After losing 20 of their last 24 games, the Timberwolves seem hell-bent on slowing choking out the cautious optimism an 8-8 start to the season brings. With very little left to root for by way of team success for the Wolves 2015-16 season and the college basketball season entering conference play, it's not too early to check out some of the top prospects of the 2016 Draft.
Caution: This year has an early look of a boom-or-dust draft class. A flawed prospect is nothing new when it comes to the draft, but every prospect who appears to have star potential has at least one glaring weakness, usually more, that will need to be addressed before they make a deep impact in the league.
Ben Simmons, 6'10 PG/PF, LSU, 19-years old
33.9 MPG, 20.3 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 5.3 APG, 62.9% TS%
3,000 words could be written on Simmons, and it probably wouldn't be enough to encapsulate everything that he is. He can do absolutely everything on the court at a the highest of levels for a 6'10, 240 pound player except shoot, which is alarming.
But there's just so much to be excited for with Simmons. His vision and creativity when passing the ball is elite, possibly even transcendent. He's powered through every player opposing teams have sent to defend him, from point guards to centers, and shoots an almost impossible 79.4% at the rim according to Hoop-Math.com. He's the leading rebounder among power conference players in the NCAA despite playing point guard. The only other documented case of a player averaging 20/12/5 in Division I history that I could find was Bill Walton, who averaged 20.3/15.7/5.5 for his career according to his official website (The NCAA only started tracking assists officially in the 1984-85 season). What Simmons is doing is nothing less than historic, and right now he's the consensus number one pick.
But there are more than a few causes for concern. As mentioned previously, he simply cannot shoot, at all, from the outside. Pre-LSU he shot 11 for 47 from three in games tracked by DraftExpress, and according to Hoops-Math he's 33 for 98 (33.7%) on two-point jumpers so far this season. He often dribbles a bit too high and loose with the ball, and his defensive effort comes and goes. His 8'7" standing reach is also less than ideal for the position he'll probably end up playing (LSU claims his reach has grown almost a foot and a half to 9'0.5', but they're also claiming he'll break almost every NBA Draft Combine record in May).
Shooting has never been more important than it is in the current NBA, which makes it hard to forecast what position he'll play at this level. He's stated he wants to play point guard, a position where poor shooters can be somewhat hidden, but any competent NBA perimeter defender would strip him far too often in the open court at this point in his career. His shooting problems limit his ability to play either wing position, so it looks like he forecasts as a faceup power forward as a bigger, more athletic and skilled Julius Randle type player. If the Wolves luck into a position where they have the chance to take Simmons, they almost have to. But in all likelihood that would mean somebody would have to be traded; a grouping of Rubio, Wiggins, and Simmons couldn't possibly productively share the floor at the same time.
Simmons could be the next LeBron. Simmons could also been the next Jan Vesely. Right now he probably forecasts best in a Draymond Green style role. But, a big part of Green's success is fueled by his ability to make defenders that sag off him pay with his perimeter shooting. Without his shooting, Green is just another version of Tyreke Evans on offense. Watching how Simmons adjusts to the NBA will surely be one of the highlights of the 2016-17 season.
Brandon Ingram, 6'9" SF, Duke, 18-years old
31.2 MPG, 16.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.6 APG, 57.8% TS%
While Ben Simmons has been stealing the spotlight, Ingram is putting together a season that would be worthy of the top selection in most draft classes. He moves like Kevin Durant in Andrew Wiggins' body, and his production is comparable to both during their time at Texas and Kansas respectively.
Ingram is a jack of all trades but a master of none at this point in his career. He's a willing passer, solid rebounder, and a good-not-great defender when he's focused. But his main selling point is his versatility as an offensive shoot creator. Ingram's shooting almost 40% from three so far this season, and over 60% at the rim where only 14.3% of his shots are assisted. Coach K has him playing power forward, but since he's listed at 196 pounds (and it's probably closer to 185 considering how impossibly skinny he looks), Ingram will be playing exclusively on the perimeter in the NBA. His long strides plus solid ball handling is a nightmare for college fours, and will continue to give all but the best defenders problems when he gets to the league. His physical tools around the rim will continue to help him at the next level, but it's not set in stone that his outside shooting prowess will translate.
Ingram's shooting stroke has a little bit too much fling in it, and not enough wrist snap. When taking a shot with a lot of arm action, the wrist snap becomes even more important to keep the ball on line towards the rim, and not moving too far right or left. While other fling-shooters like Kevin Durant compensate with an almost exaggerated snap at the end of his shot from range, this is something Ingram hasn't learned to do yet. The result is some ugly, ugly misses from deep, and it could slow Ingram's acclimation to the NBA's deeper three-point line and slicker ball. Perhaps this is nitpicky, but it's an ongoing conspiracy theory of mine that may have contributed to fling shooters like Derrick Williams (56.8% from deep his final year in college, 29.5% career for the NBA), Wesley Johnson (41.5%, 34.6%), and Evan Turner (36.4%, 29.9%) not panning out at the next level. It's tough to immediately pencil in outside shooting as one of Ingram's strengths, as he was known to be a streaky shooter entering the year. His free throw percentage of 62.3% definitely gives merit to this pessimism as well.
