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Minnesota Timberwolves: 2020-2021 NBA season preview

Feb 10, 2020; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32, center) and guard D’Angelo Russell (0, left) listen to coaching instruction during a time out against Toronto Raptors in the first half at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at the Minnesota Timberwolves schedule for the 2020-2021 NBA season, they are not the team to watch and they are not a part of any major trade rumors. After starting previous seasons with star players looking to escape (Stephon Marbury, Jimmy Butler), the Timberwolves will gladly fly under the radar for now.

However, the local fanbase is stoked to finally be able to see how the revamped roster looks. After all, it has been nine months since they last played a regular-season game. Even when last season shut down, there was a lot of internal hype surrounding the team.

Their trade deadline star acquisition, D’Angelo Russell, only played in 12 games before the season ended. On top of that, Karl-Anthony Towns and D-Lo only played one game together before Towns suffered a season-ending wrist injury.

However, with Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas also acquiring Malik Beasley at the trade deadline, fans witnessed a star breaking out before their eyes. In just 14 starts with the Wolves, Beasley averaged 20.7 points per game, shooting 42% from three-point land.

A year removed from consistently having the ever-so-inconsistent Andrew Wiggins go ice cold from the floor, they swapped him with a player who has ice in his veins in D’Angelo Russell. I don’t mean to discount Wiggins too much. He appears to be in a great place, set to take the next step in his development with the perfect atmosphere to grow. But as Wolves fans know all too well, we’ve heard that story before.

Most fans will swap the chemistry of Russell and longtime friend Karl Anthony-Towns over Wiggins any day of the week.

However, last season the Timberwolves were performing badly enough to not qualify for the play-in bubble, so the major changes before the trade deadline were necessary. But were they enough?

Minnesota Timberwolves NBA Draft: Can Anthony Edwards be a star?

Can Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards excel?
Dec 17, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (1) in action during the game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Minnesota Timberwolves at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in team history, the Minnesota Timberwolves actually moved up in the Draft Lottery. Although it came in a season where nobody seemed to want the top pick. With no true consensus best player available, this year’s draft was more of a gamble than any other event. With no March Madness to gain further insight on prospects, scouts and analysts had less information to work with since before the internet was invented.

When the draft came, the Timberwolves selected who they felt best fit their current landscape. Sure, there were thoughts of selecting LaMelo Ball, with the idea that his court vision should easily translate to the the NBA. But with D’Angelo Russell already on board, did selecting yet another point guard really make sense for where this team is headed? No.

Rumors continued to circulate, speculating that the Wolves were doing just about anything they could to entice another team to offer something Rosas simply couldn’t refuse. Leading up to the draft, the general feeling was that the Timberwolves would stay put.

While of course, they will say all the right things about their selection of Anthony Edwards, saying he was the guy they wanted all along and that no trade offer ever really came close to fruition. With James Wiseman refusing to work out for Minnesota, nobody truly knows whether the team felt like they didn’t have many other options at #1. Or if they simply felt Ant-Man was the best fit, offering the best chance to turn into a superstar once he gets comfortable in the NBA, learning how to take better shots.

Entering the draft with three first-round selections, it was widely believed the team would pull the trigger on some trades. They did just that, but not the major changes some were anticipating.

With a need for a backup point guard, Minnesota made the move to trade their 17th selection, along with a 2024 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 23rd pick and fan-favorite Ricky Rubio along with the Detroit Pistons’ 2023 second-round pick. With the 23rd pick, the Wolves would select Leandro Bolmaro, a 6-foot-7 draft-and-stash prospect from Argentina.

Later, with the 28th pick, Rosas selected Jaden McDaniels, a raw 6-foot-10 forward from Washington. McDaniels doesn’t figure to see a whole lot of playing time in his first season, finding himself in the middle of a forward rotation with plenty of competition for early minutes.

Minnesota Timberwolves NBA free agency: Retaining core players

Minnesota Timberwolves preview: Malik Beasley
Mar 8, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Malik Beasley (5) goes to the basket as New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram (14) and guard Lonzo Ball (2) defend during the second half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into free agency, after the trades made during the draft, fans pretty much knew the Wolves were strapped for cash and unlikely to be able to bring in any impact contributors. Their biggest priority was re-signing the players Rosas acquired just before the trade deadline.

