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Timberwolves Player Preview: Cole Aldrich

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Why the hometown big man will be a fan favorite.

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Wolves signed Cole Aldrich to a 3-year, $22 million contract on July 13th. Let’s take a look at what we can expect the Burnsville native to bring to the roster.

Player Profile

Age: 27

Height: 6’11

Weight: 250

Smile: Bestest

Background

I think most of us from the Twin Cities areas are familiar with Aldrich, as he played his outstanding high school hoops career at Bloomington Jefferson High, graduating in 2007 as one of the top college recruits in the nation. Aldrich committed to Kansas, where he played three seasons. He won a national championship in 2008.

Aldrich forewent his final year of NCAA eligibility and declared for the 2010 NBA draft and was selected 11th overall by the (former) New Orleans Hornets, but was immediately moved to the Thunder in a draft day trade. He spent the next two seasons in OKC rarely seeing the court, logging just over 300 total minutes and several stints with the Thunder’s Tulsa 66ers D-League affiliate.

In 2012, Aldrich was moved to the Rockets as part of the blockbuster James Harden trade. Shortly thereafter, another trade moved him to the Sacramento Kings, and he ended up playing just under 400 minutes in all of the 2012-2013 season.

In the 2013 off-season Aldrich signed with the Knicks, where he spent two seasons in a more expanded role including playing 61 games in the 2014-2015 season, averaging 16 minutes per game with 16 games as a starter.

He signed with the LA Clippers in the 2015 off-season, which is where this discussion really picks up.

2015-2016 Season

Last season saw Aldrich coming off the bench for the Clippers as the primary backup for DeAndre Jordan. He played in 60 games, averaging over 13 minutes as a defensive anchor for the bench unit of one of the NBA’s premier teams. This was a role that was well suited for Cole, as he blossomed into a monster rim protector and efficiency machine. Take a look at some of his stats from last year compared with all centers that logged at least 400 minutes of total playing time:

STL/36: 2.1 (1st)

BLK/36: 3.1 (2nd)

AST/36: 2.3 (9th)

PTS/36: 14.8 (14th)

TRB%: 19.6 (10th)

eFG%: .596 (7th)

DRTG: 94 (1st)

WS/48: .209 (6th)

RPM: +3.74 (4th)

DRPM: +4.46 (2nd only to Bogut)

BPM: +4.8 (Tied for 1st with Nikola Jokic)

Note that these numbers are compared to ALL centers, including starters. Suffice to say, Aldrich had a career season last year, becoming one of the very best reserve big men in the League, showing excellence in rebounding, steals, shot blocking, and overall defensive efficiency.

So...what does he bring to the table?

In my opinion, a lot. The addition of a true rim protector promises to be a huge boost for our team defense, which was abysmal last year, ranking 27th in defensive efficiency allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions (yikes). In fact, the only players on the roster last season to post net positive defensive box plus/minus numbers were KAT (+1.2), Rubio (+0.1), and Garnett (+2.5), the latter of which played less than half the season.

Aside from defensive woes, the team has simply been in desperate need of front court depth for years. We were promised “manna from heaven” with Darko Milicic, but alas, that manna was but a sour apparition. Numerous other stop-gap big men have passed through over the years—Brad Miller, Greg Stiemsma, Chris Johnson, Ronny Turiaf, Miroslav Radjulica, Greg Smith, Justin Hamilton, etc.—but their tenures were short and mostly disappointing.

After thinking we had identified the long-term solution at the center position with Nikola Pekovic, injuries quickly derailed his career with fewer and fewer games played in each of the last 4 seasons, and only 12 total appearances last year. I refuse to give up hope for Pek, but it doesn’t look good for a big man with his type of lower body injuries. The future of Gorgui Dieng is also currently a volatile unknown heading into the season - he’s on the last year of his rookie contract and will likely command a massive new contract ($20 million per year isn’t outside the realm of possibility) under the escalating salary cap. The front office will have to make some difficult decisions regarding whether to pony up a new contract for Gorgui next summer or trade him prior to the deadline. In any case, it’s going to be comforting to know that we have Aldrich locked in to deepen the front court.

