How good can Minnesota be with Thibodeau?

When you have Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to build around, the future of your team is very bright. Add in some unique talents like Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Tyus Jones and Zach LaVine and you have the recipe for a great team in the future. The Minnesota Timberwolves have all of these pieces in addition to the veteran leadership of Kevin Garnett. But on Wednesday, they may have added the most important piece of all.

Tom Thibodeau
Thibodeau had a winning percentage of .647 in Chicago.

Tom Thibodeau agreed to terms with the Wolves to take over as both head coach and president of basketball operations. This is something of a homecoming for the former Bulls coach, as he started his coaching career in Minnesota under Bill Mussleman back in 1989.

Thibs has a lot to bring to the table now though. He was an assistant for the Knicks toward the end of Patrick Ewing’s career, including the improbable run to the finals in ’99. He then went to Houston before landing in Boston as an assistant to Doc Rivers during the Celtics’ championship season. He then finally got his chance to take the top job in Chicago in 2010, where he won Coach of the Year in his first season.

Now that guy takes over in Minneapolis, where the Wolves haven’t made the playoffs in a dozen years. They have two former number one overall picks and a ton of potential. Thibodeau is tasked with forming this into a contending team in the next few years.

LeBron_James_and_Andre_Wiggins
Wiggins (#22) was the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

The first thing that he will overhaul is the defense. Thibodeau’s teams are always known for relentless defensive intensity. Four out of his five years in Chicago, the Bulls finished in the top three for opponents’ points per game and the top ten for defensive rating. Minnesota ranked tied for 23rd in points per game allowed and 28th in opponents’ field goal percentage. In addition to being the leader this young team needs, Thibodeau will fix this team’s reeling defensive efforts.

With a roster already dripping with potential, Minnesota likely has a top-five pick again this year, finishing the season fifth in lottery odds. If the Timberwolves enter the draft picking the fifth, they have a chance to add another high-end lottery pick to a roster already loaded with them. Buddy Hield, Dragen Bender or Kris Dunn all could be playing under Thibs next year and they all could be coming off the bench.

Thibodeau understands the importance of adding veterans and role players, which means I have no doubt he will build around the core he currently has.

The front office got another boost too with the hiring of assistant Spurs General Manager Scott Layden. You know, San Antonio. The team that has missed the playoffs once since 1989 and won five titles in a 15-year span.

The Wolves organization finally put talent in the front office and on the sidelines to match the future talent they have playing on the court right now. Give it about three years and this team will be a title contender. Sky is the limit with what Minnesota could achieve with Thibodeau at the helm.

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Are these freshmen making the jump too early?

The NBA draft is still a couple of months off but the buzz surrounding the biggest basketball event of the summer has already begun. With the NCAA deadline to declare for the draft just four days away, the draft class has all but taken form. The seniors obviously had no choice but there were several underclassmen who decided to make the jump early despite having plenty of eligibility and potential championships left at their universities. For some, leaving school for the NBA will seem like a no-brainer. For others, the decision was maybe a little rushed. Out of the dozens of underclassmen to declare, there are a couple that stick out that should have stayed in school.

Tyus Jones, Freshman
Point Guard, Duke
He has yet to actually declare and I sincerely hope he does not. Jones is a very talented player and based on his performance in Duke’s national championship run, his value is probably as high as it will ever be. However, he is not truly pro-ready. The comparisons I have frequently heard have been to former Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis. Not that their style of play is all that similar but they face (faced) similar situations. Ennis had a stellar freshman year for the Orange and the talent around him was at a high point. He was not pro-ready either but because his value was so high, and Syracuse’s outlook for the following season was not as strong, Ennis declared and has since bounced around the NBA D-league. Jones is in the same position. Duke will almost definitely drop next year as Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow will both be playing in the NBA.

He also struggled a bit to find his shot at times this year, finishing with a 41.7 percent conversion rate. Jones never really managed to find a way to truly blend scoring and assisting. The stretch of games Jones played in the tournament underlines his streaky play. Jones only registered ten plus points and five plus assists in two games. And one of those was against #16 seed Robert Morris. Jones exploded in the finals for 23 points but was limited to only one dime. He also shot below 40 percent in four of those six games. Simply stated, Jones is a project with a lot of upside. He benefitted from the talent around him and will need some time before he turns into a viable NBA prospect.

Chris McCullough, Freshman
Power Forward, Syracuse
McCullough was a one-and-done candidate entering the season, but that changed quickly when he tore his ACL back in December. Now, with McCullough not set to be cleared until December of next season, he will not be of much use to teams in the short term. He will need to finish rehabbing and likely would need some time to learn the new system for whatever team he lands with. McCullough is likely trying to bolt from the uncertain situation in Syracuse right now with NCAA sanctions leveled against the basketball program and Jim Boeheim set for suspension from ACC games. Other news points to McCullough making the leap based on having a child due in May.

