Updated: Oct 9, 2021
This season has been tough sledding for many teams, but nobody's had it worse than the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Sitting at 7-20, the Timberwolves have the miserable honor of calling themselves the worst team in the NBA. Despite selecting Anthony Edwards with the first overall pick in last November's draft, he hasn't done much to move the needle. At this rate, they'll likely get to try again this year with another top selection in a stacked class. Minnesota has serious issues on both sides of the ball, and though they've been plagued with injuries, their roster at full strength can't compete with half of the league.
On offense, the T-Wolves are simply struggling to put the ball in the basket. Despite heaving the second-most field goal attempts each game (91.8, only behind the Trail Blazers), they're converting at the third-lowest rate in the league (43.9% behind the Pistons and Magic).
Unfortunately, Karl-Anthony Towns – their mainstay at center and best player on the roster – missed 13 games after testing positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 15. In his place, rookie Naz Reid tried his best to replace Towns' unique production, averaging 14.4 points and 6.6 rebounds on 44.7% from 3-point range. Despite being an undersized center at 6'9", Reid held his own and showed the Timberwolves that he's a solid bench option going forward.
As evidenced by Reid's feel-good story, this season is all about assessing and developing young players. Take Anthony Edwards for example. It's been rough to watch the first-year guard at times, but he has a few tantalizing flashes every game. He's creative around the rim and one of the most fearless rookies you'll ever see. Despite averaging 14.2 points per game, the former Bulldog is only shooting 38.2% from the field. Edwards is 275th out of 296 players in effective field goal percentage among players with at least 10 games and 15 minutes per game, per NBA.com. Not great.
That isn't to say he won't have a successful career. But hindsight is 20/20, and rookies like LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton are already making impressive impacts on their teams.
Meanwhile, more seasoned veterans like D'Angelo Russell and Ricky Rubio are struggling to make the sort of impact their contracts would suggest. The two guards are making a combined $45.6 million this season alone, yet both have looked like shells of themselves. Russell has dealt with nagging leg injuries, and you know that statistic I used for Edwards? Rubio is 295th out of 296 with a mind-boggling 30.1%. He is a 30-year-old pass-first guard, but I'm not sure anybody could have predicted how sharply his production has declined.
This is a lost season for Minnesota, and though they've had some ugly ones since Kevin Garnett's departure in 2007, this could very well be the worst. But the Timberwolves have reason for optimism, and it lies in the 2021 draft. If they manage to win the lottery and the first overall pick, they have a plethora of young stars to choose from.
The top five prospects this year are talented enough to be selected first in any other draft; it's that deep of a class. However, the Timberwolves will likely be looking at Oklahoma State point guard Cade Cunningham and USC center Evan Mobley with their presumed first pick. Cunningham is a 6'8" guard with Ben Simmons-like IQ and playmaking skills. But unlike Simmons, Cunningham can shoot the basketball quite well (42.9% from 3-point range on 4.5 attempts per game). He has impressive composure at 19 years old, and he's already hit two game-winning shots for the Cowboys this season.
Mobley, on the other hand, is a lanky 7-footer with a balanced blend of post skills and shooting touch. He's only 210 pounds, but like most one-and-done center prospects, he'll put on plenty of muscle as he matures in the NBA. Despite playing on an offensively-limited Trojans roster, Mobley is averaging 16.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game on 58.8% shooting from the field. He's a disciplined defender around the rim and keeps his fouls to a minimum. He'll only become a more dangerous shot blocker as he adds more strength.
I see Cunningham as a natural fit with the Timberwolves, as he can immediately slot in at point guard next to D'Angelo Russell. Minnesota can try to find a trade partner for Ricky Rubio or cut him and his massive contract altogether. Cunningham has the size and wingspan to become an above-average NBA defender, plus he's averaging 1.4 steals at Oklahoma State thus far.
The Timberwolves are in need of a player that can complement the pieces they already have. It may be rough for Minnesota fans right now, but whether it's Cade Cunningham or another lottery prospect, there's always next season to look forward to. Or the season after that.
(Note: All statistics are accurate as of Sunday night.)