The Wolves would have an intriguing team heading into next season even without the no. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Their struggles last season don’t tell us much about their future. The team’s three best players—Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Malik Beasley—played in only one game together. Minnesota could become the Great Lakes version of the Nuggets with the right moves this offseason.
It starts with Towns, a 24-year-old who was once the top choice in the NBA’s annual GM survey for the player they most wanted to build around. The perception of young players swings wildly based on factors largely out of their control. It’s unfair to expect every star in their early 20s to be like LeBron James in Cleveland. Anthony Davis, who looked at times like the best player in the NBA in the playoffs, made just as many postseason appearances as Towns (one) in his first five seasons.
Towns has as much talent as any big man in the NBA. He averaged 26.5 points on 50.8 percent shooting, 10.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.9 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game last season. The only other player to reach those marks was Giannis Antetokounmpo, who just won his second consecutive MVP. And Towns did that while shooting about as well and as often from 3 (41.2 percent on 7.9 attempts) as Davis Bertans.
He’s unguardable when defenses have to respect his teammates. The Wolves got off to a 3-0 start last season behind a newly empowered version of Towns before the rest of the league figured out they didn’t have to pay attention to anyone else. They just double-teamed Towns all over the floor. Minnesota was third-to-last in the NBA in 3-point percentage (33.6) last season even with Towns scorching the nets. There’s no way to win in today’s NBA with that kind of supporting cast.
Minnesota has been one of the worst-run franchises in the league over the past 15 years. The Wolves made the playoffs only once in that span, which takes effort considering either Kevin Garnett or Kevin Love was around for most of it. The franchise finally modernized its front office last offseason when it hired Gersson Rosas from Houston. He wasted little time reshaping the roster around his star big man. Rosas turned Andrew Wiggins, one of the worst contracts in the NBA, into Russell, by far the best point guard that Towns has ever played with, and saw untapped potential in Beasley, who went from getting DNP-CDs in Denver to averaging 20.7 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting in Minnesota.
There are some interesting similarities between Beasley’s old team and his new one. The Nuggets, like the Wolves, run their offense through a new-age center. Towns isn’t as good a passer as Nikola Jokic, but he’s a better shooter and scorer and a legitimate playmaker in his own right. He was just stuck in the post under Tom Thibodeau and didn’t have anyone to pass to last season. Towns had seven assists in his first game with Beasley and Russell before fracturing his wrist and missing the rest of the season. The way he slung the ball around the court in that game is encouraging for the Wolves’ future:
Towns and Russell could play like Jokic and Jamal Murray, who just carried the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals. Russell was never paired with a big man like Towns in any of his first three stops in the NBA. The flaws in his game have been exposed because he has dominated the ball on rebuilding teams. Murray might have been viewed similarly if he had taken a similar path rather than playing his whole career alongside Jokic. Both are 6-foot-4 combo guards without elite athleticism whose games are based around their jumpers. Their career regular-season stats aren’t that different:
Russell vs. Murray
A pick-and-roll between Russell and Towns could be unstoppable for the same reasons as the pick-and-roll between Murray and Jokic. Russell, like Murray, can shoot off the dribble from behind the 3-point line. He will get more open looks coming off screens from Towns than he ever has before. Defenses won’t be able to blitz him because that leaves Towns open in four-on-three situations, and they can’t switch the screen because Towns can score at will over smaller defenders.
Minnesota could also invert the pick-and-roll like Denver, with Russell screening for Towns. The 7-footer was in the 97th percentile of players leaguewide as the ball handler in the two-man game last season. It was a tiny number of attempts (20), but his ability to handle the ball and to shoot off the dribble makes him a real threat:
The big thing that Russell needs to add to his game is threatening the defense off the ball. The whole point of him going to Golden State was to utilize the spacing created by Steph Curry, but Curry broke his hand in the first week of the season. Russell showed potential in college as an off-ball player at Ohio State. He’s at his best when playing more like Murray than James Harden.
Beasley, a restricted free agent, fits perfectly as a third option next to Towns and Russell. His scoring spike in Minnesota isn’t that surprising if you look at his production in Denver. He could always get buckets. He’s an athletic 6-foot-4 guard with a smooth jumper. He was just stuck in a limited role coming off the bench behind Gary Harris and Will Barton. Beasley averaged 17.6 points on 47.4 percent shooting per-36 minutes of playing time in his last full season with the Nuggets. All he needed was an opportunity. He got it when Denver shipped him to Minnesota in the four-team Clint Capela deal.
