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2021 NBA Draft Preview: Diamonds in the Rough — Guards

It’s well-known that the 2021 NBA Draft is loaded with talent at the top. But who are some of the less known guards with sleeper potential? Let’s discuss.

2021 NBA G League Elite Camp Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2021 NBA Draft is shaping up to be much less exciting than it was in 2020 for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves do not have a single pick in this year’s draft, which isn’t great for a team that finished with the sixth-worst record in the league. This team has some serious holes to fill in the rotation, and this is a front office that prides itself on being active and making moves. While I don’t think we’ll get a revelatory trade up into the first round, I do expect the Timberwolves to either get into the second round or make some moves on the undrafted market.

This front office has done an exceptional job of finding talent outside of the early first-round in the draft. Whether it is later picks like Jaden McDaniels, Jaylen Nowell, and Leandro Bolmaro (hopefully) or undrafted free agents like Naz Reid and Jordan McLaughlin, the Timberwolves have found excellent value where others have missed. The 2021 NBA Draft is very deep, and there will be a lot of talent that slips through the cracks. As we head into the draft, I want to highlight a few diamonds in the rough the Timberwolves could acquire. Here are three of my favorite sleeper guards who the Timberwolves should be taking a long look at.

JaQuori McLaughlin

JaQuori McLaughlin (no relation to Jordan) is a 6’4 point guard from UC Santa Barbara. The current third point guard role on the Timberwolves is far from solidified. If the front office is looking for a cheap option that provides significant offensive upside, McLaughlin is the way to go.

McLaughlin finished the season averaging 16 points, 5.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals on 48.8/40.8/83.2 shooting splits. McLaughlin can play on or off-ball. According to Synergy, McLaughlin ranked in the 90th percentile when shooting off the catch and the 73rd percentile when shooting off the dribble. McLaughlin also ranked in the 88th percentile as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and the 87th percentile when spotting up. McLaughlin has a beautiful shooting stroke, can attack closeouts, and is a three-level scorer.

The most significant upside with McLaughlin, though, is his playmaking. He can be used as a secondary creator who is put in motion and creating on the move or can be a primary initiator out of the pick-and-roll. This season, McLaughlin ranked in the 96th percentile in points per possession when combining the possessions he finished with the ones he assisted.

McLaughlin is an accurate passer who sees the floor incredibly well. He reads the weakside defense like a veteran and has the creativity of a naïve rookie. Besides being an accurate passer, McLaughlin is a very willing passer. He could have easily averaged 25 points per game this season, but he was more concerned with making the proper basketball play and dissecting the defense with his playmaking. With the offensive firepower the Timberwolves have, it is effortless to imagine the type of impact McLaughlin could have on the bench unit.

The most significant downside to McLaughlin’s game is his lack of athleticism. McLaughlin isn’t very explosive and lacks the burst of most NBA guards. Offensively, this will limit his ability to create his shot, whether he is attacking the rim or creating on the perimeter. Here, McLaughlin gets a switch on a more athletic forward. McLaughlin uses a series of dribble moves and a screen but can’t generate any space. McLaughlin is crafty enough to get the defender to bite on his shot fake, but he got bailed out at the end of the clock.

McLaughlin’s lack of athleticism also limits his defensive upside. McLaughlin has above-average defensive instincts, but his lack of athleticism will make him a liability on the perimeter and a one-position defender. Here, McLaughlin is in a good defensive stance, but he is a bit too square to his man. With a subtle shoulder shimmy and a quick first step, the ball-handler is at the rim before McLaughlin can react.

On the Timberwolves, JaQuori McLaughlin would provide excellent offensive depth to the point guard rotation. His combination of outside shooting and playmaking would help a bench unit that struggled to score at times. McLaughlin won’t be a positive defender, but he is smart enough to not be a complete negative. McLaughlin has the skills to immediately slide into the third point guard role on the Timberwolves.

A.J. Lawson

South Carolina had a brutal season with multiple COVID shutdowns and positive tests, but A.J. Lawson still showed that he has NBA talent. Lawson would immediately inject athleticism and off-ball shooting to the Timberwolves’ shooting guard rotation. Lawson doesn’t have the most impressive shooting numbers on the surface. However, these are significantly skewed by the amount of late clock grenades he was given and him not being much of a threat off the dribble.

In purely an off-ball shooter role, though, Lawson could thrive. Lawson ranked in the 84th percentile spotting up and the 78th percentile when unguarded shooting off the catch this season. Lawson has a quick release and limitless range. It isn’t difficult to envision Karl-Anthony Towns skipping it out of a double team to Lawson in the corner or Anthony Edwards setting up Lawson on a drive and kick.

While most of Lawson’s offensive impact will come from off-ball shooting, he also has the athleticism to attack the rim. Lawson recorded the eighth-best max vertical leap at 41 inches. Lawson ranked in the 74th percentile of cutters and the 70th percentile when he attacked the rim out of spot-ups. Lawson’s ability to put pressure on the rim will help keep defenses honest when defending him behind the arc.

As a defender, Lawson is incredibly inconsistent. When Lawson isn’t locked in, his fundamentals disappear. His screen navigation is sloppy, his feet slow down, his rotations are erratic, and he has some of the worst closeouts you’ll ever see.

However, when Lawson is locked in and engaged, he looks like a quality defender. He moves his feet perfectly and makes life hell for the ball-handler. I tend to lean more towards Lawson being a positive defender in the long run because his situation and role will be different, and he has shown plenty of what he is capable of.

M.J. Walker

M.J. Walker was one of the most reliable off-ball shooters in the country this season. Walker ranked in the 86th percentile in spot-ups, 80th percentile when run-off screens, and 91st percentile when shooting off the catch. Walker has a smooth release and is unaffected by defensive pressure. His shooting numbers remained relatively the same when guarded (90th percentile) vs. unguarded (80th percentile).

Walker is purely an off-ball three-point shooter when it comes to scoring. He showed some promise creating for others out of the pick-and-roll as he ranked in the 66th percentile. However, he ranked in the 32nd percentile in pick-and-roll scoring, the 27th percentile in isolation scoring, and the 30th percentile shooting off the dribble.

Defensively, Walker won’t be a game-changer, but he won’t be a liability. He has the size and athleticism to defend multiple positions. He also is intelligent enough to not be blatantly out of position.

The Timberwolves lacked three-point shooting throughout their rotation last year. With multiple ball-dominant players in the rotation, the Timberwolves desperately need to find off-ball shooting at a low cost. Walker would fit that role beautifully.