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Timberwolves Film Room: Jarrett Culver’s Preseason Defensive Improvements

The sophomore has looked noticeably bigger and noticeably better in the exhibition season.

NBA: Preseason-Minnesota Timberwolves at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There really isn’t any question as to what was the biggest talking point to come out of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ roller-coaster preseason games. Sure, the easy-to-punch-holes-in defense remained a hot topic, and the microscope was always going to be firmly held over Anthony Edwards’ first NBA minutes, but it was Jarrett Culver who stole the most headlines.

Over his rookie season, Culver assuming the role of the headliner was never a good thing. If It wasn’t his shooting struggles from the free throw line or long-range, it was his general lack of confidence filling the blog posts and podcasts. And when both those concerns were highlighted, the fact Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas went way out on a limb to trade up to get him on draft night usually reared its ugly head.

One thing Rosas would say when referring to Culver (and all rookies on the roster) is that this isn’t a one-year evaluation process. You have to wait three and sometimes even five years to get a firm grasp on what a young player is really going to be. Through the minuscule (and ultimately meaningless) three-game preseason sample size, Culver is starting to show that Rosas would is correct, and that he is starting to blossom after an extended offseason to hone his game.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Offensively, Culver made his 11.3 points per game at a 43.5 percent clip, a nice bump from the 40.4 percent he downed last season (9.2 PPG). Even more mouth-watering was his 57.1 percent 3-point clip (4-7) and his 100 percent conversion rate on free throws. Last season, he failed to crack the 30 percent threshold on triples and hit less than half of his charity stripe freebies. Again, the sample size is so tremendously small here that it’s impossible to be making any sweeping declarations about Culver’s efficiency. With a clear uptick in confidence and smoother shot mechanics, it seems reasonable to expect him to peel himself from the bottom of the efficiency barrel, but there are just no guarantees yet.

Culver’s place in the rotation seemed to be under threat when the Timberwolves brought in Anthony Edwards with the first overall pick in the draft, traded for long-time fan favorite Ricky Rubio and re-signed Malik Beasley, but he has rightfully earned his minutes through the preseason. It’s not just been his offense, though. In fact, his defensive improvements have jumped off the screen so much that they virtually smack you in the face when studying the preseason film.

Culver wasn’t bad defensively by any means in his rookie season, but there was still a lot of room left to grow. First and foremost, he needed to bulk up. And he proved his gym rat reputation right on that front, entering training camp looking much more like an NBA man than a college kid.

The added strength has allowed Culver to compete with the bigger wings and guards of the Association, and he immediately sprinkled that into his already advanced defensive instincts throughout the preseason. The clip below is from last season, and you can see how easy it is for Jimmy Butler to dislodge Culver on the drive and draw an easy foul. This is pretty much standard for a player of Butler’s strength compared to a first-year string bean, but it’s not what the coaching staff or fans want to see out of their defenders.

Now, obviously, Dillon Brooks isn’t the same sort of physical specimen that Jimmy Buckets is, and the bump isn’t as pronounced, but that’s partly because Culver doesn’t let it look as pronounced. Instead of letting the shoulder fling him to the side, he stands firm. Culver not only takes the shoulder to the chest in his stride as he back-peddles defensively, he swallows it up. He absorbs it and uses it as fuel to get back after Brooks. The play finishes with Culver draped all over Brooks’ falling layup attempt, rather than the lunch meat Butler was served up.

This might be even more impressive. When you reach and come up with air in the back court against Luka Doncic, it’s pretty darn easy to get irreparably behind in the play. It’s even easier when Doncic, whose strength is underappreciated, shoves you off with a nifty little forearm. But, instead of letting the laws of gravity define him, Culver’s newfound strength, his longstanding ankle flexibility, that 6-foot-10 wingspan and, honestly, kind of nutty body control allows him to turn an unwinnable situation into a solid shot contest — all without fouling the ever-searching Doncic.

There will still be moments where bigger and stronger drivers get the better of Culver, and that isn’t a bad thing. Trying to contain the freight train momentum of a world-class athlete while sliding backward is an extremely unenviable task that takes years to master, if it can be mastered at all.

What defenders can do is sharpen their technique. Through training camp and preseason, Culver seems to have his at samurai level sharpness. One area that stood out is his ability to navigate through screens, allowing him to stay attached to his man at the point of attack. Along with Josh Okogie, Culver is Head Coach Ryan Saunders’ most trusted defender on the first line of defense. As is the case with Okogie, his size, movement abilities and length allow Culver to guard point guards and ball-handling wings, so being able to handle and weave through picks is absolutely essential to his success.

Culver did a commendable job in that aspect last season, but his strength and overall awareness of how NBA screeners operate was understandably lacking. In the Timberwolves’ pick-and-roll coverage, the big (usually Karl-Anthony Towns) drops deep into the paint, rendering the point of attack defense crucial to forbidding the ball-handler from getting easy looks coming off the ball screen. Too often last year, Culver was halted by the screen as he does in the clip you see below, heaping the pressure on Towns to stop a downhill skiing guard.

