You don’t have to know Tim Connelly long before you learn that the Minnesota Timberwolves new president of basketball operations (POBO) is proud of his blue-collar roots.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of his introductory press conference in late May was when Connelly, who came up through the NBA ranks as a scout, gleefully anticipated a packed “war room” of opinionated basketball junkies arguing over which players the Wolves should select on draft night June 23. Last Thursday Connelly savored the scenario in real time. Greeting the media near midnight, after the Wolves had executed four trades (all of them a means of jockeying for different slots in the draft queue) and selected four players, he was asked if the level of banter had met his expectations.
“You kidding me? I’ve already had a couple of beers. No shortage of arguing, which is great. No shortage of debate. Wouldn’t have it any other way,” he answered with a grin, then added, for emphasis, “When they’re in the room, there’s no hierarchy – let’s just beat these guys up” as a means of hammering out the right decisions.
Ignored or not, the hierarchy was in transition anyway. Recent interim president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta had been handling the Wolves draft prep for many months with the help of his staff, which included assistant general managers Joe Branch and Manny Rohan and international director of player personnel Zarko Durisic. Gupta also hired former Memphis Grizzlies assistant Steve Senior in mid-May. After Connelly signed a 5-year, $40-million contract to be the new Wolves POBO on May 23, Gupta was bumped down to executive vice president of basketball operations, slightly above former Orlando Magic assistant general manager Matt Lloyd, whom Connelly quickly hired as the new senior vice president of basketball operations. Last, but certainly not least, head coach Chris Finch was also in the mix.
It was a war room where brain cells and spread sheets were the howitzers of choice. And yet, despite all the old hires and new hires holding forth; and all the finagling over who to pick and when to pick them (with the help of future second-round draft rights that came and went in deals with other teams, the original draft slots 19, 40, 48 and 50 became slots 22, 26, 45 and 50; the Timberwolves did not overthink it on Thursday. They trusted their copious research and balanced their two surgical first-round picks with a pair of longshot gambles in the second round.
Breaking down the picks
Even by the outsized standards of the NBA, Walker Kessler is a large man. He stands an inch over seven feet with sneakers on and weighs 256 pounds. His wingspan is 7-foot, 6 inches and his standing reach rises to 9-feet, 5 inches. His patrician name, enormous dimensions and Southern heritage (born in Atlanta, schooled at North Carolina and Auburn) conjure associations to characters in the Gothic fiction of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner, but he is more than just a big galoot.
Kessler is an extraordinary shot-blocker. During his sophomore year at Auburn last season, he swatted one for every 10 possessions when the opposition tried to score, a remarkable rate that earned him the Naismith Men’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
His size mattered, but so did his mobility and timing. Like current Wolves forward Jaden McDaniels, Kessler excels at utilizing his length as a patient shadow, which requires remaining in blocking range of his man by sidling along on dribble penetration or staying down on up-fakes, poised to react only at the moment of truth when the shot is attempted. He is coordinated with both hands, doesn’t give up after minor misjudgments, and has decent quick-twitch reactions to pivot and deter cutters when his man gives up the ball. He turns 21 next month and faces the NBA learning curve in terms of both quickness and physicality. But if he can avoid persistent foul trouble (no guarantees there, especially as a rookie), he immediately becomes the best rim-protector on the Wolves roster.
And that’s the point. Kessler was a decidedly unsexy selection – the third classic “big man” chosen, taken with the 22nd overall pick – in a modern NBA where offenses are geared toward opportunistic points in transition and floor-spacing and ball movement in the half-court sets, compelling defenses to stockpile rugged but lanky athletes able to switch over and guard most any player on the court. Old-fashioned leviathans simply aren’t as relevant as they used to be. But if you don’t have one, you are vulnerable against certain opponents.
When I wrote a column last month about the three ways the Wolves could best build upon and thus sustain the momentum generated by their successful 2021-22 season, “beefing up the frontcourt” was at the top of the list. It was hardly a secret. Both of the team’s centers, Karl-Anthony Towns and Naz Reid, were finesse-oriented players who could be bullied by opposing bigs down low and were instinctively ill-equipped to quickly choose the right course of action on when to stay at home for rim protection and when and where to challenge dribble penetration.