By re-signing Malik Beasley to a four-year, $60 million deal, Minnesota locked in their starting two-guard. Juancho Hernangomez was also set to be a restricted free agent. The Wolves quickly locked him in for the next three years with a $21 million contract.

Backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin also signed a two-way contract to keep him in the Twin Cities for the 2020-2021 season.

With the Wolves re-signing two of their own, they were not done making deals. They also traded end-of-the-roster players, Omari Spellman and Jacob Evans along with a future second-round pick to the New York Knicks for the veteran big man Ed Davis.

Minnesota Timberwolves Projected Lineup for 2020-2021

Starters: PG: D’Angelo Russell, SG: Malik Beasley, SF: Josh Okogie, PF: Jake Layman, C: Karl-Anthony Towns

Bench: PG Ricky Rubio, G/F Jarrett Culver, G/F Anthony Edwards, PF Juan Hernangomez, F/C Ed Davis, C Naz Reid, PF Jarred Vanderbilt, G Jaylen Nowell, F Jaden McDaniels

Two-Way Contracts: PG Jordan McLaughlin, PG Ashton Hagans

Which Minnesota Timberwolves could take a leap?

Minnesota Timberwolves preview: Jarrett Culver
Mar 10, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jarrett Culver (23) dribbles against Houston Rockets forward Robert Covington (33) in the second half at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Timberwolves are loaded with young players possessing the potential to develop into something greater. 

If preseason play is any indication of future success, Jarrett Culver is a guy to keep an eye on. It seems the extra time off for the No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft has treated Culver well, allowing him to add 10-15 pounds to his lean frame. With that, JC’s extra work in the gym has already been noticeable on the hardwood. With 18 points, four boards, four assists, two steals and two blocks in his last preseason game, the 21-year old looks primed for a breakout year.

Even a player like Juan Hernangomez, who has yet to average more than 19.4 minutes per game in a season and is just 25 years old, could still turn into a legitimate NBA starter.

Who can forget a guy like Michael Jordan McLaughlin? Watching him at 5-foot-11 rise up to slam it down, is truly inspiring. He makes all the “ballers” at your local gym with their headbands and other ridiculous gear feel like they could have a chance. J-Mac? Keep on dunking it in everyone’s faces like those watching at home always dreamed of, if only they were taller right? 

Besides his impressive athletic abilities, McLaughlin recorded career-highs with 24 points and 11 assists in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers last February, showing his potential if given a bigger role. This season, he comfortably slots in as the Timberwolves’ third point guard. The team thinks so highly of him, they were willing to release Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who looked good in his limited preseason action.

A guy like Naz Reid, who signed a multi-year deal as an undrafted free agent following last season’s NBA Draft, at just 21 years old, appears to have locked up a spot in the rotation. As a consensus five-star recruit coming out of high school, Reid was ranked as the best power forward in New Jersey, and the third-best in the entire United States. Just three years removed from being viewed as a future star, Reid has it in him to become an impact player at the game’s highest level.

Forward Jarred Vanderbilt is another intriguing prospect. In his high school days, Vanderbilt was also regarded as a five-star recruit. However, an injury-riddled college career limited him to just 14 games of action. Following just one season at Kentucky, he declared for the draft, getting selected in the second round.

At just 21 years old, Vando has never played more than five minutes per game in the NBA so he is a bit raw, but according to his Instagram, he appears to be bulking up. Measuring in at 6-foot-10, Vanderbilt has a lot of spring in his step and could easily compete for playing time as the team’s backup power forward.

A lesser-known name, Jaylen Nowell, the team’s second-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, burst out onto the scene with 22 points in 13 minutes in the preseason opener. Just 21-years old, if he can show his value as a shooter as he did in the preseason and last year in the G-League where he averaged 21 points per game, it will be hard to keep him off the floor.