In his most recent showings, Culver has shown a newfound nous when piloting through screens. He still isn’t going to ram-raid through them, but he is finding ways to avoid them in a way that keeps him in the play and able to contest the eventual shot. Here, the first pseudo screen by Boban Marjanovic is easy to breeze through, but the second one isn’t as simple as Culver makes it look.

It starts with the leg extension you see in the photo below. Instead of trying to sledgehammer through a 7-foot-4 man-mountain who was literally a villain in a John Wick movie, Culver plays it smart. He sees that Marjanovic is getting ready to slip straight out of the pick and rumble toward the rim, which creates an opening to keep within arm’s length of his opponent, without having to fight through a human juggernaut.

After using the nifty sidestep to nullify the extent of the screen, Culver slips in behind the big man and gives him the slightest of physical resistance as he does. This not only acts as a type of ‘tag’ to give his pick-and-roll defensive partner Naz Reid a split second more time to recover to the roller, but by jumping directly into Boban’s original spot, it allows him to get right back into the airspace of Josh Green (the shooter).

It all happens in an instant, and it’s virtually impossible to see without a frame-by-frame breakdown, but this is the type of minutiae that separates adequate point-of-attack defense from the seriously effective stuff. In the end, Culver executes it masterfully, getting a flailing arm right in Green’s line of sight without ever being impeded by the screen.

Here’s another example, this time with super slo-mo for the ultimate nerds like yours truly. Keep an eye on Culver’s feet and body control as he follows Brooks through the hand-off action with Xavier Tillman. Instead of trying to burst through the screen and keep up with the curling Brooks, Culver takes that millisecond to plant his foot, redirect his body with a hop through the gap between Tillman and Juancho Hernangomez, and dodge the screen completely. Then, it’s the length and short-burst speed that keeps him in the play and with a hand in the shooter’s grill.

Fighting through screens and refining his overall defensive technique isn’t something that will show up in the box scores, but when Culver is wreaking havoc as a defensive playmaker and contributing to steal and block numbers, that puts some tangible reward for effort on the stat sheet. That’s something that Culver was terrific at during his time at Texas Tech, and it carried over into his rookie season in the big leagues.

Last season, Culver ranked as one of just 19 players to post at least a steal percentage of 19 and a block percentage of 20 while playing under 25 minutes, per NBA.com. He wasn’t a true rim protector or a perimeter pest who hounded ball-handlers 24/7, but he has extremely fast hands and a knack for being in the right time at the right place — be it in a passing lane or as a rotation helper. Through the exhibition games, Culver was at it again. His block percentage dipped from 1.9 to 1.3, but his steal percentage boomed from 2.1 to 3.1. That means Culver was responsible for over 30 percent of the Timberwolves’ steals throughout the preseason.

Just like his adjustments to guarding ball screens, Culver’s defensive playmaking talent is built of a foundation of calmness and confidence in his abilities. He rarely panics or feels he has to take a silly swipe at the rock when he is a step out of position. Instead, he waits for the ideal time to make his lunge. Like the Karate Kid with a pair of chopsticks and a fly in his sights.

On this play, he could easily lose his head and launch at Green with too much velocity after helping pretty heavily on the original drive. Instead, he closes out patiently, using the aforementioned ankle flexibility and quick hip flips to stay in front on the closeout and maintain position during Green’s spin move. Then, as soon as Green begins to bring the ball up, he slams the chopsticks together, slapping the ball clean and starting the fast break for the Wolves.

When he is situated off the ball, Culver can make an impact with his spatial awareness and his ability to read an unfurling play. Here, he communicates with Wolves legend Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to switch out onto Doncic, who is sneaking along the sideline for an open look as Minnesota’s defensive shell gets bent out of shape for the zillionth time. But, RHJ jetting toward the ball-handler leaves Culver in a sticky two-on-one situation. Instead of trying to get back to Doncic and risk getting blown by, Culver makes the split-second decision to jump the lane, allowing him to cut off the pass in-flight and fire it up to Anthony Edwards for an easy dunk.

The last clip worth mentioning in today’s Film Room comes in the form of a game-saving defensive stop. Yes, I know, it was only a preseason outing, but it’s still very encouraging to see Culver making winning plays at the end of games.

This one’s pretty simple. Usually, Minnesota’s defensive scheme dictates that the defenders manning the corner shooters stay home and don’t overhelp. In essence, it lumps more responsibility onto the guard and big defending the pick-and-roll action, but it also takes away corner 3-point attempts — one of the most statistically efficient shots in the game.

Culver knows this. It’s probably been drilled into his head in every training session since the moment his plane touched down at MSP Airport. However, there are times where protocol is made to be broken, and this instance is exactly that. With time running down and Tyrell Terry very clearly having made up his mind about who is shooting the game-winning shot, Culver decides to leave his man, commit to the contest, and get a hand on the jumper. It’s nothing overly special, but it’s a showcase of pure time and gameplay recognition.

It’s still extremely early in his career, and Rosas would tell you that we can’t quite judge him yet, but this season feels eerily similar to a make-or-break one for Jarrett Culver. His offensive game needs to take steps, we know that, but if he can continue defending stoutly in the variety of different ways we discussed throughout this film session, there will be a spot in Saunders’ rotation for him. Hell, with the way this Timberwolves team is projected to defend, it might just be a pretty important spot.