It doesn’t take Tim Connelly to tell you that the Minnesota Timberwolves’ new president of basketball operations (POBO), is proud of his blue collar roots.
The most memorable moment at Connelly’s introductory press conference in May was when Connelly, a former scout in the NBA, eagerly awaited a packed “warroom” of opinionated basketball enthusiasts arguing about which Wolves player to draft on June 23. Connelly enjoyed the scene in real-time last Thursday. Connelly was greeting the media at midnight. He had just completed four trades, all of which were a way for the Wolves to jockey for different slots in their draft queue, and had selected four players. Connelly was then asked if the banter had been up to his expectations.
“You kidding me?” I have already had two beers. There is no shortage of argumentation, which is wonderful. There is no shortage of debate. He replied with a grin and said, “I wouldn’t have it any different,” before adding, for emphasis, that there was no hierarchy when they were in the room. Let’s just beat them up” to make the right decisions.
The hierarchy was still in transition, whether it was noticed or not. Sachin Gupta, the interim president of basketball operations, had been managing the Wolves draft preparation for many months with the assistance of his staff which included Manny Rohan and Joe Branch as well as Zarko Durisic, international director of player personnel. In May, Gupta hired Steve Senior, a former assistant of the Memphis Grizzlies. Connelly signed a five-year, $40 million contract to become the Wolves POBO starting May 23. Gupta was promoted to executive vice president for basketball operations. This is slightly higher than former Orlando Magic assistant general manger Matt Lloyd who Connelly quickly hired to be his senior vice president. Last but not least, Chris Finch, the head coach, was also included in the mix.
Spread sheets and brain cells were the preferred howitzers in this war room. Yet, despite all the new hires and old hires holding out; all the finagling about who to pick and when they should be picked (with future second-round rights that came and went with other teams), the original draft slots 19, 48, and 50 became slots 22, 26, 45, and 50. The Timberwolves didn’t overthink it on Thursday. They relied on their extensive research and balanced their first-round surgical picks with two longshot bets in the second round.
A breakdown of the choices
Walker Kessler, even by the NBA’s oversized standards, is a big man. Walker Kessler is a little over 7 feet tall with his sneakers on, and he weighs in at 256 pounds. His wingspan measures 7-foot 6 inches. His standing reach is 9-foot, 5 inches. His huge dimensions, patrician name and Southern heritage (born and educated in Atlanta, North Carolina, and Auburn) conjure associations with characters in Gothic fiction by William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, but he’s more than a big galoot.
Kessler is a remarkable shot-blocker. He was an exceptional shot-blocker during his sophomore season at Auburn. This remarkable rate earned him the Naismith Men’s Defensive Player award.
Not only was his size important, but also his mobility and timing. Kessler, like Jaden McDaniels (current Wolves forward), excels at using his length as a patient shade. This requires him to remain within blocking range of his man and sidle along on dribble penetration. He can use both his hands to coordinate and is quick to react to deter cutters and pivoting when his man loses the ball. Next month, he turns 21 and will be facing the NBA’s learning curve in terms both of physicality and quickness. He can be a good rim-protector if he doesn’t get into foul trouble, which is a risky proposition for a rookie.
That’s the point. Kessler was an unattractive selection. He was the third “big man” pick, along with the 22 overall choice. In a modern NBA, where offenses are geared towards opportunistic points of transition and floor-spacing, and ball movement in half-court sets and ball movement, defenses must stockpile tall, lanky players who can switch between the two. The old-fashioned leviathans are no longer relevant. However, if you don’t have one you can be vulnerable to certain opponents.
Last month, I wrote a column about three ways the Wolves could build on and sustain their momentum from the 2021-22 season. “Beefing up” was the first. It wasn’t hard to see why. Karl-Anthony Towns, and Naz Reid were both finesse-oriented players that could be bullied down low by opposing bigs. They were also instinctively ill-equipped for quick decisions on when to stay at the home for rim protection, and when to challenge dribble penetration.
The Wolves opted to abandon the traditional “drop” defense coverage for the last two-thirds. This was an option for most NBA teams that protect the rim. It is much easier to have a large man who can drop back in coverage than it is to play the more aggressive, scrambling style. This pressures the ball-handlers as well as disrupts opponents’ offensive flow so they don’t get a good look in the paint. The Wolves and coach Finch who instigated the scrambling, “high-wall” scheme, are to be credited for their persistent effort that made it work. Despite this, Minnesota finished near the bottom in the NBA’s defensive rebounding percentage during the season. They also had difficulty against lesser-talented teams that could beat them inside. This vulnerability was magnified in the playoffs when Memphis outlasted the Wolves physically and mentally to win a 4-2 series victory.