Here is a look at the key categories of what we can expect from Aldrich:

Shot Blocking

Aldrich’s block stats don’t lie. The dude just hates it when fools try to throw the ball at his hoop. As a man-to-man defender, he has great feel for body position. Here you can see him manned up against Jonas Valanciunas, angling himself to pin the handler baseline and force up a shot, with Cole in great position to get up and block.

Here he is with Cousins on a drive, maintaining inside position and gathering for a contest 2 steps before the shot attempt. Poor Boogie never had a chance here.

And a chase-down that ruined Rodney Hood’s life.

Timing. Elevation. Destruction.

Rebounding

He has a great sense for sniffing out rebounds. As mentioned above, his total rebounding percentage of 19.6% is 10th among all centers, and his DRB% of 27.1 is 8th. Defensive rebounding has been a particular issue for the Wolves, who were 23rd in DRB% last year. This should help.

On the offensive boards, I love his instincts. Watch here as he sets position just outside the paint, away from the body pile so he can watch the shot trajectory and pick his moment to crash the glass.

Offensive Efficiency

Well, he’s not going to space the floor with shooting. He has never attempted a three pointer in his career. In fact, last season he attempted just 3 shots outside of 10 feet. However, Cole works very well within his limitations with great efficiency. Of 225 shot attempts last season, 220 of those attempts were shots in the paint, and 156 of those were even closer within the restricted area. The man has a happy place, and that place is right under the hoop. His shot chart is mesmerizingly beautiful.

Don’t let the shot chart fool you though. He doesn’t make a habit out of parking it under the basket and waiting for the ball to come to him. Aldrich is an excellent screener and has a knack for stepping out toward the elbows and then rolling back down low.

We’ve seen how deadly a pick and roll game can be with Rubio and Pekovic, and Aldrich has some of the same mentality as a roller, but with much more quickness and athleticism. It will be interesting to see how the pick and roll game evolves with the bench unit this season, specifically what kind of repertoire Dunn and Aldrich can develop.

He also has nifty footwork and has enough of a handle to keep a dribble and get off a shot. Most of the time he’s going to try to work low and get a layup, but he also has a crafty little go-to sky hook from a few feet out.

Free Throws

This might seem like a trivial attribute to look at for a backup big man, but it matters. The Wolves have a projected wins total that puts them into the playoff hunt. We should expect to see a lot of close games, and being able to convert at the stripe ends up being the difference in a lot of those close games. At 71%, Aldrich is an above-average free throw shooter for a center, especially for a defensive specialist. As a guy who makes all of his shot attempts right at the rim, he is going to get fouled (.373 free throw attempts per field goal attempt). Being able to have lineup flexibility is crucial late in close games when fouls start piling up.

Best Case Scenario

Cole Aldrich brings the same level of play as we saw last year with the Clippers, but looks even more awesome because he’s wearing a Wolves jersey. He continues to be a premier defensive anchor and leads a whole new culture of intensity to a previously lackluster bench unit. The bigs rotation of Towns, Dieng, and Cole becomes the most feared front court in the league. Aldrich wins 6th Man of the Year. The Wolves make the playoffs. USA Network un-cancels Sirens. Everybody gets a lollipop.

Worst Case Scenario

I guess we’ve been here before getting over-hyped about role players with gaudy per36 numbers and advanced stats (cough) Greg Stiemsma in 2012 (cough). It’s possible that Aldrich comes in after a fluky great season and just can’t translate the same level of production, but I just don’t really see it. Stiemsma ended up getting in over his head because a litany of injuries forced him into an expanded role that he just wasn’t equipped to handle. Aldrich is much more experienced and polished, and has played great when asked to step in for extended minutes and even as a starter. The most likely “worst case scenario” would be that his numbers last season were inflated and he falls back into more of a “just okay” backup player.

So...what should we really expect?

Aldrich will come in Day 1 as the primary backup to Towns, and will likely play around 15-20 minutes per game. He will be played solely as a 5 mostly with the bench unit, but will probably see a lot of floor time with Towns sliding over to PF. There is no doubt in my mind that he will be our best rim protector, and may very well be our best overall defender right out of the gate. His rebounding, shot blocking, and ball hawking will help keep the bench afloat and minimize the points hemorrhaging we saw from the second line last year. He will hustle, grind, and do the dirty work.

Overall, Cole Aldrich looks to be exactly the type of player that this team needs and we as fans love to root for.

Welcome home.