A few of the team’s starters are fully capable of taking their skills to the next level as well. 22-year old Josh Okogie has always shown his work ethic, on and off the court. If he can continue to improve his shooting, ball-handling, and ability to finish at the rim, he could be on his way to becoming one of the better two-way players in the league, as he aspired to do last season.

Malik Beasley is in line to be the third scoring option on an offensively-loaded team. With a full season under his belt as a Wolf, he should build up chemistry playing within the lineup. He suggests his time with KAT on and off the court has already led to a better relationship.

It is refreshing to hear a Timberwolves player who has already proven their worth offensively, state they are focused on defense this season, as Beasley has said. Hopefully, he can continue to place his focus and effort on the court, because when he plays, he’s been really good since becoming a member of the pack.

I just pointed out eight different Timberwolves, age 25 and under, who have a chance to take a leap in their development. That’s not even accounting for the expected growth of Karl-Anthony Towns as he enters his sixth NBA season.

Will the Minnesota Timberwolves’ defense improve?

Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell
Jan 2, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Golden State Warriors guard D’Angelo Russell (left) and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (right) talk after a game at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

It’s true. When looking at the major changes to the Timberwolves roster, there was no huge defensive addition made to drastically alter the roster on that end. There are a few nice moves that will certainly help such as Ricky Rubio and Ed Davis, but no true defensive stopper was brought in.

However, team members are well aware of past defensive issues, and players such as Beasley and KAT sound committed to changing expectations.

When watching Towns in the preseason, one thing seemed to stick out. His defensive intensity. KAT was all over the court, staying active in the paint and getting involved in any way he could. Fans were witnessing a newfound focus and sense of urgency they had not previously seen from the franchise player.

While there will be the expected growing pains from experiencing such a long layoff in between competitive basketball, along with meshing together a rebuilt roster learning to flourish on the fly, there is a sense of optimism surrounding Minnesota Timberwolves basketball that hasn’t existed for a while.

What makes this season a success for the Minnesota Timberwolves?

When this upcoming season is done, for the Minnesota Timberwolves collective to consider it a success, they will have to clinch a playoff berth. Which, considering this season there are up to 10 teams with a chance from each conference to contend for the playoffs, should not be a difficult task for any non-rebuilding squad.

More importantly for the Wolves, they have a top-20 player in the NBA in Karl-Anthony Towns and they have only been to the postseason once in his first five seasons with the club. If they continue to tread water, there is no doubt he will begin to dream of playing for a consistent contender or attempt to put together a superteam. 

Can the Minnesota Timberwolves clinch a playoff berth?

For the Timberwolves to take the next step under head coach Ryan Saunders, it will take KAT elevating his game to the next level. He will have to become a good-to-great defender in the post. However, with how stacked the roster is with young talent, loaded with potential, there are other avenues to success.

Ideally, a starting lineup featuring D-Lo, Beasley, Okogie, and KAT should have plenty of scoring along with a great defender in Okogie who you can stick on the opponent’s best G/F. The major question here is if there is enough stopping power in that core four.

Of course, their top ten draft picks of the past two years possess all the potential in the world, and if either Jarrett Culver or Anthony Edwards can become stars or superstars, the Timberwolves will suddenly have an embarrassment of riches.

All it takes is for one of their many young, highly-touted players to take a leap in their development and show they deserve their next big contract in the NBA. They have many contenders on their roster to do just that. This is what Gersson Rosas does, baby.

Minnesota Timberwolves prediction for 2020-21 NBA season

Just as Minnesota Timberwolves’ owner Glen Taylor expects, I anticipate the Timberpups to make the playoffs. With so many players capable of improving their game, and two bona fide All-Stars entering the prime of their careers, why can’t they continue to grow on both ends of the floor?

The addition of Anthony Edwards, Ricky Rubio, and another year learning assistant coach and defensive guru David Vanterpool’s scheme, the Wolves appear primed to contend for a playoff spot in an unpredictable, uber-competitive Western Conference for the first time since General Soreness left town.

Prediction: 39-33, clinching the seventh spot, making the play-in tournament, where they clinch a playoff berth and lose in the first round