former Timberwolves as examples, Vonleh measures similarly to the physically obtuse Cole Aldrich and Derrick Williams. The hope is that Vonleh can be a fusion of Aldrich’s physicality on the defensive interior mixed with Williams wiggle when moving north-to-south on offense. I would contend, however, that Vonleh’s best utility would be less wiggle and more interior-focus. Think Derrick Favors, who played alongside Rudy Gobert for years in Utah and now looks to flank Zion Williamson in the New Orleans frontcourt. Favors, who weighs 245 pounds, measures 6’8.75″ (without shoes) and has a wingspan of 7’4″, is essentially the same exact shape as Vonleh.

By my count, there are nine of those certain teams Rosas describes that feel like they could force the Wolves to go bigger with their starting lineup: Philadelphia (Embiid and Horford), Toronto (Gasol and Siakam), San Antonio (Aldridge and Poeltl), Detroit (Griffin and Drummond), Denver (Millsap and Jokic), Indiana (Sabonis and Turner), Los Angeles (Davis and McGee/Howard), Milwaukee (Antetokounmpo and Lopez) and Portland (Collins and Whiteside/Nurkic). The Wolves play those nine teams 25 times this season. There are also lesser teams — like Cleveland (Love and Thompson), Memphis (Jackson Jr. and Valanciunas), Phoenix (Saric and Ayton) and New York (Robinson and Randle) — who might not be good enough to force the Wolves hand, but could still present real size problems on a good night. The Wolves play those four teams 11 times, totaling nearly half the season (36 games) against 13 physically imposing opponents.

If Vonleh doesn’t get the opening night nod — and I doubt he does against the small-ball Nets — it still seems impossible that the Wolves won’t have to tap into his size in a meaningful way this season, maybe often as a starter.

Josh Okogie

Surrendering 112.2 points per 100 possessions last season actually marked the Wolves best defensive season, in terms of league rank, from the past five seasons. Coming in 24th was better than 25th (the full season of Butler), 27th (Thibs’ first season), 28th (KAT’s rookie year) and 30th (Wiggins’ rookie year). But 24th is not good. The six teams the Wolves finished above (CLE, PHX, ATL, WAS, NYK, CHI) combined to win 138 games last season — good for an average record of 23-59. If the Wolves do not take a major stride in terms of defensive of execution, given the loss of a lot of offensive talent, they are headed to something like a 23-win fate themselves.

It’s easy to find logic in the strategy of prioritizing defense over anything else. And if that is the line of thinking, the argument for using Okogie as the fifth starter gains force. Okogie’s individual defensive rating of 110.6 was better than every player on the roster who played over 1100 minutes last season other than Tyus Jones (108.4). Better yet, Okogie brought out some of Towns’ better defensive numbers when the two shared the floor. Of the players Towns shared the floor with for over 600 minutes, his two-man pairing with Okogie produced his best defensive rating.

The same can be said of Okogie’s pairing with Wiggins. Of players Wiggins shared the floor with for a substantial amount of time (500 minutes), similarly, his best two-man pairing came with Okogie.

In terms of specific defensive implementation, Okogie is the type of player that can be weaponized as a point-of-attack defender. Covington is a superior option to Okogie in these situations, but if he is going to play the four, oftentimes he won’t be able to be utilized at the point of attack.

For example, take the Wolves fourth matchup of the season against Philadelphia — the team with the most dynamic combination of size and speed in the league. Could starting Okogie be a better compromise of adding size to the starting lineup without sacrificing speed than Vonleh would be? If Okogie did start, instead of being forced to put Covington on Ben Simmons at the point-of-attack, Okogie could check Simmons, and Covington could stay on Al Horford at the four. This would better allow the Wolves to hide Teague on Josh Richardson while sticking Wiggins on Tobias Harris and Towns on Joel Embiid. It’s still an uphill battle either way, but Okogie’s presence on the massive Simmons could help balance the scales; allowing the Wolves to stay with their preferred lean grouping that may be able to outrun Philly.

Sure, there is the hope that Culver and Layman can become defensive stalwarts on the wing. But Okogie is already a known commodity on that end, and in a rose-colored reality, he isn’t a major step back on the offensive end, either.

Starting lineup or not, to take the next step, Okogie needs to become a stronger offensive weapon, particularly in terms of his handle and jumper. But his defensive aptitude will be his ticket to playing time. If team defense is prioritized above all else, there’s an argument to be made that he should start even if his offense holds the status quo.

