When the Timberwolves acquired Jimmy Butler through a draft night trade with the Chicago Bulls, the initial reaction of most NBA savants included some surprise. There were a lot of hurdles that needed to be cleared by Wolves Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Tom Thibodeau in order for this landmark deal to be completed.
First Thibodeau needed to be willing to move on from three promising young prospects, including the first draft pick he made at the helm in Minnesota (Kris Dunn). Thibs also needed to convince his former employers — with whom he had an ugly breakup — to not only sit down at the negotiating table, but to be willing to relinquish the face of their franchise.
When the dust had settled and the transaction was finalized, though, the most surprising aspect to most was that the Wolves managed to acquire Chicago’s first round pick as part of the deal. After it was initially reported that Minnesota would send out Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick in a simple swap for Jimmy Butler, K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune issued a correction:
Correction: Bulls did not keep 16th pick. So deal is Jimmy Butler and No. 16 for LaVine, Dunn and 7.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) June 22, 2017
To many, the trade would have felt slanted toward the Timberwolves even without the inclusion of Chicago’s pick. Nonetheless, Thibodeau insists that the deal wouldn’t have been made without the 16th pick being part of it. The Wolves proceeded to draft Creighton University’s freshman center Justin Patton. Patton, a 7’0, 230 pound big man with a 7’2 ½ wingspan grew up just minutes from Creighton, the school that offered him his only Division 1 scholarship.
After redshirting his freshman season, Patton jumped onto the national stage and quickly become one of the most efficient and explosive big men in the country. But almost immediately after he was drafted and signed, Patton broke his fifth metatarsal — the long bone in your foot — during one of his first practices in a Wolves uniform. Once cleared to play in early December, the rookie was optioned to the Iowa Wolves to continue rehabbing his foot. Since then the raw young big man has become an afterthought in the discussion around this team. As the old adage says: out of sight, out of mind.
Glen Taylor and the Minnesota Timberwolves announced in January of 2017 that they had reached an agreement to own and operate the Iowa Energy, a team in the NBA’s Developmental league (since renamed to ‘NBA G League’). Owning and operating a G-League team, especially with the addition of two-way contracts, has advantages for NBA teams. Primarily, it offers organizations an avenue to develop young players and aid their current roster in rehabbing injuries.
Coach Scott Roth, a veteran NBA assistant, leads an Iowa Wolves roster highlighted by rookie Justin Patton and two players on two-way NBA contracts: Anthony Brown and Amile Jefferson. Brown was the first pick in the 2016 G League draft and is averaging 20.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists this season. Most impressively, the 25 year old guard is shooting 39% from three on 6.1 attempts per game. Jefferson, who’s contract was fully guaranteed by the Timberwolves just recently, is a 24 year old Duke alumni who was a teammate of Tyus Jones. He’s putting up a massive 18 points and 12.9 rebounds per game this season.
To start the year, the Iowa Wolves’ first as the Timberwolves affiliate, wins were hard to come by. Over the first month the team won just 3 of 11 games and found themselves at the bottom of the standings. But things began to turn when Patton joined the team in early December. Since then they’re 13-5, bringing their overall record to 16-13, and vaulting them into first place in the Midwest Division. During this stretch the team has never lost more than two games in a row and won six straight from December 17th to January 2nd.
The evidence suggests that Patton has had a winning effect on the Iowa Wolves.
Coming out of Creighton, Patton was considered one of the more raw prospects of the 2017 NBA draft. An exceptional athlete for the center position, Patton excels as a rim runner. He scored most of his points in college either on the fast break (his 1.47 points per possession was among the highest in the country), cutting off of the ball or diving to the rim out of a pick and roll. As an explosive player who generates most of his offense from the creation of others, it was easy to imagine Patton fitting into an NBA offense in a similar way to DeAndre Jordan (LA Clippers) or Clint Capela (Houston Rockets). For this reason and others he vaulted up draft boards.