Walker Kessler, although bland, is the essential antidote for the Wolves’ drop-coverage woes, overall lack of brawny resistance, and ineffective rebounding. Because he addressed a specific need and was therefore a surgical selection, it felt right. Although Kessler’s college skills are not significantly enhanced, this roster has tangible value.
Connelly and Finch are optimistic about his progress. Kessler’s college clips show that there are some reasons for their optimism. His hands are reliable and soft, and his timing is impeccable. This makes him an excellent pick and roll finisher. Kessler is also a good picker, knowing how to position his bulk on screens. Some evidence also suggests that Kessler can protect in space, even if only in brief spurts.
Finch believes Kessler can sharpen an outside shot that appeared mechanically difficult in the clips. He made just 10 attempts in 50 attempts from three point range. Finch also praises Kessler’s agility, both in quick-coverage adjustments and running up and down court. Finch hopes that Kessler will be a viable, two-way player and not be forced to leave the court as often as it seems.
Kessler’s final value will not be determined solely by his performance. Two ways that the Wolves could improve their frontcourt were possible. One was through a strong, bruising forward who could keep KAT in center. E.J. was the reason for my obsession with him. This draft features Liddell. Connelly, upon his arrival in town, has supported the idea of KAT at power forward alongside a classic big. This idea has been transformed by the drafting of Kessler.
KAT has previously played a less protective role in twin towers, most notably with Gorgui dieng and Taj Gibson. That was at least four years ago. The requirements for a power forward in defense have changed significantly, especially when the center is covered by drop coverage. KAT, to his credit, supported his claim that he could thrive in the restricted area while protecting different personnel at pick and roll’s leverage point. He’ll share the floor with Kessler and will be responsible for closing in on corner three-pointers as well as rotating hard during fast ball movement that swings in-and-out side-to-side – this is a common feature of the game.
This is not ideal for a player with feet as big as KAT’s and who has so many other responsibilities on offense. KAT is expected to sign a supermax deal this offseason. It is not unreasonable to expect to get as much value out of it. Last season was a pleasant surprise with his defensive mobility. Is there another source of fuel that could help him reach the modern power forward level of coverage? Potential frontcourt combinations that include KAT, Jarred Vanderbilt, McDaniels and Kessler would give the team great flexibility to deal with large and small opposition lineups.
Sorting the backcourt
The Wolves’ second-round draft pick, Wendell Moore Jr. (the Wolves’ second) makes it seem that he was also taken for surgical purposes. Flexibility is what makes him the Wolves’ second first-round selection. He is in line with my second suggestion of offseason improvement, “Preparing to a transition within the backcourt.”
Moore’s dream role would be to serve as an Anthony Edwards backcourt sidekick, just as Kessler was hired to help KAT. Because Ant has not yet logged five NBA seasons, the nature of the match is less apparent.
This is how you build a championship-caliber team out in the frozen tundra. They are not located in a celebrity-soaked coastal city. The Wolves also have the basketball season weather, the bite of state taxes and their sordid legacy as organizational ineptitude. Their best defense is to maximize their value.
Ant’s first two NBA seasons have shown a variety of impressive skills. He isn’t far from Jason Tatum or Paul George, and their heights are six-foot, eight-inch, four inches higher. Ant is an exceptional wing player and his smaller stature should not be overlooked. In the modern NBA, you want Ant to be your primary player, with the ball in hand at the most appropriate moments. George and Tatum are a perfect example of this trend. Their usage rate has increased four times in a row, and has been in the 30s for several years. Ant’s usage dropped from 27 in his rookie year to 26.4 last season. His shooting efficiency and assist rate increased, which suggests that Ant might be able to thrive as a floor general. This would be a crazy thing for the Wolves to not explore.
However, this exploration can be disruptive. This is the source of all the drama and rumors about “trade D’Angelo Russell”. It is not surprising that DLo performed poorly in the playoffs against Memphis. In four regular-season games against Memphis, he averaged 31 points. The Grizzlies responded by hounding him in the playoffs with Dillon Brooks, their most experienced perimeter defender. DLo has become more inexorably less valuable because of his tense relationship with Edwards if Ant is the primary playmaker.
Let’s not forget that DLo isn’t a villain. To become more like Ant and KAT, he compromised his game last year. His usage of 25.1 was the lowest since he was a teenager rookie in 2015-16. He is now 26 years old and in his final season of a $117 million contract, which will pay more than $31 million in 2022-22-23. His death is a blessing of court vision and an exceptional touch. He has been a clutch scorer and has proved to be a great player.
His ceiling isn’t as high as Ant’s or KAT’s. The role that he would play to maximize Ant and those stars is one that requires a roughly 50% reduction in his salary, as well as a decrease of some of his most important virtues. The Wolves would be unable to continue DLo’s contract at the current rate, which would mean they won’t have the opportunity to find a star to complement him in the sweet spot after the 2022-23 season. Ant’s rookie deal expires and KAT’s supermax extension begins.