For the last two-thirds of the season, the Wolves abandoned the classic “drop” defensive coverage that was among the optional schemes for the vast majority of NBA teams when protecting the rim. Having a big man who can drop back in coverage is far less taxing than playing the more aggressive, scrambling style that pressures the ball-handlers and disrupts an opponents’ offensive flow before they can get that good look in the paint. Credit the Wolves –and coach Finch, who instituted the scrambling, “high wall” scheme – for the dogged effort that made it effective. But even so, Minnesota was near the bottom of the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage for most of the season and had trouble against less talented teams that could beat them up inside. That vulnerability became especially acute in the playoffs, where Memphis wore out the Wolves mentally and physically en route to a 4-2 series victory.
Walker Kessler is the necessary, albeit bland, antidote to the Wolves drop-coverage woes and overall lack of brawny resistance and reliable rebounding. He was a surgical choice because he addressed a specific need, which, according to the “best player available” mantra surrounding the draft, is a no-no, but in this case feels justified. Even if Kessler doesn’t dramatically expand upon the base skills of his college game, he has tangible value on this roster.
But Finch and Connelly are bullish on his improvement. In some areas, the reasons for their optimism are apparent in Kessler’s college clips. His hands are soft and reliable and his keen sense of timing extends to when he dives to the rim, making him a potentially formidable finisher on the pick and roll. The “pick” part of the play also has promise, as Kessler knows how to position his bulk on screens. There is also some evidence that he can guard in space, albeit in short spurts.
Finch thinks Kessler can hone an outside shot that looked mechanically laborious in the clips and resulted in just 10 makes in 50 attempts from three-point range. He also praises the big man’s mobility, not only in quick-coverage adjustments but running up and down the court. In other words, Finch harbors the hope that Kessler can be a viable two-way player who won’t be played off the floor as easily as it now appears.
Finally, Kessler’s ultimate value won’t be solely determined by his own performance. There were two ways the Wolves could beef up their frontcourt, and one was via a tenacious and bruising power forward who could keep KAT at center. (Hence my infatuation with E.J. Liddell in this draft.) But since arriving in town, Connelly has favored the notion of KAT at power forward beside a classic big. The drafting of Kessler has turned that notion into an intriguing experiment.
KAT has played the less rim-protecting role in a twin towers setup before, most notably with Gorgui Dieng and then Taj Gibson. But that was at least four years ago, and what is required of a power forward on defense has changed dramatically, especially if the center is in drop coverage. To his credit, KAT backed up his claims that he could thrive moving beyond the restricted area and guarding different personnel at the leverage point of the pick and roll. But when he shares the floor with Kessler, he’ll be responsible for closing out on corner three-pointers and rotating hard during rapid ball movement that swings in and out and side to side – it’s a staple of the game now.
That doesn’t seem ideal for a player whose feet are as large as KAT’s, and who bears so many other responsibilities on the offensive end. But KAT is poised to sign a supermax contract this offseason, and it isn’t ridiculous to see how much value you can squeeze out of it. His defensive mobility was a pleasant surprise last season. Does he have another reservoir that fuel him toward the range of coverage of a modern power forward? If so, potential frontcourt combinations involving KAT with Kessler, Jarred Vanderbilt and McDaniels would provide the team with enormous flexibility to counter both large and small opposing lineups.
Sorting out the backcourt
Flexibility is the word that makes the Wolves second first-round pick of draft night, Wendell Moore Jr., seem like he too was taken with surgical purpose. He fits with my second suggestion for offseason improvement in last month’s column, “Preparing for a transition in the backcourt.”
Just as Kessler was brought aboard to complement and better enable KAT, the dream scenario for Moore would be as a backcourt sidekick for Anthony Edwards. The nature of the fit is less obvious, because the vices and virtues of Ant are not yet as apparent as they are with KAT, who has logged five more NBA seasons.