Either way, McCullough is far from a finished product. He showed plenty of promise as a rebounder and shot blocker. He racked up about seven boards per game and over two blocks per contest. He even tallied 1.7 steals a night as well. On offense though, McCullough definitely needs some work. He only shot 48 percent from the field, on the lower end for a big man. He almost relapsed when it came to scoring as well. After notching at least ten points per game through his first eight matchups, McCullough went cold and failed to hit ten again for his next eight appearances. With his offensive and injury concerns, McCullough will definitely be sliding into the second round. Had he returned, he would have had the chance to significantly boost his draft stock in another year for the Orange.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Freshman
Power Forward, Kentucky
Towns was one of the best players in college basketball this season. Don’t get me wrong, I think he will be an excellent player at the professional level. I just think that another year in the collegiate ranks would be very beneficial to Towns. He played on one of the most talented teams potentially ever assembled in college basketball history, which limited his ability to showcase and develop his talents. He occasionally flashed the ability to take over games, but failed to do it regularly.

There are also a couple of concerns that I have about Towns that I have voiced before. First, he didn’t play very many minutes, (Towns registered over 30 minutes once) which makes me wonder how quickly he will adjust to the professional level. Then there is the issue of his inconsistency on offense. He shoots the ball at a high percentage, but in eight different games this year, Towns failed to score even five points. That includes the Sweet 16 game against West Virginia when he went 0-3 from the field and only registered a single point. I think that another year under Coach Calipari in Kentucky would really serve Towns well. He could become the complete package and make a real splash at the focus of what will be almost definitely another talented Wildcat squad.

Comparing college big men

The NBA Draft is a long way off but there is already plenty of buzz surrounding the top pick. More specifically, many college and professional basketball fans alike want to know who is going to be the first selection in the 2015 draft. There are a couple of talented athletes expected to hear their names called early on in the draft. The talk of number one though has been mostly eaten up by Duke center Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns. Both of these highly recruited freshmen are expected to make the jump to the NBA following the close of the college season. One of them could very well be hoisting a national championship trophy come April but that a discussion for another blog post. I want to compare these two centers and come to a conclusion of which one of them should be selected first.

With how well both Okafor and Towns have played, both look NBA ready. Each, in his own right, is full of potential. They have shown that they truly look like men among boys playing against other college players. Comparing these two via statistics can be a little tricky though due to the wide gap in average minutes played per night. However, I will calculate them per 36 minutes (roughly what an NBA starter plays every night) to level the playing field. It should be noted though, right away, that Towns plays on 20 minutes per game, while Okafor plays 31.

Both players have been incredibly efficient this season. Okafor has hit an unreal 66.5 percent of his shots this season while attempting 11 shots per game. Towns, despite taking 5 fewer shots per game, is only hitting 55.3 percent of his attempts so far this season. Those stats are unaffected by the amount of time players spend on the floor each night. On top of that, Okafor matches up with much better than Towns does. The Duke center has played against 7 ranked opponents, including 6 against the top 15. Towns has only played four games against ranked teams, but 3 of them were against top 6 programs. However, Towns is the far superior free throw shooter, knocking down 79 percent of his shots at the line, compared to Okafor’s 54 percent conversion rate.

Examining the per 36 minutes stats turned out to be an interesting comparison. Towns averages 16.5 points while Okafor tallies 21.3 points per 36 minutes of action. That is a pretty large gap in points per night translated to a theoretical NBA level. Granted, it is not exactly fair to assume that both players will produce at the NBA level; in terms of what they are capable of now as scorers, Okafor has a clear upper hand. Both kids are above average rebounders as well. Towns snags 11.4 boards per 36 minutes while Okafor reels in 11.2.

Defensively, Towns clearly has the edge. Okafor only averages 1.62 blocks per 36 minutes, which is a nice number. However, Towns swats roughly 4.26 shots per 36 minutes of play, blowing away Okafor’s numbers. Towns clearly has immense value as a defensive centerpiece, meanwhile Okafor has shown that he has a lot of work to do defending in the paint. That statement is almost funny when you consider that they are the same height but Okafor actually outweighs Towns by about 20 pounds.

So here is my assessment on both. Okafor is an elite offensive big man. He hits an absurd percentage of his shots and scores at a high level. He cleans up the boards well, using his frame to box out opponents for rebounds. He needs to improve defensively and his free throw shooting. He is not a liability by any means but his play as the man in the middle will need to step up at the NBA level. As for the free throw shooting, we’ve seen what teams have done with guys like Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, who are notoriously poor from the line.

For Towns, there is a lot of athleticism that can be turned into offensive prowess. He has not reached the point yet where he is a top scorer. He also has proven to be a good rebounder, capable of using his size to shield the opposition from the ball. On the defensive end of the floor though, Towns is a force to be reckoned with. His skills as a rim protector make him invaluable to a lot of teams at the next level. Towns knows how to position himself to force opponents to put up difficult shots and does an excellent job of contesting them as they are released. His impressive free throw shooting also keeps him from being the same liability Okafor could be at the next level.

Who to pick? This is a tough call. Okafor is much more pro-ready. Towns is slightly more of a project, but likely has more potential. His athleticism gives him the opportunity to morph into another Kentucky product that came before him, Anthony Davis. I am not saying he will reach that level, but I do believe he has that potential. The concerns for me are the low number of minutes leaving what Towns can do in more minutes a major question mark. Okafor also has the bonus playing more games against better opponents, erasing a lot of the questions that still remain for Towns. The Duke big man has also demonstrated a type of maturity that his Kentucky counterpart has yet to unlock. Either way, I am almost certain you will be hearing one of these two names called when Adam Silver walks to the podium this June. If I had to make a pick, I am likely going with Okafor. As a GM, you cannot argue with production, and he certainly has plenty of that.