The Minnesota Timberwolves may feature more young pups than pack leaders, but don’t be surprised if they finish next season close to .500 just one year after winning 16 games.
Wiggins, the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, has future star written all over him after a promising second half of the season earned him Rookie of the Year honors. Although his offensive performance was by no means record-setting, Wiggins’ stats were actually pretty similar to those posted by Kevin Durant in his rookie campaign. While no one is calling him the next Durant just yet, the 19-year-old’s assertiveness and willingness to play like an alpha dog were very good signs for his future development.
Like Wiggins, fellow rookie forward Zach LaVine was thrown into the fire early after injuries to point guard Ricky Rubio and shooting guard Kevin Martin and progressed to the point where he was playing his best basketball by the end of the season. The 2015 Slam Dunk Champion is as athletic as they come, but after improving his 3-point percentage later in the season, teams will have to respect his outside shot now, too.
Towns, the first overall pick in this past June’s draft, will bring a new dynamic to Minnesota that should make everyone around him better. At 6-foot-11, the University of Kentucky product is a good rebounder and solid rim protector on defense — a savior for a team that finished dead-last in defensive field goal percentage last season — and a capable pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop target. Given all of the pieces around him, Minnesota will have the luxury of letting Towns’ offensive game develop at a pace that’s more comfortable for a 19-year-old rookie, too.
While these three will earn the headlines as the Wolves’ next stars, Minnesota has another trio of young players who could also take significant steps forward in 2015-16.
Anthony Bennett, the other number one overall pick on the T-Wolves’ roster, has been a massive disappointment thus far, but appears to have gained some serious confidence this off-season. The Canadian native looked impressive playing for Team Canada in July’s Pan-American Games, adding 18 points on 8-12 shooting against the U.S. and 17 points on a perfect shooting night against Argentina. While the level of play isn’t comparable to the NBA, anything that boosts his morale should be viewed as a victory after what he experienced in his first two NBA seasons.
Stretch forward Adreian Payne is another player to watch in 2015-16. The Michigan State alum did not show the same outside shooting touch as a rookie that he demonstrated in his senior season with the Spartans, but showed improvements in that area during Summer League play. While Minnesota’s frontcourt is a bit jammed with Kevin Garnett, Nikola Pekovic, Towns and Gorgui Dieng, if Payne can mix a consistent outside stroke with his unique athleticism, he’ll earn his fair share of minutes — or a trade to a team that will give him them.
The last player in this group, Shabazz Muhammad, could be the most underrated player on Minnesota’s roster. Despite posting the highest per-36 minute averages (21.3 points, 6.4 rebounds) on the Timberwolves last season, Muhammad has been largely forgotten by those hyping the team’s youth movement after injuries cut short both his rookie and sophomore seasons. Muhammad has the potential to be a versatile player off the bench for Minnesota if he stays healthy, combining solid on-ball defense with a dependable 3-point stroke (39.2 percent) and a good post-up game. Simply put, if Muhammad can stay on the court, Minnesota will win more games.
These are just the pups, too.
Minnesota will also be greatly aided by returns of Garnett, if only for his influence on the younger guys, Dieng, Martin and Rubio, who missed the majority of last season to injury.
While anyone who tells you that Minnesota will make the playoffs next season is either a homer or completely delusional, the 2015-16 Timberwolves squad should look nothing like last year’s team. This pack is only just learning to hunt on their own, but they already have the pieces to feed themselves many nights in an NBA season.