Jarrett Culver Is (Still) On The Rise

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Swinger (USA TODAY Sports)

Jarrett Culver has come a long way in five years.

From an unheralded, two-star, unranked recruit with only a handful of mid-major offers, to a full ride to Texas Tech, an NCAA championship game appearance, being selected 6th overall in the NBA draft, to bombing as a rookie and having his name tossed around in the trade rumor mill like he was a complete afterthought after only one incomplete season because of it. Culver, perhaps the most unassuming and quiet member of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ regular rotation, quickly became one of the team’s most polarizing players.

It’s a bit of a curse of being selected between the 4th and 8th overall pick: A player has the expectations of a high lottery pick, but the fans of the team are too aware of how many of these picks don’t pan out, and so these players are, arguably subliminally, perceived as toxic assets more swiftly than they should be if they struggle. When a player like Kris Dunn is dumped for only slightly diminished value after a subpar rookie season, fans of that team breathe a sigh of relief, as their franchise regained some of the sunken cost of a bad pick. On the other hand, when a team holds onto a Dragan Bender, Alex Len, or Marquese Chriss for too long and their value atrophies into nothingness, right Suns fans?

So, while I understand the general panic around Culver’s slow start to his NBA career, the little I wrote about Culver before the season started strongly hinted at my position on him, and I’ll explain why in a bit.

From Oct. 8th:

On the other hand, Jarrett Culver, the quiet late-bloomer from Texas Tech who arrived in Minnesota due to a very publicly botched draft day trade, had more bright spots than his numbers would suggest, but underwhelmed for a sixth overall pick in his rookie campaign.

From the Dec. 23rd Pirate Season Preview:

After landfall and before the voyage was abandoned, Private Culver quietly went about ‘is business with that trappings of a flibustier of old. He broadsided, he crossed swords with many a’ worthy foe, ‘e plundered and he scrubbed! Lo, there still be whispered about plans to maroon Private Culver upon an unspecified isle regardless of these deeds. […] Take heed, ‘tis not the hand to give over to the sea, lest not yet…

Allow me to translate and summarize that gibberish above: Culver looked like a legitimately good player, not just for a rookie, in the 11 games after the All-Star break, both on offense and defense. To panic sell on a player with offensive upside and a defensive game-by-game baseline after only 50-some underperforming games would be a colossal mistake, especially considering the scraps the team would get back for him.

So, why was I high on (and continue to be high on, even after Culver has gone a combined 4-for-21 from the field these last two games) Jarrett Culver all this time? It’s an easy answer: He gets it.

What does Culver get exactly? Let’s break it down into three categories:

  • Defense
  • Offensive Principles, Shot Selection
  • Work Ethic
  • Defense

Jarrett Culver plays defense. He actually tries on that end.

No, like, seriously, let’s just start there. This is currently of so much importance to this franchise that it merits pointing out when young players like Culver are actually engaged on that end. With Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards figuring to be the cornerstones of this franchise for the foreseeable future, the other supporting cast members of the team need to make up for their combined defensive inability and apathy.

Culver is far from perfect, particularly off the ball. However, when he makes mistakes on that end, they are always coming from a place of trying to do too much and being too active for his own good. When he falls asleep on a shooter, like when he lost Wesley Matthews on a back cut to the corner in the 1st quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers game, it’s often because Culver is focusing on the ball because he’s trying to time a pounce. On the play in question, where a veteran shooter ended up missing a wide-open three after the cut, Culver was caught too high on the cut because he gambled on which passing lane to jump, assuming that LeBron James would make the simple pass to Alex Caruso on the wing, and got burnt by LeBron’s passing brilliance. Frankly, I would rather have a young player get burnt occasionally by trying to do too much than the opposite, where they’re getting beat consistently due to indifference and inattention. One is more readily fixable than the other and with far more realistic defensive upside.

As far as strengths go, Culver isn’t exactly a defensive superstar, but he does make plays that the average NBA defender doesn’t make. He’s attentive and active in passing lanes, and his defensive discipline allows him to be opportunistic in his steal attempts without racking up needless fouls. Also, his on-ball defense is fantastic, especially for a player of his age. In his rookie season, Culver forced almost three times as many contested catch-and-shoot attempts and jumpers off the dribble as he allowed unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers. Also, on a team that allowed far too many easy shots at the rim, Culver was one of the lone bright spots. While he allowed almost two at-rim half-court per game, he held the offensive players to only 44% on those attempts.

Offensive Principles, Shot Selection

Even though Culver was inconsistent and shaky when it came to his game-by-game scoring output, one thing that never wavered was his shot selection. To see the trend, here are his mid-range and floater distribution for his previous three seasons, starting with his sophomore season at Texas Tech:

That jump from his final college season to the NBA is some serious personal growth, and it does, of course, coincide with a large change in offense role, from first option to role player. However, strangely, the rate of late in shot clock possessions (four or fewer seconds remaining) was largely unchanged from his last season at Texas Tech (11%) to his rookie season with the Wolves (9%). In short, while the load to create late in shot clock possessions — where mid-ranges are often forced to be taken — stayed roughly the same, Culver slashed the number of midrange shots attempted by more than 75%.

While Culver has made noticeable improvements in his shooting form and looks more dynamic and comfortable attempting to finish around the rim, by taking these analytically-friendly steps in the summer before his rookie season, and potentially then improving yet on those strides during this off-season, he has set himself up well to be a positive influence on the Timberwolves for years to come. Even if he only becomes, say, a 38% three-point shooter and a 58% at-rim finisher, the impact of those numbers will be disproportionate to the somewhat pedestrian efficiencies because of a lack of bad shots. And if he even becomes a knock-down shooter or reliable at-rim finisher, well, Culver’s worth would be cemented, as would likely a starting role on the team with a long-term contract.

Work Ethic

Few players in the league seem to work harder and more consistently than Jarrett Culver. But, don’t take it from me, here are quotes from people more in the know:

From Zone Coverage’s own, Kyle Ratke:

From The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski:

“Through all of the highs and lows, Culver’s work ethic has been the one thing that gives everyone in the organization confidence that there will be real growth in his game the longer he is in the league. Coaches, teammates and team officials have all raved about Culver’s relentless approach and refusal to get down when he has struggled.”

From The Intermission’s Interview with Culver’s high school coach, Layne Sheets:

“At Coronado, he would wake up at 4:50 in the morning and by 5 a.m., he had the shooting machine set up,” Sheets said. “He put himself through an hour workout before we even had practice. And I mean, he would put himself through a hard, hard work out. He wasn’t just up there shooting a few shots and leaving.”

From former teammate Jeff Teague:

“He doesn’t say much. He just observes. He’s a hard worker. Unbelievable worker.”

From his head coach, Ryan Saunders:

“People told me about his work ethic, told me his will to be great (is strong). I didn’t realize how true that was. The way he works, he’s a guy you got to keep out of the gym.”

Listen, I get it, this is all circumstantial, but it’s rare for a player to have this many people, at so many different levels of his basketball journey, all singing his praises. The only gap here is his time at Texas Tech, but as noted before, that’s where Culver worked himself from a two-star (retroactively upgraded to three… funny how that happens) recruit to the 18 PPG star who lead the school to the NCAA championship game.

I suspect that they’re a fan of his work ethic there, too.

Tie this all together, and what do you have?

A player who cares about defense, who cares about shot selection, and who cares, a lot, about becoming the best player he can be.

If he doesn’t make it, bummer. The team swung and missed, and then didn’t flip him when they had the chance.

If he does make it? Buckle up, we could have found the next Jimmy Butler-type success story.

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