If Ingram's shot translates to the NBA, he could help cover for Rubio's and Wiggins' deficiencies from the outside. With the amount of interest that Shabazz Muhammad has generated around the league, it's not unthinkable that the Wolves could use him to as a trade chip to land our power forward of the future if they choose to draft Ingram.
Dragan Bender, 7'1" PF, Maccabi Tel Aviv, 18-years old
10.5 MPG, 2.1 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.4 BPG, 39.7% TS%
Nobody's draft stock has been improved more due to a European seven-footer's success since Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Now that Kristaps Porzingis has proven he can play at this level despite his frame, it's easier to imagine the similarly-framed Bender can as well.
Though his statistics so far this season don't jump off the page, Bender absolutely aces the eye test. The Croatian product grew up idolizing Toni Kukoc, and the influence remains very strong in his game. He's a nimble, athletic seven-footer who can beat his man off the bounce from the perimeter While Porzingis looks a tad clunky running the floor and in the half-court, Bender has the fluidity of a natural-born athlete. He also displays the the passing vision and ability the basketball world has come to expect from players groomed by former Yugoslavian republics. Passing big men love playing with other passing big men, so drafting Bender would undoubtedly make Towns happy.
But there are several causes for concern. Though Bender has solid form, his shooting stroke isn't quite developed to the point where he's consistent (though he has started the year 16 of 35 between Euroleague and domestic play). As with Porzingis, his lack of strength and wiry frame means he's been pushed around quite a bit in Euroleague competition so far in his career. He also isn't much of a leaper, and his 27-inch vertical really puts a damper on his otherwise elite 9'3" standing reach. But he is one of the youngest players in the draft, having just turned 18 in September. His inexperience shows at times, which is why he's only seen 73 minutes in 7 games so far in Euroleague playing for perennial powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Out of all the players in the draft, Bender probably makes the most sense for the Timberwolves team in its current form. Assuming a core group of KAT, Wiggins, Rubio, LaVine, Shabazz, and Gorgui, there's a glaring lack of production from the power forward position, and a lack of shooting in general. On offense he's a natural foil to KAT, a big who should be able to spread the floor, cut with intent, and pass the rock possibly even better than our franchise cornerstone. On defense, Karl's rim protection and rebounding ability will help cover for Bender, whose lateral quickness could possibly allow him thrive against opposing bigs, and possibly even small ball fours. If he continues making strides with his outside shot, Dragan and KAT could be an odd couple match made in basketball heaven.
Kris Dunn, 6'4" PG, Providence, 21-years old
31.9 MPG, 17.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 7.0 APG, 54.5% TS%
This past season, Kris Dunn could've been a lottery pick if he declared for the draft. Now a Redshirt-Junior, he still could remain in school and spurn the NBA for a second time. Though his stock has never been higher, he could actually use the added development once again.
Pretty much everything that Dunn does on the basketball court is predicated on being bigger, stronger, and faster than the competition. This works pretty well when you're a 6'4", 205 pound point guard beating up on college athletes, but that won't be the case anymore once he arrives in the NBA. He has solid vision but is far too turnover prone (17.5% TO% according to Sports-Reference), and his both his shooting (37.5% from deep this year on 48 attempts) and finishing in traffic ability (60.8% at the rim this season) has left much to be desired over the years. He also has nasty habit of beating up against inferior competition and padding his stats, only to no-show in big games when Providence really needs him to be at his best.
I see very little reason why the Wolves would even want to select Dunn. He's spent four years in college now, but has yet to shore up his defense (despite averaging 3.1 steals a night), shot selection, or free throw shooting (67.4%). Dunn screams bust to me, and I hope Minnesota stays away, especially because selecting Dunn probably means Rubio is on his way out of town via trade.
He'll be 22 by the end of the college season, far too old to skate by on the promise of future development any longer.
Jaylen Brown, 6'7" SF, California, 19-years old
27.3 MPG, 14.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 54.7% TS%
Jaylen Brown isn't the sexiest prospect in the 2016 draft class, but that doesn't mean he should be overlooked. The guy just scores by the bundle, and he's heating up lately. Over his last five games, he's averaging 18.6/8.2/2 on 64/41.6/54.5 shooting.
Probably the most NBA-ready of the prospects in this article, Brown is a classic slashing wing. He has a quick first step, and doesn't shy away from contact, often finishing through it and picking up a foul. He's a solid defender and while his effort isn't there on every possession, it's there more than enough to be an imposing matchup for almost every college player. His ball handling and lane-running is excellent, which makes him a terror in transition and in the half-court, finishing on 72.6% of his attempts at the rim. Perhaps his stock would be higher if head coach Cuonzo Martin would allow him and Ivan Rabb play to their strengths and push the pace in transition.
