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Maximizing Jordan Bell’s Defensive Versatility is Key For Minnesota

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Can the new man bring some defensive toughness?

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

After swinging and missing on bigger names during the free agency frenzy, Gersson Rosas and the rest of the Minnesota Timberwolves front office went bargain hunting. The plan was to surround franchise pillar Karl-Anthony Towns with versatile, young, and cheap players that still had more potential to grow into.

He put it into his own words at a recent press conference introducing the newest signings.

“When we looked at this summer and how we wanted to put the team together, having individuals who come from winning programs, that have had success at different points of their career, whether that’s college or in the pros, is important to us.” he said. “These are young guys that are up and coming and have something to prove,”

One of the first signings was combo big Jordan Bell. The 24-year-old was limited to just 12.8 minutes per game in his two years with the dynasty that is the Golden State Warriors, despite showing genuine promise to be a plus player. At just $ 1.6 million in cap space for the season, Bell fits the Rosas mold to a tee.

With a glut of rotational bigs for head coach Ryan Saunders to wade through and pair next to Towns, Bell will have to fight for his minutes in the Twin Cities, too. He has an intriguing skill set, where he lacks a reliable jump shot but makes up for it with some unusually good playmaking and ball-handling abilities for a big man. However, whether he can unlock the door on his defensive potential might be what keeps him on the floor or on the bench in the upcoming season.

The Wolves have been perennially putrid on the defensive side of the floor, with the last iteration showing no signs of difference. They finished the season with the seventh-worst defensive rating in the league, a number which plummeted to 29th overall after the All-Star break.

Internal improvements from players like Towns and Andrew Wiggins are mandatory, and gaining a healthy Robert Covington, a more experienced Josh Okogie, and an exciting prospect like Jarrett Culver should also help gauze some wounds. Even then, getting the most out of Bell would go a long way to winning games and grinding down teams defensively.

At 6-foot-9, Bell is certainly no mountain in the paint, and while his 6-foot-11 wingspan is nothing to scoff at, it’s not the type of measurements that will drop any jaws. What he does possess though is an awe-inspiring athletic profile. He holds a 38-inch vertical leap as well as a shuttle run speed that ranked fourth among all participants of the 2017 draft combine. What he does with those athletic gifts can sometimes yield mixed results, but when it goes right, it’s a sight to behold.

For the most part, he fuses his herculean leap with an acute sense of timing to disrupt scorers from the help side. The play below is one that will replay in many different variations this year, as Bell leaves his direct opponent and skyrockets in to obliterate an easy Mike Scott layup.

Towns has built a shoddy reputation for struggling to stifle post scorers and contain pick-and-rolls, but Bell can help with some of that. If he can fly in from the weak side and turn away his fair share of shots, something Taj Gibson and Dario Saric didn’t often do, then he will immediately add a new dimension to Minnesota’s defense.

Unfortunately and predictably, he isn’t the perfect defender, and he can still make silly errors in judgment that stem from an overflowing exuberance and lack of experience. Blend that inexperience with his thirst for shot-blocking and Bell is susceptible to biting hard on shot fakes and committing frivolous fouls.

The play below encapsulates Bell’s overzealous nature perfectly. He is in a fairly good position to contest Jeff Teague’s mid-range jumper, an inefficient shot that he isn’t very good at anyway, but bounces off the ground to try and swat it and gets punished for it.

With a new and highly regarded coaching staff in place, namely defensive coordinator and lead assistant David Vanterpool, hopefully Bell can smooth some of his rough edges. Vanterpool has been lauded for his work with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusef Nurkic in Portland.

All three entered the league plagued by reputations as defensive turnstiles but have done a complete 180 and become serviceable on that end. So much so that the three helped the Trail Blazers finished at a respectable 16th in defensive efficiency last season and a staunch sixth the season prior.

Bell’s defensive tool belt is much sturdier than Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic’s was when Vanterpool got his hands on them, so it won’t be surprising if he can wrench the same kind of growth out of the former Warrior.

Outside of his help-side defense, Vanterpool will be salivating at the thought of Bell’s switchability and capacity to contain smaller guards and wings. Whether it is switching in pick-and-roll schemes or holding his own when he gets stuck on an isolation island, Bell’s athleticism and fast feet help him hold his own.

Even post-ACL, Zach LaVine is one of the quickest and shiftiest movers in the league, capable of destroying bigs who dare push up on him. That didn’t worry Bell on this pick-and-roll switch, though. He slides his feet, shadows the former Wolf, and denies the shot. To put a cherry on top of the defensive masterclass, he pulls down the rebound and erupts into the open court.

Ryan Saunders has preached a switch-heavy scheme since the moment he was promoted to interim coach last season, it’s how the modern NBA works and it is pretty much compulsory for a high-end defense. In Bell, he has found a big man capable of performing switches consistently.

“With the way basketball is going in the NBA, with positionless basketball, it’s a perfect fit for me,” Bell said. “The versatility I bring in terms of switching screens, guarding one through five ... defensively I think that’s something that’s to my advantage,”

Like all big men, Bell can never cover up faster guards and wings all of the time. He has elite speed and lateral quickness for a big, which gives him a fighting chance in these battles, but his positioning can let him down at times. Again, improving on this will come with experience, confidence, and working on his technique.

When he does learn to use his skill package more consistently Bell could very well wreak havoc on offensive schemes. His capacity to make second efforts and rotate from one player to another with elite timing and speed is something you don’t find in every big man.

Below, his multiple efforts shut down this baseline out of bounds play. First, he recognizes and cuts off Josh Okogie’s cut after Alfonzo McKinnie loses the Wolves rookie, before quickly jetting back to Karl-Anthony Towns and get a hand in his face, forcing him to brick the jumper.

If Bell can harness that frantic defensive energy and learn to use it in a smart and reliable fashion, he could quarterback a defensive scheme.

In the event that he stands out in training camp, Bell could be in for a bump up from the 11.6 minutes he averaged last season. If Saunders, Vanterpool, and the rest of the training staff can get the most out of him defensively, he might even become an integral part of Minnesota’s revamped scheme on that end.

If he can take that leap while on a minimum deal, Gersson Rosas will look like a mastermind. And if his flaws become more prominent in larger minutes, then there is no harm done by cutting down his playing time and trying someone else.

Defensive versatility and improvement will be key for the entire Minnesota Timberwolves squad this season, and Jordan Bell is no different.