As it is officially March Madness, with surprisingly little time left in the month, it is time to turn our attention towards the draft and run down the players the Wolves might consider in the 10-14 range of the first round. I have included the SMILODON, my Skills Model In Lieu Of Dexterity Operating Numbers, statistical model for each prospect. Essentially, the model judges players on a “poor - elite” scale on several important skills, rather than trying to summarize their performance or potential in a single, unarguable number. Going into the second round of the tournament, most of these players will still be on national TV for at least one more game.
Note: most SMILODON projections in this article are based on stats through March 13th
The “Dream Scenario” for Minnesota is the #1 pick and Zion Williamson, who has destroyed college basketball this year. You’ve probably already seen the highlights, but Zion plays like a combination of young Charles Barkley and young Blake Griffin. With better defense. He can’t shoot very well, but at this point it hasn’t mattered yet.
If, as is likely, the Wolves don’t end up with the first pick, they may address the biggest weakness on the roster, their lack of a lead guard. If they manage to snag a top three pick, they could walk away with Ja Morant, who combines De’Aaron Fox’s ability to get to the rim with Trae Young’s court vision. Morant is still young and skinny, so he may take a couple years to develop, but players with his mix of skills very rarely fail. After his opening salvo against Marquette, some people are even talking about him as a number one pick. I wouldn’t place him ahead of Zion, but the #2 spot on my board is his to lose. Saturday’s game against Florida State, arguably the most athletic team in the country, will be an important test for him. Later in the lottery, Darius Garland or Coby White may be available. Garland is difficult to project as he was injured in his 5th game and shut it down for the year, but based on what he did before the injury, he and White have not shown the pure point skills of Morant. However, each player is young, has decent size and, most importantly, can shoot it, a rare combination in this draft.
There are a few more guards who may be available in the late lottery who I feel confident will not be point guards. One of these is Kevin Porter, who is very athletic, settled for a lot of bad jumpers, couldn’t crack the starting rotation of a disappointing team, and somehow managed to only hit 52% of his limited number of free throws this year. What I’m saying is that he will probably be the pick and we will have to hope he outperforms his projection similarly to fellow Seattleite Zach LaVine, to whom he is often compared. Neither he nor the next player in this paragraph made the tournament. Indiana guard Romeo Langford also struggled with his shot and with his style of play translating to winning basketball. He was a consensus top five pick at the beginning of the year, but has dropped out of the lottery even in some mainstream mocks. Finally, Nickeil Alexander-Walker is the guy the stats like. The cousin of Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, NAW shouldn’t be expected to pull up from deep or run an offense, but he picks his spots, is opportunistic on defense, and slithers his way to the rim with craft and hesitation. One worry is that, by my subjective impression, NAW has struggled more than is usual against defenses with NBA level athleticism, and his profile has dropped from “outstanding” across the board to “good” as the conference season has progressed.
If this draft is rich in anything, it is in wings who can’t shoot. The king of this archetype is RJ Barrett of Duke, who is big, athletic, can drive, pass, and all too often looks like Josh Jackson 2.0, hoisting terrible shots after too many seconds of holding the ball. Whoever takes him will hope he develops into a DeMar DeRozan type of offensive hub despite not possessing a reliable off the dribble, or even off the catch, three. Right behind Barrett is Jarrett Culver, who has probably been the superior player this year, but is older. Culver has waltzed to the rim at will this year. Combine that with wing size, solid athletic tools, solid vision, and a jump shot that may not be completely broken and you have a flawed but intriguing prospect. The issue with this year’s draft is that ““flawed but intriguing” could be enough to go in the top five.
Nassir Little started the year in many pundits’ top five, but his lack of threes, steals, and assists make SMILODON skeptical about his overall impact on winning at the next level. Jaylen Brown is a good example of someone of his archetype succeeding at the next level. Sekou Doumbouya has put up some decent defensive numbers in the French League as a very, very young prospect, but his offensive game is extremely far from NBA ready. It may be too harsh to call him the forward version of Frank Ntilikina, but that’s what the (limited) sample size suggests. KZ Okpala, who is done for the year, and Rui Hachimura have done a good job of getting to the rim, but demonstrates shaky indicators in other aspects of the game. Each has TJ Warren potential if all goes well. Finally, PJ Washington would have been a wing with subpar ball skills ten years ago, but now projects as a versatile power forward. His only guaranteed plus skill is rebounding, however, so I wouldn’t take him too high.
Cam Reddish won’t last until the Wolves, but probably has the biggest disconnect between his SMILODON projection and his advanced stats. He is shooting approximately 20% inside the paint as an athletic forward and turning the ball over every other possession (estimated numbers). However, SMILODON sees a player with a high volume of threes, a high free throw percentage, the size of a modern four, and good steal and block rates, leading me to think he wouldn’t be a bad pick at 12, should he slide that far. There are no guaranteed snipers on the wing in the lottery, but DeAndre Hunter and Keldon Johnson have both provided adequate volume and adequate free throw percentages this year. Hunter is older, has not posted big defensive numbers, and will probably be off the board when the Wolves pick. He is the type of intelligent player the Wolves desperately need. Johnson is younger, hasn’t posted big numbers of any kind, and does not have the athleticism you would expect from a one and done Calipari prospect.
Finally, we have the bigs. There aren’t many bigs I’d take in the first round given the glut at the position and the presence of KAT on the roster, but the best include Jaxson Hayes, Bol Bol, and Brandon Clarke. Hayes is a classic rim running, shot blocking center. He’s currently limited to those two skills, but has a promising free throw percentage. He is also done for the season with an injury. Bol looks awesome by SMILODON. He can shoot, protect the rim, and rebound. And he’s enormous. Unfortunately, he’s a poor defender in space, those stats mostly came against cupcakes, and his season ended with a foot injury. He’s a home run swing. Brandon Clarke is the most likely to get picked by the Wolves. He’s actually a bit similar to Taj Gibson. They were both older, undersized defensive savants. However, Clarke blocks a lot more shots and is a more skilled finisher. He can handle the ball a lot better than most bigs, too. The concern is that he’s a five in the body of a four, but as KAT gives you the skills of a four in a five’s body, that may not be an entirely bad thing. Clarke’s college performance has also been extremely good - I described it the other day as Jordan Bell plus ten points per forty minutes. He has an argument to be considered the second best NCAA player this year after Zion.