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Examining The Training Camp Battles

As training camp rolls on, let’s take a look at who is fighting for a spot in the rotation!

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Minnesota Timberwolves David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

Wait, hold on, do the Minnesota Timberwolves have … roster depth? It has to be seen to be believed, of course, and even then it might still be hard to process, but that seems to be the way we’re trending as a frenetic free agency period trickles into the occasional piece of news here and there.

In less than a month, President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas and his front office compatriots added rookies Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels to next season’s roster, as well as some savvy veterans in Ricky Rubio, Ed Davis and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Sprinkle returning free agents Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez into the mix and Minnesota suddenly has a very different group encircling franchise pillars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell for the 2020-2021 campaign.

Yet, as we hurtle toward the conclusion of a nine-month offseason, there are still more questions than answers with this Wolves roster. In particular, the way in which Head Coach Ryan Saunders sorts through the newfound depth and configures a rotation seems to be the current flavor of the month. As usual, the best way to parse through these rotation queries is via training camp and preseason games. Luckily for us, this season’s edition is already underway.

Like everything in 2020, it’s little bit different to the norm. This season’s festivities are limited in time and accessibility due to COVID-19 restrictions, but it’s still the only chance Saunders and his coaching staff will get to shake the cobwebs out of the roster and develop a rotation before the games start piling up. Even with under three weeks of team training sessions and only three preseason outings, there will be plenty of jostling for minutes in multiple positions. Let’s take a deeper look.

Position: The Guard Rotation

Candidates: Malik Beasley, Ricky Rubio, Anthony Edwards, Josh Okogie

Rotation certainties are few and far between at the present moment, but D’Angelo Russell starting and playing a major role in terms of both minutes and usage is one of them. However, the crop of potential backcourt partners is one of the most interesting storylines heading as team-based camp activities kick off.

After arriving from Denver via trade, Malik Beasley accompanied the former All-Star last season — promptly transforming into flame-throwing bucket-getter. And now he has a shiny $60 million contract to show for his work. He averaged 20.7 points and 5.1 rebounds while connecting on 42.6 percent of his 3-point attempts during his 14-game stint with the Wolves — had those averages somehow been upheld through enough games to qualify, he would have joined a group of just six players who recorded more than 20 points and 5 rebounds a game and knocked down over 40 percent of his triples — he still isn’t anywhere near the level of defender the Wolves need alongside Russell and Towns, but he is the sharpshooting shooting guard that fits seamlessly alongside the pair.

Then there is Ricky Rubio. The prodigal son. The Spanish Unicorn. The franchise favorite who returns to Minnesota after three years seasoning his game in Utah and Phoenix. If Rubio was to earn starter minutes, that would shift Russell off the ball more, allowing Rubio to make plays for others — where he thrives. Partly because of his ability to set up Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and the rest of his Suns teammates as well as his ability to impact the game on the defensive end, Phoenix was 2.8 points better per 100 possessions on offense and 5.7 points better on defense last season when Rubio was on the court, per Cleaning The Glass.

Minnesota needs point of attack defenders desperately, and you can never have enough playmakers on the floor, but Rubio likely isn’t part of the long-term core and taking the reins from Russell before he has really had a chance to grasp them might not be in Saunders’ best interests. There are clear benefits no matter which way Saunders leans between Rubio and Beasley, and expect both to feature heavily when the season does get underway.

Outside of the two clubhouse favorites, both first overall pick Anthony Edwards and defensive stopper Josh Okogie remain in the mix for minutes alongside Russell. Although, both have more positional flexibility, allowing them to feature more at the small forward spot. For that reason, it seems unlikely either will take the starting guard spot off Rubio or Beasley.

Verdict: Starters - D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley, Backups - Ricky Rubio and Anthony Edwards

Position: The Small Forward Rotation

Candidates: Josh Okogie, Anthony Edwards, Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman

The aforementioned pairing of Okogie and Edwards are clearly the frontrunners here. From a completely uneducated outside view, it seems like the experience and defensive acumen that Okogie provides gives him more of a logical chance than Edwards, who didn’t know what team he was on until less than a month ago.