Jordan Bell

To start Bell would be a combination of the logic behind starting Vonleh (size) and Okogie (defensive versatility). Bell — who is an inch shorter, 25 pounds lighter and sports a wingspan 4.5 inches shorter than Vonleh — is not a bruising presence in the frontcourt. He is, however, far more physically imposing than Okogie, Culver or Layman. That physicality becomes a threat if Bell can optimize his versatility. Similar to Okogie, he could allow Saunders to get funky with lineup combinations, and his presence would allow a diversity of defensive coverages to be implemented when he is on the floor. Bell will enter camp as the big man best at switching, and that could be an asset in the starting group.

I hadn’t paid much mind to the idea of Bell potentially being a starter this season (or even a real consistent member of the rotation) until his introductory press conference. When Saunders and Rosas raved about Bell’s championship pedigree and his ability to grab a rebound and get out on the break, I added him to the list of candidates. More than anything else, Bell’s new coach was all about what he could bring to the Wolves defensive end.

“Jordan, his versatility defensively, that’s something we need,” said Saunders, who, like Rosas, noted Bell’s ability to defend five positions.

But outside of high praise, there aren’t really concrete signals of commitment to Bell. Unlike Layman, who signed for three years, or Vonleh, who turned down a multi-year deal so as to get back on the market next season, Bell’s contract situation does not suggest he was a hot commodity. After Golden State began moving in a new direction, Bell signed a veteran’s minimum contract with the Wolves. With only two years of NBA experience, signing this type of contract also makes him a restricted free agent next summer. To recap: Bell signed the shortest possible deal for the least amount of money possible and a deal that will behold him to the team-friendly vice grips of restricted free agency. In a vacuum, it’s just not the type of deal a starting-caliber player often signs.

For example, in 2018, only eight players signed contracts that carried a minimum cap hold and went on to start more than 15 games for the team they signed with.

That said, the above list includes two current Wolves: Vonleh and the recently acquired Treveon Graham. Maybe this suggests Rosas is actively trying to find players who can play in roles that greatly exceed their salary slot. (Side note from last season: Layman played for $30k more than the veteran minimum; Shabazz Napier played for $130k over the minimum; Bell’s rookie deal paid him $150k less than the veteran minimum.) Maybe there is something there.

Further, maybe Bell agreed to the deal because he was given some assurances in terms of his role. Maybe he saw the contract as an opportunity that allowed him to bet on himself. For a big whose market value was near the minimum, was there a better opportunity out there than one that allows them to share the floor with KAT? At his press conference, that seemed to be Bell’s line of thinking.

“I’m very excited to work with KAT,” said Bell. “Just because I know how good of a player he is. I think me being the playmaker I am, I think that’s going to expand our offense even more, expand his game even more.”

That latter part of Bell’s answer is probably what would tip the scales in the direction of making him a legitimate starting option. Can Bell really snatch defensive boards, get out on the break and initiate an offense that builds up Towns? If so, given the team’s need for size and defensive versatility, that would arguably make Bell a better option than all four of Layman, Culver, Vonleh and Okogie. That’s his ticket, and it seems to be what he signed up for.

***

All that said, does it really matter who starts next to Towns, Covington, Wiggins and Teague? No, not really. All five will get their chance to play with those starters, and from that it will be learned how each player does and does not compliment the starting core.

But starting status does mean something. It’s a signal not only to the players but the fanbase of who the most important players are. Quite literally, starting status is a status thing. Players want to say they are starters, and fanbases want to rep their starting five. It’s silly, but it counts.

Because of that, who Rosas and Saunders decide to put that signal on means something. If it’s Layman, maybe that signals this team is serious about a (slightly more) veteran playoff push — fueled by a long, lanky and fast style of play. If it’s Culver, maybe the signal is that they truly believe the Culver and KAT duo is the future — and that there is no need to waste time. If it’s Vonleh, maybe that signals that the whole Covington at the four thing is more like the Wildcat package in football — a gimmick they’ll use in spurts, but not something to rely on night-after-night. If it’s Okogie, the signal may be that defense is far more of a priority than they’ve been letting on. And if it’s Bell, maybe it’s a signal that this whole super-switch deal is actually happening.

The name that shows up across the shoulder blades of the fifth starter come opening night will provide an answer to Winter’s first line of questioning. Whether it’s Layman, Culver, Vonleh, Okogie or Bell, we’ll begin to start understanding what the Wolves were doing all Summer.

 

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