This is how you try to assemble a championship-caliber franchise out on the frozen tundra. The Wolves are not situated in a celebrity-soaked coastal metropolis, and they also have the basketball-season weather, the bite from state taxes, and their sordid legacy of organizational ineptitude working against them. Their best rebuttal is to maximize the value of their best players.
In his first two NBA seasons, Ant has flashed a tantalizing package of skills. It is not absurd to imagine him approaching the level of a Paul George or Jason Tatum, with the important distinction that they are both 6-foot, 8-inches, four inches taller. But being smaller should not obscure the premise that Ant is a phenomenally gifted wing player, and in the modern NBA you want that player to be your primary playmaker, the one with the ball in his hands at the most opportune moments. George and Tatum epitomize that trend – their usage rate has increased for four seasons in a row and has been nestled in the low 30s for a couple of years now. Ant’s usage actually dropped last season, from 27 his rookie year down to 26.4. But his shooting efficiency and assist rate both ticked upward, signs that he might thrive with more responsibility as a floor general. The Wolves would be crazy not to explore this thoroughly.
But that exploration is necessarily disruptive. It is at the root of the “trade D’Angelo Russell” rumors and drama. DLo’s lackluster performance in the playoffs against Memphis has been overblown. He averaged 31 points in four regular-season games against the Grizzlies and they responded in the postseason by hounding him with their best and most rugged perimeter defender, Dillon Brooks. No, what has inexorably made DLo more expendable is his dicey fit with Edwards if Ant becomes the primary playmaker.
Let it be said that DLo is not a villain here. He compromised his game last season to become more of a third wheel behind KAT and Ant – his usage of 25.1 was his lowest since he was a teenaged rookie in 2015-16. Now he is in the prime of his career at age 26 and in the last season of a four-year, $117-million contract that will pay out over $31 million in 2022-23. His passing is blessed by comprehensive court vision and an exquisite touch, and he has proven to be adept as a go-to scorer in the clutch.
But his ceiling isn’t as high as KAT’s or Ant’s, and the role for him that would maximize those two stars is one that merits about a 50% cut in his salary and a diminishment of some of his signature virtues. Furthermore, to extend DLo’s contract at its current rate would deprive the Wolves of a chance to pursue a more complementary star in the sweet spot following the 2022-23 season, before Ant’s bargain rookie deal runs out and KAT’s supermax extension kicks in.
Drafting Moore with the 26th pick seems like a near-perfect response to all this uncertainty. Moore was the unsung Swiss Army knife on an overachieving Duke team last season. He guarded the opponent’s best perimeter scorer and was named to the 2022 All-ACC Defensive Team. He led the Blue Devils in assists with 4.4 per game, grabbed 5.3 rebounds, sank more than 41% of his three-pointers and 80% of his free throws and was given the Julius Ervin Award as the best small forward in college basketball.
So why wasn’t this guy a lottery pick? Because at the NBA level, the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” seems to fit his skill set. Scouts were also leery of the fact that Moore took a huge step forward in nearly every aspect of his game his junior year, which isn’t enough of a sample size to dispel all doubts of sustaining his virtues on basketball’s most competitive stage.
But from the Wolves current perspective, Moore checks too many boxes at a time when they are quickening, when it is easier to notice the growth and potential of this roster than it is to figure out how it will gel, or predict where that growth will generate redundancies and shortages. Moore packs 216 pounds on a 6-foot, 5-inche frame, heavier than every non-center currently on the roster except Ant at 225 pounds. (Moore is two pounds heavier than Vando’s listed weight, and two pounds lighter than former Timberwolf and current free agent Taurean Prince.) That brawn plus his seven-foot wingspan enables him to credibly guard a wide variety of players.
But perhaps most intriguing is the way Moore might fit in the backcourt with Ant, with McDaniels as the lithe and lethal small forward. Right after the draft, Finch likened him to a utility player in baseball, which seemed to damn him with faint praise. But after Tuesday’s introductory press conference for the team’s top three picks (combo forward Josh Minott was taken in the second round at pick 45), the coach’s projection of Moore’s upside responsibilities clarified why the Wolves had him (as well as Kessler) as one of the top 19 players on their draft board.