Surprisingly enough, Minnesota’s offense was actually a point better per 100 possessions with Okogie on the floor, which suggests they could be able to survive on that end even if Okogie’s shooting and ball-handling don’t improve — especially with the way higher offensive floor that they have compared to last season. More importantly, the man they call “NonStop” is one of the lone point-of-attack hellhounds the Wolves have, a crucial element for a team that will need to figure out a way to get stops at some point.

Minnesota Timberwolves City Edition Uniform Portraits Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Edwards is kind of the opposite. Despite having the frame to handle almost any NBA counterpart and talking frequently about wanting to be a great defender, there is still a ton of questions around his defensive awareness and technique. For a team built on a shaky defensive foundation, adding such a volatile defensive presence like Ant-Man might not facilitate a defense worthy of winning games. However, if Edwards can realize a fraction of his overwhelming offensive potential in year one, Minnesota could find themselves wielding an offense with nuclear upside.

In the last 10 years, only the 2010-11 Houston Rockets and 2016-17 Denver Nuggets ranked in the top five in offensive rating and missed the playoffs, per NBA.com. With Edwards at full cry, the Wolves have a chance to vault themselves into the upper echelon of offenses and into the playoff race. If you’re Saunders, you need to weigh up the pros and cons of bolstering your defense with Okogie or supercharging your offense with Edwards.

When the decision of who starts next to Russell in the backcourt and who mans the starting small forward position is made, then you need to work out the backups. The loser of the Edwards/Okogie battle will be taking one of two backup wing spots, so unless Saunders extends his rotation out to 11 players, it seems Jarrett Culver and Jake Layman will be tussling for the other.

It’s hard to argue that Layman wasn’t the better player on either side of his injury last season, and maybe that’s enough to win him the backup role from day one in some minds. Add in that his size and athletic ability both give him an edge against bigger forwards and that he has also proven able to connect on * checks notes* over half of his free throws and you start to see the argument for the 26-year-old pretty clearly.

Conversely, despite slogging through an extremely tough rookie season, Culver was the sixth overall pick last year, and Rosas has way more incentive to develop and nurture him into a legitimate rotation piece. He is also getting paid around $2.34 million more than Layman, throwing more kindling onto the incentive bonfire. Theoretically, Culver should improve in year two, and Layman has the body to play as a backup power forward (we will get to that in a moment), so it’s worth giving Culver the first bite of the apple and adjusting from there.

Verdict: Starter - Josh Okogie, Backup - Jarrett Culver

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Position: The Power Forward Rotation

Candidates: Juancho Hernangomez, Jake Layman, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Josh Okogie

As soon as the post-draft rush of selecting Edwards and bring Rubio back via trade wore off, the attention of fans quickly turned to the power forward position. With Towns’ well-documented defensive deficiencies, it’s of the utmost importance that the player next to him can cover as many of his weaknesses as possible. Alas, here we are, and the issue isn’t resolved. There are, however, have some interesting names in the mix, which should make for an extra-competitive training camp clash.

Right now, Hernangomez likely sits in the box seat for the starting role. The 25-year-old started every game after arriving from Denver at the trade deadline, solidifying his place by playing the best basketball of his career. The Spaniard averaged 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 42 percent from long-range. But still, there is a very salient point to be made about Hernangomez’s defensive capabilities and how they insulate Towns.

Minnesota needs players who can put out the fires that Towns’ inconsistent defense starts, and Hernangomez hasn’t shown the ability to do that. Shot-blocking numbers aren’t everything, but they do matter when you’re looking for a help defender to have KAT’s back. Hernangomez has blocked 11 fewer shots than Okogie during their respective careers, despite playing 69 fewer games and standing six inches taller. Put simply, with his lateral and vertical limitations, he isn’t someone who is going to protect the rim or enhance Towns defensively.

We’ve already discussed Okogie and Layman throughout this examination, but it’s worth mentioning again that their familiarity and experience in Saunders’ system and with some of the teammates surrounding them is crucial. Both will likely be in the running for starter or backup power forward minutes, especially since Saunders has openly discussed that they’re options at the four spot.

