One year ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves struck a deal that they hoped would make them relevant again. By acquiring D’Angelo Russell from the Golden State Warriors, Gersson Rosas formed the team’s future with Russell playing alongside Karl-Anthony Towns.
As we sit here today, the move hasn’t worked out. Russell and Towns have only played in five games together, while the Warriors have a 60% chance of landing a second lottery pick. The Wolves sit near the bottom of the Western Conference with a 6-18 record, knowing full well they could miss out on the first round of a stacked 2021 NBA Draft.
But there’s another thing that has happened since Towns and Russell have missed time. A lot of the players on the Timberwolves roster have had to step up. While that hasn’t resulted in wins, it’s something that could benefit them in the future.
One of the most significant developments has been the play of Malik Beasley. While his off-the-court transgressions have grabbed headlines, Beasley is validating his four-year, $60 million contract by becoming a go-to weapon without Towns and Russell on the floor.
Besides averaging a career-high 20.5 points per game, Beasley has found a way to become a more complete player. He caught fire in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, hitting six 3-pointers and flirting with a triple-double. He ended up with 30 points, nine rebounds, and six assists to fuel a 25-point comeback in the 127-122 loss.
Beasley has started to become a player the Wolves can build around now that he’s making threes at a 38.5 percent clip. His improvement has had a trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup, which has helped Anthony Edwards become more efficient as a starter than he was coming off the bench.
Edwards has responded by showing the ability to get to the rim, providing offense to a team desperately in need of it. With the spikes in his assist and rebounding totals, it’s not hard to imagine the 19-year-old improving when DLo and KAT are back.
As good as the starting lineup could be, the real improvement has occurred in players who could be coming off the bench after Russell and Towns return. Both Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels have shown out in their turns in the starting lineup and have benefitted from the extra minutes this situation provided.
The absence of Towns, in particular, has also sparked Naz Reid. The LSU product has started to find his stride with more time on the floor. He put up a career-high 29 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 6. And while he was pushed around by Kristaps Porzingis against the Dallas Mavericks, Reid could be a solid player to spell Towns, adding another reliable bench player to the mix.
Also, consider the backcourt. The Ricky Rubio-DLo tandem hasn’t provided positive results this season, and it could relegate Rubio to a strictly backup role moving forward. Although he would be disgruntled, playing on the second unit to help guide fringe players may benefit the team.
Russell and KAT’s absence has resulted in another poor record for the Timberwolves but could wind up helping the team long-term if they retain their pick.
The franchise’s history suggests that the top-three pick the Wolves sent to Golden State to acquire Russell will fall outside of the protection and give the Warriors fuel for another dynasty. A more positive approach seems to project what could be if the Wolves can hold on to that pick.
With the 2021 class looking much better than last year’s, the Timberwolves could find a power forward of the future to put beside Towns. Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman suggested Jonathan Kuminga as a potential fit, but a top-three pick could also open the door for acquiring another big star to put beside Towns and Russell.
Minnesota seems to be collecting assets, making the absence of their two biggest stars a little easier to digest. The hope should be that Towns and Russell’s return help the Wolves improve enough to breed optimism, but not enough so that they play themselves out of their first-round pick. If their pieces keep benefitting from this stretch, it could build a much stronger foundation for the future.