One of the only concerns is Brown's outside shot. Known as a streaky shooter entering the year, he's only shooting 28.6% from three and 62.6% from the line. Compounding this problem is his tendency to shoot a few too many pull-up jumpers, where he's only shooting 28.1%. His decision-making in general could be improved, which many scouts believe are ingrained bad habits he learned while dragging his undermanned high school team to the National Championship. He might take a little bit of coaching, but he doesn't have a single bad habit that can't be drilled out of him.
While the defensive potential of a starting lineup with Brown at small forward would be fun to imagine, once again there just isn't enough spacing to make a lineup with Rubio, Wiggins, and Brown work. Unless the front office hits the panic button and trades Wiggins, I wouldn't count on seeing Jaylen Brown in Wolves uniform next year.
Skal Labissiere, 7'0" C, Kentucky, 19-years old
16.4 MPG, 7.9 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 56.3% TS%
Before the season started, Skal Labissiere figured to be in the discussion for the first overall pick. A lot has changed since then. If at the end of the year Labissiere even declares for the draft, I doubt he goes in the lottery.
Right now, he's a big, tall, mess. He's seen his minutes slashed and his production drop to almost nothing. His one skill that he was supposed to hang his hat on, rim protection, has abandoned him and his hasn't had a multi-block game in almost a month. On offensive he was billed as a floor-stretching center, but he's only shooting 41.1% from midrange and hasn't taken a three-pointer all year. Worst of all is his pitiful rebounding rate of 10.1%, which is almost unthinkable that a seven-footer could only manage to corral one out of every ten rebounds while he's on the floor.
While some pundits have pointed parallels to Andre Drummond, who folded under the hype during his lone season at Connecticut, Labissiere just looks like a stiff on the floor. Not being able to rebound at the college level is a terrible, terrible omen for his future as a rebounder in the league.
While Skal was an interesting option at the beginning of the year as possibly the missing half of a modern, floor-spacing twin towers, he shouldn't be looked at too heavily if we're picking in the top half of the lottery.
Henry Ellenson, 6'10 PF, Marquette, 19-years old
32.0 MPG, 15.7 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 2.2 APG, 50.7% TS%
A more traditional power forward, Ellenson has the makings of a very effective offensive weapon and has significant stretch four potential, despite only shooting 14 of 57 (24.5%) from three this year.
Though he struggles with being too vertical at times, Ellenton is able to make things happen when he puts the ball on the deck. Several times this year he's managed to shake an opposing guard in transition with a beautiful, naturally-executed crossover or between-the-legs dribble. He has a solid repertoire of moves heading towards the rim, and is very good about gathering himself to gain leverage around the basket. Despite his poor performance from the outside, he has very workable form with an awful tendency to shoot the ball off the side of his hand and with some side-spin. Though it's far from a sure thing, an NBA-level shooting coach would go a long way towards turning Ellenson into a shooting threat. He's also a fantastic rebounder on both sides of the glass, completely fearless when it comes to pursuing the ball off the rim.
On the defensive end, Ellenson is far from a finished product. Given his quick first step on offense, it's surprising the amount of times Ellenson just isn't quick enough to stay with his man. Until he puts in the time and effort to improve his lateral quickness, he'll be a defensive liability in the league.
While not a bad player, Ellenson would probably be a disappointing pick for the Timberwolves, at least until (if) he figures out his shooting situation. His skill set is largely redundant, and this is a team that needs shooting, which he just doesn't provide right now. He does have some ties to the state though. His brother, Wally, played at the U of M and with Jim Petersen's step-son Sanjay Lumpkin in AAU.
Ivan Rabb, 6'10" PF, California, 18-years old
26.8 MPG, 12.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 67.2% TS%
Athletically speaking, Ivan Rabb fits the bill of an NBA power forward. A high effort player, he runs the floor hard and has great instincts with a nose for the ball.
The polish isn't there on offense but the effort definitely is. Though he doesn't have a go-to move, he's a solid roll-man and dives hard to the rim. He also hits the offensive boards hard, and many of his points come from keeping balls alive and converting in traffic. He brings the same intensity on offense as he does on defense, which is rare in a prospect of his age. If Rabb doesn't succeed at the NBA level, it appears it won't be from lack of effort.
As far as shooting goes, he's definitely a work in progress but has already made great strides. He's raised his free throw percentage to 77.6% this season, up from the mid 60's in high school, and is shooting 46.1% from midrange this season without a single attempt from downtown. Rabb's form looks solid when he's in rhythm, but it would take a Serge Ibaka-esque transformation for him to turn into a solid three-point shooter in the pro ranks. His basketball IQ doesn't seem to be very high right now, but he is at least trying to get his teammates involved in the passing game. However, he appears to a high motor player, the type of project that seems determined to transform himself.
If Bender and Simmons are off the board by the time the Wolves are picking, Rabb would be a solid consolation prize. However, he's very much the Zach LaVine of power forwards right now. He settles for far too many pull-ups and will need some time to grow. But, KAT and Rabb would make for a great rebounding duo and the cornerstones of what could be a very effective defense.