Okogie is a curious case, considering he stands at just 6-foot-4, but his 7-foot wingspan, strong 212 pound frame and defensive tenacity give him a genuine shot at guarding most small-ball power forwards that the league has to offer. However, we’ve already penciled Okogie into the starting small forward spot here in this exercise, so it seems, by default, Layman takes the upper hand in that mini-battle.

The wildcards here are Jarred Vanderbilt and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Vanderbilt has been mentioned off-the-cuff several times by Rosas and Saunders during the COVID hiatus, praising his versatility and noticeable improvement from a physical and skill set standpoint. Theoretically, the ability to rebound, defend, cut, finish and handle the ball in the open court is the perfect fit next to Towns, but Vanderbilt is extremely raw, and he would need to put on some sort of training camp show to be handed rotation minutes after just 28 games in three seasons.

Hollis-Jefferson is the greatest mystery of the pack. Let’s get one thing out of the way — he can’t shoot. Like, 13 percent from long-range last season kind of shooter. That matters to this coaching staff and front office, and Saunders and Rosas have consistently shown they want to surround Towns (and now Russell) with guys who can space the floor effectively and drag defenders away from the star pairing.

As is the case with many members of this squad, Hollis-Jefferson does thrive on one end of the floor. Unlike many members of this squad, that end of the floor is the defensive one. Despite standing at just 6-foot-6, RHJ is a brick wall defensively, and uber-versatile to boot. According to Basketball Index, he virtually split his defensive duties evenly between all five positions last season, starring in his role as a defensive maestro for a Toronto Raptors team that won 53 games and finished the season second in defensive rating.

Minnesota is in desperate need of defenders made up in Hollis-Jefferson’s ilk, and if they can cover up his non-existent shooting, he kind of makes perfect sense as a partner to Towns, or at least someone who gets some regular run. The problem here is that RHJ is only on a non-guaranteed training camp deal as this is being typed, but with the likelihood of Jordan McLaughlin returning diminishing by the day, that spot seems to be getting more and more secure. Still, with a bunch of competition in front of him, perhaps the newbie will have to bide his time for now.

Verdict: Starter - Juancho Hernangomez, Bench - Jake Layman

Los Angeles Clippers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Reserve Center Spot

Candidates: Ed Davis, Naz Reid

The final positional battle we’re looking forward to is the fight for who gets the minute scraps when Towns checks out of the game. This one’s not as complicated as the others, it’s a straight mono e mono duel. A strange contest between the newly-acquired Ed Davis and the undrafted surprise packet Naz Reid, two players with contrasting game styles who are at very different stages of their career.

With the way this roster is constructed, Davis probably enters the fray as the immediate favorite. He isn’t going to be able to replicate the inside-out style that Towns brandishes, but he is going to add an immediate boost in defensive versatility and substance, rebounding and leadership. Out of that group of skills, rebounding is where Davis is truly elite. Davis finished 3rd leaguewide in rebounds per 36 minutes in the 2018-19 season after ranking 8th the season prior. He was wiped out by an assortment of leg injuries last season, but if he can return to his former glory he will feast on the glass and give Minnesota’s bench unit someone to rely on to rough up opposing bigs.

When you consider the fact that every man and his dog have raved about Davis’ off-court mentoring and overall locker room presence and that he is very close with both Russell and Hollis-Jefferson, it almost seems like a no-brainer here. However, after striking gold by finding an immediate impact player as an undrafted free agent, the Timberwolves brass is very high on Reid — and he brings a skill set that is very intriguing on an offensively-geared team.

Reid exhibited tantalizing flashes of shooting and short roll passing when called upon to replace the injured Towns last season. And, perhaps surprisingly, he actually finished his small sample sizing showing as the fifth-highest rookie in Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus/Minus metric. Being able to substitute Towns with a like-minded big who allows Saunders to continue deploying a five-out scheme does have its benefits, and Reid is ten years the junior on Davis, meaning he has a chance to continue to develop into much more than he has shown in just thirty NBA games.

This one is a tough call for the coaching staff, but in a season where the Wolves will undoubtedly be looking to put as many wins on the board as possible, we’re predicting that experience and toughness down low wins out.

Verdict: Ed Davis