The cold winds of draft season are slowly approaching the NBA. Normally, that would be a heatwave. But, as has become reality in the world of coronavirus, nothing is normal this year. The 2020 NBA draft will be held in November; the draft is usually held in June. But, the timing is not the only abnormality of the 2020 draft. The nature of this draft is also abnormal. The top of the class is rather weak, the middle rather strong, and the closing stages featuring fewer international prospects than has become customary. The only normality is that the Timberwolves possess a lottery pick–the first overall, at that–and have a very difficult decision to make. The decision is not “which bona fide star do we add to this equation?”. Rather, “what is the vehicle by which we acquire the third star needed to satisfy Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell?” Minnesota, which has missed the playoffs in fifteen of the last sixteen seasons, finally has a core duo that is feasibly sustainable. The Timberwolves, in an objectively undesirable small market, cannot afford to botch this opportunity.
So, what should they do?
One option is to keep the pick and do the work necessary to make an informed selection. When asked who he would select with the first overall pick, one NBA agent told me that he would go with Anthony Edwards, a highly-touted guard out of the University of Georgia. He cited a belief that Minnesota recognizes that sophomore wing Jarrett Culver is not the tertiary pillar upon which they can build a contending team. So, Edwards would fill that void. He also mentioned that the Timberwolves, if at all concerned about how content Towns is in the current situation, could look at James Wiseman, a center out of the University of Memphis. Wiseman was the top overall high schooler in his class, according to ESPN’s recruiting database. The NCAA ruled him illegible early in his freshman campaign after an investigation into benefits that he received from head coach Penny Hardaway. You may recall that the timeline upon which it was alleged that the benefits were received paint a very innocent picture of Wiseman and Hardaway while simultaneously reinforcing a negative image of the NCAA. Wiseman is going to be the #1 prospect on my big board, but it would be a ludicrous usage of that asset with Towns currently on the roster. Even if the Timberwolves were to speculate about Towns’ future with that pick, it is a dangerous practice to make the pick based upon something that may never happen.
Another option, of course, is to trade the pick. I asked another NBA agent the same question, and he swiftly responded “Trade it, worst draft in 30 years.” While maybe not inclusive of the part about it being the worst class in three decades, there is buzz around the NBA that this particular first overall pick is more available in trade talks than first overall picks typically are. Given the state of the Timberwolves, that course of action may be as worthy of exploration as is keeping the pick. The truth is that they have two premier stars under contract in an era of basketball in which players are more empowered to control their own destinies than ever. If either of Towns and Russell does not like the way things are headed, if they get sick of seeing their friends playing deep into the summer and grow fearful that they’ll waste the primes of their careers trying to fight for the .500 mark, they could very easily make it known that they would like fresh starts. While the introduction of a top overall pick provides Minnesota with a young, cost-controlled pillar of their future, they do not have time to develop a kid into a man at the NBA level while simultaneously managing the older and established Towns and Russell. They absolutely cannot afford to waste time doing that only to figure out that that selection’s ceiling is not high enough to reach star status.
Trading the pick may become all the more alluring if the target joining Minnesota is a sign-and-trade piece. A common sentiment around NBA circles is that teams are unwilling to spend big this offseason, especially on players who are not objectively considered stars. So, in a scaled economy, there may be young wings available on contracts that are more team-friendly than they would be in a normal market. Maybe James Johnson, the first overall pick, and a third team’s involvement can net Brandon Ingram in a sign-and-trade with New Orleans. There were a variety of trade options that Scott Layden and Gersson Rosas could’ve investigated with this pick to begin with. The down spending market resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic makes things much more fascinating, especially for a small-market team like the Timberwolves.
Scenarios resulting from trading the pick swirl around my head and make it a much more interesting decision than it is on the surface. Other teams may value that pick far higher or lower than the Timberwolves do, and there is a significant risk that the return from a trade may never equal the value that this year’s first overall selection redeems. On the other hand, the Timberwolves, who are managing two max contracts, have botched enough decisions in the past to still be performing poorly enough to earn a top pick despite having two young stars. Do they have the window to bring along a prospect whose value is inflated by a poor draft class? If they didn’t have Towns and Russell and were starting with a fresh rebuild, this decision would be much easier.
I’m glad I’m not the one making those decisions.
Featured Image: Kathy Willens/AP