“We love his playmaking and think he can be a secondary playmaker for us; at times a primary playmaker for us. His ability to guard multiple positions is really important for us. We feel he is somebody who can grow into a high-level, two-way player,” Finch said.
Needed role players
Connelly was given a $40-million contract to coalesce the personnel on the Wolves over the next five years largely because of his prowess in the NBA draft. But before, during and after the proceedings on Thursday night, what he emphasized more than any particular skill was personal character.
“We’re going to put an unbelievably huge emphasis on the people,” Connelly said to the media immediately after all the picks were in that night. He talked about the need to support what is already a “good young core” on the roster with “special people and big-time pros, self-motivated people, guys that we’re not going to hold their hand to get into the gym. The guys that we were fortunate enough to select this evening checked those boxes.”
Picking in slots 22 and 26, the Wolves went after quality role players – enablers – instead of stars. Neither Kessler nor Moore came close to being the best player on their college team last season: Jabari Smith of Auburn was taken with the third overall pick and Moore had three Duke teammates selected first, 15th and 16th, respectively. Even Minott of Memphis saw his teammate Jalen Duran taken with the 13th pick.
What Finch said about Moore applies to the Wolves 2022 draft class in general: “Some players are built to be the guy and some players play better when there are better players around them because the things they do don’t translate on the score sheet. They can fill in a lot of cracks.”
The two second-round picks are each worthy gambles and long-term projects. Minott is a raw talent but a relentless defender with the kind of wiry length everyone is searching for in the modern NBA. He will likely sign a “two-way” contract that allows him to spend most of his time developing in the G-League down in Iowa. With the 50th overall pick in the second round, the Wolves selected a large young combo guard in Europe, Matteo Spagnola, who has a slightly different skill set (he is a better shooter) but gives off Leandro Bolmaro vibes – some electric charisma but perhaps too easily short-circuited. He’ll be stashed in Europe for at least another season.
How DLo fits … or doesn’t
This coming Thursday ignites the frenzy over free agency and trades, the time when the league’s most consequential realignments occur, and where there are a dozen avidly discussed rumors released like chum in the shark tank to every transaction that actually gets completed.
For the Timberwolves fan base, the status of DLo over the next week or two will drive much of the discussion, with the side benefit of imagining him in a package for top-drawer trade candidates like San Antonio combo guard Dejounte Murray, who would be a perfect fit alongside Ant but will draw a king’s ransom weighted toward multiple draft picks.
The Wolves declined to draft a classic point guard, and could adopt a middle ground of trying to make it work with DLo without a contract extension and then trading his expiring deal at the February deadline, when he could be a valuable rental for a playoff contender. Or maybe there is a world where DLo’s prime and Ant playmaking emergence can co-exist on the same roster without missing out on the sweet spot window to add another quality free agent to the mix next summer.
Otherwise, Finch had this to say when asked how the team could approach the coming frenzy this week: “Keep adding guys that can help us win in the playoffs. Keep adding two-way guys. If there’s any game-changers out there, we’ll certainly identify those. Just figure out where the holes are and keep plugging them.”
But later Finch emphasized a point we would all do well to remember, while also throwing a surprise name into the mix of impactful players for the upcoming season: “We can talk about this draft class (and) free agency, but the one thing we know for sure is that the internal development of Ant and Jaden and Jaylen (Nowell), those three guys in particular, will be the single biggest driver of how far we can go next year before we do anything else.”
Even so, the frenzy won’t be boring.
Head’s up readers: Depending on the pace of change and the revelation of genuine news during the trade and free agency period, I am planning to make the next column a mailbag. Along with responses to this particular column, feel free to ask me questions in the comments sections, with the obvious caveat that free agency and trades may make many of them moot before I actually publish the next piece. Thanks for your readership and your input.