On the defensive end Patton was heralded as a good man-to-man threat, both willing and able to switch onto guards on the perimeter. And while his 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes at Creighton - as well as his natural physical tools - predict some upside as a rim protector, scouts described his help defense as a step slow and lacking in awareness.
For most the pick was seen as a calculated risk: a talented young project for Thibodeau to groom. And since being sent to Iowa Patton has demonstrated that he can do most of the things the Wolves expected from him, but he’s also added some impressive tools to his belt.
To this point in his career Patton’s offense has been generated through hustle. He uses his size, speed and athletic ability to create exciting pick and roll opportunities and other easy buckets in general.
In this play, Patton steps up to the top of the key to set a pick for Melo Trimble. While the pick is ineffective in creating space for Trimble (a common issue in Patton’s screen setting), Patton’s defender shades toward the ball handler just enough to give Patton the space to step into the paint, receive the pass and slam it home.
Patton is too athletic to be left alone by a defense. If he’s given any space at all he’ll use his athleticism to get around or over his defender. On this offensive rebound attempt the defense forgets to box out Patton, so he elevates over two players for the put back.
But Patton doesn’t just dunk. In fact, since arriving in Iowa he’s demonstrated a more productive repertoire of post moves than most envisioned.
Patton’s combination of size and quickness make him a nightmare matchup for any post defender – especially one smaller than he is. That spin move is exceptionally quick.
In a clip from the same game, we see Patton matched up against a more formidable defender. But instead of waiting for the defender to make a move, Patton takes two dribbles, pivots twice and head fakes to get his opponent to bite. Then he turns and completes the up and under with his off hand for an easy basket.
Speaking of touch, Patton has shown more feel around the basket in Iowa than he did at Creighton, demonstrated by this nifty, quick floater:
Passing and Playmaking
While he’ll always be more of an interior player, Patton is a better ball handler and passer than most other young centers. One of his most impressive plays as a member of the Iowa Wolves saw him fly coast-to-coast after picking up a steal, euro-step past a defender and finish the play with ease.
Even in the day of Unicorns there are only a handfull of centers in the NBA capable of making a similar play.
Still, the most surprising aspect of Patton’s game is his ability to see the floor and find a teammate for an easy basket. Patton has proven to be an effective passer in almost any play type.
When he’s given the ball in the post he uses his vision and nifty passing ability to find cutters.
Patton’s decisive nature as well as crisp, creative passing open up great opportunities for his teammates.
Patton does a good job of keeping one eye on the help defense. In this post up situation he feels the double team coming and quickly gives it up to a wide open shooter in the corner.
He’s more than capable of passing out of a double team. If his offensive game progresses to the point that he demands them, he can be a unique threat.
On the other end, Patton shows exceptional shot blocking ability and possesses quick enough feet to help against a guard on the perimeter.
In a very impressive sequence below, we see Patton hustle back on defense and assist in trapping the ball handler on the perimeter. Once the handler finds a man in the post Patton makes a second effort to get back and block the layup attempt. Turning defense into offense, he then collects the rebound and gets it ahead to his teammate for an easy layup in transition.
The rookie’s long wingspan and exceptional leaping ability also allow him to get to some blocks that seem out of reach.
After an opposing team’s guard uses a nifty ball fake to get past his defender, Patton shifts over in help defense and leaps seemingly out of his shoes to swat the ball and protect his paint.
Patton’s counting stats highlight a number of interesting trends. His 19.1 minutes per game signal that he is still rehabbing his foot injury. And that reduction in minutes can help to explain some of his decreased efficiency; after shooting 67.6% at Creighton, it’s somewhat concerning to see his relatively low shooting percentage of 50% in Iowa. However, while enjoying a bump in minutes over his last six appearances (23.8/game), he’s shot a much more impressive 55.4% from the field while piling up 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game in the process.
On the season, Patton is scoring an inspiring 19.4 points per 36 minutes. While he doesn’t project to be a high octane offensive player, the myriad of ways in which he can put the ball into the hoop open up the door for him to make a handful of easy buckets each and every night.
