In sports, it’s natural to root for the hometown team, often regardless of how good they are. These days, there is hope around the Timberwolves, but without the hometown connection how many people would’ve stuck through the long playoff droughts and years of ineptitude? We stuck by the Timberwolves because, for many of us, they’re part of our home.
The same goes for players. We WANT to root for the homegrown players. Sure, we want to win too, but all else being equal, we want to win with OUR players. It’s just a little bit more special when you win with the guys you’ve drafted and developed. For proof, look no further than the way Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are viewed in the Bay Area. It just means a little bit more to see the homegrown talent evolve into what you always hoped they could be.
Because of that, we naturally hold out hope for those homegrown players longer than we otherwise would. More than anything we just want these players to succeed.
In the Canis Universe, that brings us to Jarrett Culver. Minnesota has invested a lot into Culver. As a quick reminder, Minnesota traded up to get Culver in the 2019 NBA Draft, moving Dario Saric and the 11th overall pick to Phoenix in exchange for the 6th overall pick. From what we know, it seems Minnesota was targeting Darius Garland with that selection, but their plans went slightly haywire when the Cleveland Cavaliers surprisingly selected Garland with the 5th overall pick, causing Minnesota to pivot to Culver.
Great behind-the-scenes look by @JonKrawczynski at the process that led to the Wolves ending up with Jarrett Culver. They traded up to #6 hoping for Darius Garland, with Culver as the fallback. Also, they're going to play Robert Covington at power forward. https://t.co/G9f21z528o— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) June 21, 2019
In an effort to show that this is not revisionist history, I personally loved the pick at the time. In my eyes, he was the third best prospect in the class, just behind Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.
Jarrett Culver would look really good in a Wolves jersey— mike o’hagan (@mikleohagan) December 21, 2018
If we’re being honest, the trade looks pretty bad today, although it isn’t quite as simple as it may seem. Yeah, Dario Saric is a better player than any PF the Wolves have on the roster, but he was miserable here. It’s highly unlikely that Saric was going to re-sign, so that isn’t what makes the trade bad.
The problem is that when you trade up like that, you absolutely have to nail the pick.
It may be too early to decisively say that Gersson Rosas and company whiffed on that pick (I will make the argument for this line of thinking soon), but it’s at least fair to say the early returns aren’t good. Culver suffered through a truly miserable rookie year, while players selected at or after where Minnesota was originally supposed to pick have looked awesome. Players like Cameron Johnson (11th pick), P.J. Washington (12th), Tyler Herro (13th), and Brandon Clarke (21st) are all players that would have been available to Minnesota who had very, very strong rookie years.
As for Culver it is hard to describe how his year went without using words like “suffered”, “miserable”, “abysmal”, or “hard-to-watch”. The main concern about Culver as a prospect was his shooting, but I don’t know if anyone could’ve imagined just how painful the shooting would be. The shooting numbers were bad in pretty much every way possible, but hitting on just 46.2% of his free-throw attempts illustrates just how far Culver has to go to being a reliable shooter.
In reaction to his poor rookie year, Culver has seen his name pop-up in trade discussions. He is the young “asset” included in pretty much every trade scenario we’ve seen this offseason.
I totally get the pessimism. I oftentimes feel the same way. The rhetoric around Culver’s inclusion is often something along the lines of “good organizations figure out what they have quickly, and cut bait quickly if they need to.” I do think this is mostly true, but what about the times where it does just take a little bit of time for things to come together for a player?
Yes, Jarrett Culver was legitimately unplayable at times last year. Guess what, most rookies are. It does make Culver look worse because players like Herro and Clarke were so impactful, but that shouldn’t be the standard to which rookies are held.
The point is that rookies are almost always bad. They just are. For the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at three rookie seasons.
Those are three incredibly bad seasons. As rookies, all three of these players were wildly destructive to their team while they were on the court.
As I’m sure you know, one of these players is Jarrett Culver. His horrendous free-throw shooting probably gave away that he is Player A in this case.
Player B is De’Aaron Fox, who, much like Culver, was one of the biggest negatives in the entire NBA during his rookie year. Fox was given a lot of leash in Sacramento and allowed to play through his mistakes, and ultimately came back as a much better player in his second year. It seems like Fox is destined to be one of those players who is a borderline All-Star level player year-in and year-out. He feels like a prime candidate to be the next Mike Conley, who falls victim to the depth of the Western Conference when it comes down to how many ASG appearances he ultimately makes.
Player C is the reigning Most Improved Player, Brandon Ingram. It took a little bit longer for things to click for Ingram, but boy did they ever this past year. Ingram now looks like a legitimate three-level scorer that can be relied upon for 25ish points a night.
These are just two examples that came to my mind as players who had bad rookie years and ultimately improved, and are now really good players. I didn’t expect the per-36 production and advanced stats to be as similar as they turned out to be, which has given me a little bit of hope for Culver.
Now, is JC guaranteed to have the same career arc as either Fox or Ingram? Absolutely not. If he improves to the magnitude Fox did between his rookie and sophomore seasons, he’ll be an integral part of the Timberwolves core moving forward. If it takes a bit longer, like it did for Ingram, I wouldn’t expect Culver to stick around much longer.
I find it hard to believe most folks would have complaints about the 6’6” wing turning into a Fox or Ingram level player. If you’re still a big-time believer in Jarrett Culver, this is what you’re selling yourself. Sometimes, it does just take guys a little bit of time to figure it out. Hopefully Culver fits into that category.
There is one glaring, massive caveat to these comparisons, though.
While both players improved in several ways, BY FAR the biggest improvements from Ingram and Fox during their breakout years was the way they shot the ball, and that’s the biggest issue with Culver.
With both Fox and Ingram, you could at least sort of see the improved shooting coming. They weren’t necessarily projected to be high-level shooters, but their shooting mechanics were a lot better than what Jarrett Culver has shown thus far.
It is hard to look at Culver’s shooting profile and see where the optimism should kick in. I’d like to believe he isn’t the worst-shooting wing player in the NBA, but he has to prove that to me. Unfortunately, when you shoot below 50% from the free-throw line you do not get the benefit of the doubt.
And, to bring this full circle, that’s the whole issue with Culver. I think he will be genuinely good at almost every other facet of the game besides shooting, but it won’t matter if he is THIS bad of a shooter. It just makes the game so hard when there is someone that the opposition can totally leave at the three-point line, and when that same player can’t punish opponents at the free-throw line either.
Even if Culver was aggressive and good at drawing fouls (he is not), teams will happily put him at the line to let him (maybe) split the free-throws. Again, I really want to believe that Culver will improve as a shooter, but there just aren’t really any signs or indicators that suggest that’s actually the case.
In a nutshell, Culver has two pathways to being a valuable contributor. He can either find a way to improve as a shooter, or he can become absolutely elite at something else. Being a jack-of-all-trades but master-of-none only works because shooting is included in the “all” part of “all trades.” He can’t simply be solid at everything else while being this bad of a shooter. It just won’t work.
If he doesn’t improve as a shooter, but becomes an All-NBA type defender? I mean, this team could surely use a defender like that, so that would work too. He just has to improve exponentially somewhere to earn a legitimate role moving forward. Carving out a role in this crowded backcourt/wing rotation is a whole other issue in and of itself, but that’s a topic for another day.
Could I potentially grasping at straws with these comparisons, sure. But I’m pulling for Jarrett Culver. I’m hoping he’s the next Brandon Ingram or De’Aaron Fox, and that’s how I’m attempting to stay optimistic about his future. I’m just worried that his lack of shooting might ultimately hold him back.