The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the midst of a rudderless season that has seen a once-promising roster sink straight to the bottom of the NBA standings. A smattering of injuries, positive COVID-19 tests, a coaching change, on-court chemistry problems, and general franchise malaise have all factored into a league-worst 9-30 record. No other player on the roster seems to encapsulate the struggles this season has offered more than second-year wing Jarrett Culver.
The 22-year-old has been all over the lineup in the first half of the season. Culver came off the bench at first. After Karl-Anthony Towns injured his wrist, he started a string of games at power forward. It was a tall task for the wiry 6’6”, 195-lb guard. While Culver showed some promise early in the season – a penchant for flying in and stealing rebounds from much taller players – he’s struggling once again this season, averaging 7.2 points per game along with 4.7 rebounds and 0.8 assists while shooting a paltry 22.9% from three.
To add injury to insult, Culver sprained his ankle on Jan. 25th against the Golden State Warriors and subsequently missed 17 games. During his absence, Ryan Saunders was replaced by Chris Finch in a midseason move that drew the ire of many around the league.
Culver came back to a new system that seemingly didn’t have much time for him. The former sixth overall pick played just 37 minutes over the next three games in which he shot 3-for-17 (17.6%) from the field and scored a total of seven points, and he’s missed the three games immediately following the All-Star break with a toe injury.
A return to the court is imminent. Now the question is: Where does he fit on this team?
At the moment, the Timberwolves are surprisingly flush with young backcourt and wing talent thanks to the meteoric rise of Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and Jaylen Nowell to add to the better-known commodities like D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Josh Okogie, and Culver.
- Edwards is thriving in Finch’s offensive system, averaging 22 points in the eight games since Finch took over.
- Nowell has found his niche as a sixth man off the bench and has a very similar game to Beasley — Minnesota’s best offensive player this season.
- McDaniels has impressed fans and coaching staff alike with his versatility on defense, ability to handle the ball, and space the floor on offense.
- Russell is expected to return from his knee injury sometime in the next two to three weeks, and Beasley is halfway through his 12-game league suspension.
Okogie fills the role of wing defensive stopper in Minnesota’s rotation, which leaves little room for Culver when everyone is healthy and back from suspension. Culver and Okogie cancel each other out on the floor, both skilled defenders (Okogie the superior ball-stopper) with limited impact on the offensive end of the floor. Add in Towns, Ricky Rubio, Naz Reid, and Jarred Vanderbilt as rotational stalwarts, and Culver is no higher than 11th in the rotation. He’s the odd man out and will have to fight with Jordan McLaughlin, Jake Layman, and Juan Hernangómez for spot minutes.
In his 19 games this season, Culver ranks seventh on the Timberwolves in minutes per game at 19.8. But that figure is just decimal points ahead of McLaughlin, McDaniels, and Okogie.
There is a possibility that, upon his return, Culver eats significantly into Nowell’s minutes. But Nowell is averaging 14 points per game under Finch’s tutelage while shooting a blazing 50% from three over the last eight games. It seems increasingly unlikely that Nowell will relinquish his spot in the offensive coach’s rotation.
One avenue to fix the current logjam on the wing is to trade Culver. His athleticism, youth, and upside could be intriguing for potential trade partners, while the Wolves would be happy to flip the project for immediate frontline help (*cough John Collins cough*). Because Culver has had a rough sophomore season, the Wolves would likely have to add another young prospect or draft picks to any trade involving Culver.
Perhaps President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas opts to try to trade Okogie, Nowell, McDaniels, or a combination of the three to try and land an impact player. Such a trade would allow Culver to return to his accustomed spot in the backcourt, but it does seem like the Wolves have big plans for McDaniels, and Nowell is a better fit than Culver off the bench.
The next few weeks without Russell and Beasley is possibly a make-or-break stretch for Culver. Excel and he will continue on his path to becoming an impact player in the NBA. Falter and he could quickly find himself on another team — or, far more grimly, out of the rotation altogether on the NBA’s worst team.