The 26 th draft of Moore seems like the perfect solution to all this uncertainty. Moore was the undiscovered Swiss Army knife of an exceedingly successful Duke team last year. He was the best perimeter scorer for his opponent and was selected to the 2022 All ACC Defensive Team. He was the Blue Devils’ leading assister with 4.4 per match, grabbed 5.3 rebound, made more than 41% of his 3-pointers, and made more than 80% of his free throws. He won the Julius Ervin Award for the best small forward in college basketball.
Why was this guy not a lottery pick instead? His skill set seems to be a “jack of all trades master of none” at the NBA level. Scouts were also suspicious of Moore’s junior year’s huge improvement in almost every area of his game. This isn’t enough to dispel any doubts about his ability to sustain his virtues at the highest level of basketball competition.
Moore is a Wolves’ current perspective. It is harder to see the Wolves’ growth and potential than to predict how that growth will affect redundancies or shortages. Moore, who is 6-foot-5 inches tall, carries 216 pounds. This makes him heavier than Ant, who weighs in at 225. Moore is 2 pounds heavier than Vando and 2 pounds lighter than the current Timberwolf and free agent Taurean prince. He is strong and able to defend a variety of players because of his seven-foot wingspan.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Moore’s potential fit in the backcourt alongside Ant is McDaniels, who is the small forward and lithe. Finch compared Moore to a utility baseball player right after the draft. This seemed to be a faint praise. After Tuesday’s press conference, Finch compared Moore to a utility player in baseball. Pick 45 was the second round. The coach projected Moore’s upside responsibilities and it clarified why Moore was selected by the Wolves (along with Kessler).
We love his playmaking and believe he can be a secondary or primary playmaker for our team. We value his ability to defend multiple positions. Finch stated that he believes he can become a two-way player of high quality.
Connelly received a $40 million contract to manage the Wolves’ personnel over the next five year, largely due to his success in the NBA draft. However, Connelly stressed personal character more than any specific skill during, and after, Thursday’s proceedings.
Connelly stated to the media, “We’re going put an unbelievably large emphasis on the people,” shortly after the picks had been made. Connelly spoke about the importance of supporting the “good young core”, which includes “special people and top-time pros, self motivated people, guys that aren’t going to be held to their hands to get in the gym.” These were the guys we had the opportunity to choose this evening.
The Wolves selected slots 22 and 26 to seek out role players, enablingrs, rather than stars. Moore and Kessler were not the best college players last season. Jabari Smith, Auburn, was selected with the third overall pick, while Moore had three Duke teammates, the 15 th and 16 th. Minott, from Memphis, saw Jalen Duran, his Memphis teammate, taken with the 13 th pick.
Finch’s comments about Moore apply to the Wolves 2022 draft: “Some players were built to be the guys and some players perform better when there is better players around them. The things they don’t translate onto the score sheet.” They can fill in many gaps.”
Both the second-round picks in the second round are worthy investments and long-term projects. Minott is an undiscovered talent, but he is also a tireless defender who has the type of wiry length that everyone wants in today’s NBA. He is likely to sign a two-way contract, which will allow him to spend the majority of his time in Iowa’s G-League. The Wolves picked Matteo Spagnola in Europe’s second round as the 50 th overall selection. Spagnola is a young combo guard who has an entirely different skill set. He is also a better shooter, but has Leandro Bolmaro vibes. Spagnola has some charisma, but may be too short-circuited. He will be kept in Europe at least for another season.
How does DLo fit… or is it?
This Thursday will be frenzy-fuelled by free agency and trades. It is the time when most of the league’s most significant realignments take place. There are also a dozen rumored transactions that get completed.
The Timberwolves’ fan base will focus on DLo’s status over the next week or so. There is also the benefit of seeing him in a package that includes top-drawer trade candidates such as San Antonio combo guard Dejounte Murphy, who would be a great fit alongside Ant, but will receive a king’s ransom that will include multiple draft picks.
The Wolves decided not to draft a traditional point guard and may instead try to work with DLo and trade his expired contract at the February deadline. He could then be a valuable rental for a playoff contender. Perhaps Ant’s playmaking emergence and DLo’s prime can co-exist on one roster. This would allow them to take advantage of the sweet spot to add another quality agent next summer.
Finch said this when Finch was asked how they would approach the frenzy that is coming this week: “Keep adding men that can help us win the playoffs.” Continue to add two-way players. We’ll identify any game-changers if we find them. You just need to find the holes and continue plugging them.
Finch later emphasized an important point that we all need to remember. He also added a surprise name to the mix of players who will make an impact on the season. “We can talk a lot about the draft class (and) the free agency but one thing is certain: Ant, Jaylen (Nowell), and those three guys in particular will be the single largest driver of where we can go next Year before we do any other things.”
Despite this, it won’t be dull.
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