Further, Patton is averaging a stellar 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes in Iowa, and putting up as many assists (26) as turnovers (25) as a young center is a great place to start. For comparison, during Karl-Anthony Towns’ rookie season with the Timberwolves he dished out 161 dimes but turned the ball over on 183 occasions.
If Patton wants to realize his full potential there are a number of ways in which he must progress. Most notably: toughness, shooting and defense.
In college, Patton’s 8.8 rebounds per 36 minutes found him toward the bottom of the country’s best centers. His combination of size, leaping ability and soft hands should serve him well in this regard, but he finds himself out of position or being outmuscled too often. In Iowa Patton has improved that mark to 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. His rebounding rate of 16.5% in the G League sits more than two percentage points higher than when he was at Creighton, and is similar to that of Gorgui Dieng (while coming against inferior competition).
Similarly, Patton’s 3.6 free throw attempts per 36 minutes while at Creighton was one of the lowest marks among qualified centers. Since heading to Iowa he has raised that average slightly to 4.0. Patton will need to continue working on his ability to play physical with opposing bigs in order to provide some of the dirty work that good NBA centers do.
A lack of toughness has also hindered Patton’s defensive consistency. While he shows great potential and possesses the proper attributes, he’s still growing into his body and will need to sharpen his awareness to be a positive on that end at the NBA level. I’m assuming more time with Coach Thibs will accelerate his development in that regard.
Among Patton’s faults also lies a hesitance to shoot. When we think of centers in today’s NBA, we think of players like Kristaps Porzingis, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl Anthony Towns and their almost startling ability to spread the floor. While Patton has flashed a decent jump shot — scoring 12.6% of his buckets in Iowa from the midrange — his 28% from 10-20 feet is a cause for concern. Patton has a nice jumper that he’s started to show off more recently in Iowa (he’s 4-7 from three over his past 3 games), and it’s one of the most important things that he can continue to bolster in order to realize his potential on the offensive end.
Fit with the Wolves
It’s no secret the Wolves, as assembled, are deep at the power forward and center positions. While this turned some off of picking Patton at 16, it’s less of a structural issue than advertised. Karl-Anthony Towns is an all-star and figures to be in the Wolves starting front-court for the foreseeable future. After this year, 32 year old Taj Gibson has just one year remaining on his contract with the Wolves, meaning he’ll be a free agent at the beginning of Patton’s age 22 season. Nemanja Bjelica, the team’s 6’10 combo forward is set to hit free agency this offseason. And while Gorgui Dieng is signed through the 2020-21 season, his contract is seemingly movable if a younger, cheaper option like Patton were to become more appealing.
Patton’s unique and raw skill set as well as his impressive intangibles create a wide range in his potential as an NBA player.
In the most likely scenario Patton projects to be an energy providing big off the bench. He’ll bring toughness, solid defense, he’ll run the floor and he’ll create easy baskets. Patton will affect the game and irritate opposing benches in a way similar to Clippers’ big man Montrezl Harrell, who scored an efficient 23 points against the Wolves the other night, seemingly all off of dunks.
On the other hand, if he can truly refine his game in the ways discussed over the next couple of years, Patton’s ceiling becomes a starting caliber center. In this hypothetical, he has developed his jump shot, improved in rim protection, and his foot isn’t a nagging injury. The defensive versatility of two 7 footers (Patton and Towns) who can switch onto the perimeter, protect the paint, pass the ball and hit a three on the other end gives the Wolves one of the most intimidating, flexible frontcourts in the NBA.
Justin Patton is a unique prospect. Acquired by a team as part of a deal in which he was an afterthought, and then sent to the G League after almost five months of quiet rehab, it’s been difficult to monitor his progress. And while it’s easy to forget about him while the Wolves enjoy their most successful season in over a decade, it would add another dimension to the Wolves’ long-term outlook if he becomes the player Tom Thibodeau thinks he can be.