For Timberwolves fans, the draft has long been a source of frustration and disappointment. With bad lottery luck and worse decision-making, the Wolves have rarely capitalized on the draft’s potential to invigorate down-trodden franchises.
Of all the draft misfires that we Timberwolves fans have endured over the last decade, David Kahn’s ineptitude in the lottery causes the greatest heartache. You all probably know the specifics at this point: Jonny Flynn over MVP Stephen Curry, trading out of meaningful picks in order to recoup the costs of Kurt Rambis’ buyout , etc. But for all the disappointment those selections engender, I’ve never been upset with perhaps the team’s biggest “bust,” Derrick Williams.
The 2011 draft was characterized as a two-player draft with Kyrie Irving and Derrick Williams at the top (with even some dispute as to who the top talent was, a funny debate in hindsight). Sitting at the second pick with what was then the highest selection in the team’s history, there were rumblings that the Timberwolves should use their pick on either Enes Kanter or Jonas Valanciunas. Both would have fit the Timberwolves roster better than Derrick Williams, with Kevin Love and Michael Beasley established as the team’s starting forwards, but both also came with significant question marks.
Kanter was largely an unknown prospect, with little high-level experience and having just spent all year on Kentucky’s sidelines, unable to participate because of benefits received while playing in Turkey. Valanciunas, meanwhile, was a raw prospect with an uncertain contract situation that made it unclear when Valanciunas would come to the NBA. With the Timberwolves going through a similar issue bringing over Ricky Rubio, Valanciunas was a risky pick for the team and its fanbase.
With the pick, David Kahn had the chance to acquire what should have been a franchise building block.
Instead, the Timberwolves got two seasons of replacement-level play from a tweener forward that never quite settled on a position or a role on the team, and who was eventually traded for 55 games of the superstar that is Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Not exactly a great return on such a valuable asset. The process, however, was sound. Rather than try to outsmart the consensus, Kahn simply selected the top talent available.
Going into this year’s draft, Karl-Anthony Towns was the draft’s consensus top talent. Flip Saunders, however, was believed to favor Okafor over Towns due to Okafor’s size, passing, and polished post game–a belief that persisted up until about a week before the draft. It was reported that the Wolves’ scouts were eventually able to convince Flip that Towns was both the better talent and the better fit for the team. But it was still Flip’s decision, and with the Wolves officially on the clock Thursday night, I watched with some degree of uncertainty, hoping that the Wolves’ Coach/GM/Part-Owner/Pooh-bah would not try to out-smart the rest of the league and NBA draft community.
When Adam Silver finally stepped to the podium and announced Towns as the selection, I was excited, of course, for a future with two of the league’s most compelling young players. But more than either of those emotions, what I really felt was a sense of relief. Regardless of whether Towns falls closer to Derrick Williams than to Anthony Davis on the spectrum of consensus top talents, and even if Okafor winds up being the better NBA player, it is a relief that the Timberwolves, knowing only what we know now, took the draft’s top player.
Where Towns’ selection was followed by excitement but also relief, Tyus Jones’ acquisition later in the night was met with pride. Jones’ acquisition satisfied two important needs for the franchise, only one of which is basketball-related.
On the court, the Timberwolves needed a backup point guard in the worst way. Zach LaVine, when he wasn’t defying gravity with his dunking ability, was, by nearly any advanced metric, one of the worst players in the league last year. Much of this was not his fault, as injuries forced the raw rookie to play a much more meaningful role in Timberwolves’ season than anyone had expected him to. But those minutes proved two things for LaVine: first, with his athleticism, ball handling ability, and outside shot, LaVine has incredible upside; second, LaVine is not a point guard. In acquiring Jones, the Wolves filled their need for a point guard capable of effectively running an offense with a player lauded both by the analytics community for his efficiency and the scouting community for his leadership, basketball IQ, and winning attitude.
Off the court, Jones fills a less tangible need for the Timberwolves and their fans. Minnesota sports fans are incredibly loyal and territorial. Maybe it’s a deep-rooted resentment for being treated as fly-over country. Maybe it’s an offshoot of our communal “Minnesota Nice” attitude. Whatever the reason, we Minnesotans cling to and attach ourselves to homegrown athletes with an intensity that can’t be replicated in many places.
Tyus Jones has been something of a cult hero in Minnesota ever since he burst onto the national scene as a middle-schooler, when I sat in the stands and watched a skinny little eighth-grader hold his own at the varsity level against a physically dominant backcourt comprised of two All-State football players (Hi, Mitchie!), all with Tubby Smith sitting in the front row. His cool, calm demeanor and other-worldly basketball sense helped his teams win nearly everywhere he went. It also carried him to Duke as a top recruit and eventually to a national championship and Most Outstanding Player award, with the state of Minnesota cheering him on the whole way. Minnesota’s own was thriving on a national stage and we couldn’t be happier.
And now he’s back.
With Andrew Wiggins and Towns as the new faces of the franchise tasked with leading the team on the court, Tyus Jones can help re-energize a fan base off the court that likes cheering for “one of us” almost as much as it likes cheering for a winning team.
For the majority of its existence, the Timberwolves franchise has been unable to build a team around draft picks in ways that many of the model organizations have. They have turned one of the NBA’s most fun and hopeful nights into something of a car wreck, with fans knowing that they are likely to be disappointed and yet too intrigued to actually look away. Thursday night’s draft, however, had fans feeling differently. We were excited to finally have lucked out in the lottery, relieved to have selected the draft’s best player, and proud of the local product whose talent was worthy of trading back into the first round.
Excitement, relief, and pride. These are the feelings that we Timberwolves fans have had since Thursday’s draft. Now it’s up to the team to cement those feelings with actual wins on the court.