It’s unclear what kind of market there will be for the 23-year-old Beasley. Restricted free agents often have trouble getting offer sheets even in offseasons in which teams aren’t bleeding money because of a pandemic. The Wolves will likely pay him, either way. There was no reason to trade for him in the final season of his contract if they weren’t going to match whatever offer he received.
The next piece the Wolves need is their own version of Paul Millsap. The power forward played a huge role in Denver’s rise over the past few seasons. Millsap is a well-respected veteran who could still play at a high level when the Nuggets signed him in 2017. He provided leadership in the locker room and anchored the defense while deferring to Jokic and Murray on offense. Millsap was what Minnesota needed Jimmy Butler to be, except Butler wasn’t at the stage of his career where he was willing to take a back seat.
There’s not an obvious candidate for the Wolves to target in a fairly weak free-agent market. One player that would make sense is Jae Crowder, a 30-year-old who played a key leadership role in Memphis before being traded to Miami at the deadline. But he could have priced himself out of the Wolves’ range with his hot shooting in the playoffs. Minnesota has only one player in his 30s (James Johnson) on its roster. The Wolves may have to bring in some veterans to help Towns and Russell set the right tone in the locker room, especially since Johnson has a $15.8 million player option in his contract for next season, which makes him an intriguing trade chip.
The biggest concern for the Wolves headed into next season is their lack of two-way players. Johnson is one of several defensive-minded players, along with Josh Okogie and Jarrett Culver, the no. 6 pick in last year’s draft, who don’t have a clear offensive role on the team. Towns and Russell, on the other hand, have not shown much interest in defense over their careers.
That’s where the Denver blueprint becomes even more important. Neither Jokic nor Murray has the physical tools to be an elite defender. The Nuggets overcame that because Michael Malone instilled a defensive culture and got his young stars to play positionally sound defense. They went from the no. 29 defense in the NBA in 2016-17 to no. 10 in 2018-19 and no. 16 in 2019-20. The Wolves, like the Nuggets, just have to get enough stops to allow them to win with offense.
The question is whether they can find players who can help them on that end of the floor in the draft. Minnesota has three picks (no. 1, no. 17, and no. 33) in a draft that is widely regarded as weak. Most people I’ve talked to around the league would trade down from no. 1 if they were in Minnesota’s position. There’s no prospect like Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson in this year’s draft, though. Someone has to be willing to trade up to make that scenario possible.
Part of the appeal of trading down is that none of their likely targets with the no. 1 pick—Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, and James Wiseman—is likely to help them much on defense at this stage of their careers. Wiseman, the best defensive prospect of the bunch, plays the same position as Towns. A Twin Towers frontcourt would have trouble keeping up with smaller teams on that end of the floor. And neither Ball nor Edwards showed much interest in defense last season. Edwards at least has the physical tools to be an elite defender, but he’s a long way from applying them.
Going with a win-now player doesn’t really make sense at no. 1. This is a rare opportunity for a franchise that won’t have many opportunities to add elite talent around Towns and Russell going forward. The concern with both Edwards and Ball is their potential downsides, though each has All-NBA talent if they develop correctly. And, unlike in years past, Minnesota is a good situation for a young player.
Whoever they draft will have plenty of opportunities to play without the pressure that typically comes with leading an organization. A stretch big who commands as much defensive attention as Towns will also make their lives much easier on offense. Even Wiggins had a brief resurgence last season operating in all the space Towns provided.
The choice between Edwards and Ball could come down to how the Wolves view Russell. Drafting Edwards, a wing who can make spot-up 3s, would keep him at point guard, while Ball is a more ball-dominant guard who would need him to move off the ball. Edwards is bigger and faster than Ball, but he’s still learning how to harness his gifts within a team structure. Ball’s ability to pass and lead the fast break would make Minnesota one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. The downside would be putting another limited athlete in the backcourt next to Russell.
Keeping the pick may be the right move even if the Wolves don’t love either player. Both Ball and Edwards could have more trade value after a season in Minnesota than they have now. The best-case scenario is that the player they take becomes their version of Michael Porter Jr., a wild card whose development changes the trajectory of the franchise. Minnesota can follow the same path as Denver to become a perennial playoff team. The Wolves’ future is brighter than it appears.