Thibodeau's Timberwolves give a glimpse into the future in win over Bulls

Thibodeau's Timberwolves give a glimpse into the future in win over Bulls

The Timberwolves were reeling again, and another fourth-quarter disappointment felt inevitable.

After clawing their way back from a 21-point first-half deficit, Tom Thibodeau’s group had led for all but a few possessions of the final period. But, with the Bulls trailing by four, Jimmy Butler recorded steals on consecutive possessions and turned both takeaways into baskets of his own that tied the game at 91 with 94 seconds to play.

Here were the youthful Timberwolves, on the road, deploying a lineup with an average age of 23 years old, in desperate search of a win to improve on their NBA-worst 6-18 record.

To make matters worse, the ongoing collapse was a situation Minnesota unfortunately had found itself in before. Of those 18 losses, the Timberwolves had the lead or were tied in the fourth quarter in 10 of them. Their net rating in the final two periods was among the worst in the league, and two days earlier they watched a 10-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate in a crushing loss to the Golden State Warriors.

But there was a different vibe about these Timberwolves on Tuesday night. Perhaps it was the competition – the Bulls have seven losses to teams currently at or below .500 – or the fact that the Timberwolves wanted badly to win for Thibodeau in his return to Chicago. Whatever the reason, the game-deciding sequence that followed shed light on the myriad talent Thibodeu and the Timberwolves possess, and just how good the Timberwolves can be in the not-so-distant future.

After Butler’s pull-up jumper at the free-throw line, Thibodeau opted against calling timeout despite his young group having turned the ball over on consecutive possessions. The decision paid off, as Andrew Wiggins buried a 22-footer from the left wing over Butler’t outstretched hand. On the other end, Dwyane Wade isolated Zach LaVine on the right wing and attempted a step-back 3-pointer that would have given the Bulls the lead.

Wade missed long, and more importantly was late getting back in transition. LaVine, the bouncy 21-year-old who had already played 42 minutes, leaked down court after contesting Wade’s triple and caught a long Ricky Rubio pass in stride for a layup, pushing the Wolves’ lead back to four with 52 seconds remaining.

Reigning Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns then corralled his 12th rebound off a Jimmy Butler 3-point attempt, and LaVine blocked a Wade layup the next trip down to seal the eventual 99-94 victory, the largest comeback in the NBA this season. The standings Wednesday morning will show the Timberwolves a mere half-game ahead of the Mavericks in the cellar of the Western Conference. But the improbable win highlighted exactly why the future in Minnesota is as bright as any team in the league.

The three-headed monster of Towns, Wiggins and LaVine – each 21 years old – combined for 63 of the Timberwolves’ points in the win. LaVine led the comeback charge with 16 of his 24 points coming in the second and third quarters. Wiggins defended Butler most of the night, and still managed 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting, and grabbed nine rebounds, his highest total in nearly a month. Towns struggled from the field, going just 6-for-21, but impacted the game with three blocks and a steal in the third quarter, when Minnesota took its first lead of the game. Towns’ two free throws that pushed the lead to four before Butler’s late fourth-quarter takeover proved crucial.

“I love our young guys. They’re learning, they’re growing, but what they’re doing for guys their age is pretty remarkable,” Thibodeau said. "And they love to be in the gym. I know we’ll improve. We’re not there yet, but I know that we’ll get there.”

Minnesota’s window is just opening. As current holders of the NBA’s longest playoff drought – 12 years – it entered a full rebuild when it dealt Kevin Love to the Cavaliers three summers ago. That deal netted them Wiggins, and a year later the lottery balls fell in its favor and allowed them to draft Towns. Those two became the first teammates to win back-to-back Rookie of the Year awards since 1974. In the same offseason they traded for Wiggins, the Wolves selected LaVine with the 13th pick, and the shooting guard has exploded in his third year. He's a legitimate candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, as his points per game have increased more than six points.

Though their record won’t show it, the Timberwolves have made enormous strides with their three young stars, which Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg defined as “franchise-type players.” Towns, LaVine and Wiggins are three of four 21-year-olds averaging at least 20 points per game (New York’s Kristaps Porzingis is the other). And the Timberwolves are one of three teams who have had three different players score 37 or more points in a game this year. The other two? Golden State (Curry, Thompson, Durant) and Cleveland (James, Love, Irving). Good company, to say the least.

Expectations were sky-high when Thibodeau became the head coach and president of basketball operations this past summer. The Timberwolves had won just 29 games the previous season, but finished with wins in four of their last five, including an overtime win at Golden State against the 69-8 Warriors. The prevailing thought was Thibodeau, the best defensive mind in the game, could improve that side of the ball for the Timberwolves to match their blooming offense, which finished 12th in efficiency.

But Thibodeau said Tuesday he never listened to outside projections. He understood when he took the job that his main initiative in Year 1 was to progress his young talent – the Timberwolves used eight players on Tuesday, none older than 28 years old – and that growing pains he didn't face in Chicago would be part of the equation.

“I tell our players all the time: ‘Don’t get lost in what other people are saying. The only thing that matters is what we’re saying. Make sure we’re not skipping over any steps. Put everything you have into each and every day. Do the right things.’”

Tuesday night could very well be a foundation win for the franchise. While the Timberwolves will miss the playoffs for the 13th straight year, and likely won’t flirt with .500, it’s easy to see the progression that Thibodeau’s group is making.

The defense is still a major work in progress – Wiggins and LaVine joked in the locker room after the game that their off-ball defense still needs plenty of work – as they rank second-to-last in efficiency, an almost-unthinkable number considering what Thibodeau did in his time with the Bulls.

But the offense is humming - ranked 10th in the NBA - and the Wolves are getting positive contributions from other young talent. Ricky Rubio has been inconsistent, but on Tuesday he finished with 10 assists and just two turnovers in 34 minutes. Overlooked center Gorgui Dieng had 16 points on 7-for-12 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds to help Minnesota win the battle of the boards by seven (49 to 42). All the while rookie Kris Dunn, who the Bulls were reportedly enamored with before June's draft, is coming along in his first season, averaging 7.7 points and 3.2 assists in his last six games.

Towns is on pace to become the third player ever to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, a 3-pointer and a block per game (Shawn Marion and DeMarcus Cousins are the others). Wiggins has received criticism for simply being a scorer, but his nine rebounds and three assists were crucial in Tuesday’s victory. And LaVine is no longer an under-the-radar player in Minneosta, having scored 20 or more in four of the last five games. The least heralded of the three, he’s arguably been Minnesota’s top player this year.

There will be plenty of growing pains moving forward – the Bulls shot 73 percent in the first quarter, and the Wolves’ offense disappeared for much of the fourth quarter when they could have put the Bulls away – and the Timberwolves are still a few years away from truly competing. But with their core in tact and, as Thibodeau alluded to, having the right mindset on what it takes to win, the future looks bright in Minnesota behind a trio of rising stars still young enough to be competing collegiately.

Each had a significant contribution on Tuesday in a come-from-behind road victory over a team competing for a spot among the East’s best. Now the young Wolves’ initiative will be building on such a win, learning from the positives on what it takes to compete on a nightly basis, and growing as a unit. And they’ll do so under a head coach who, as the Bulls learned for five seasons, won’t be satisfied with a single win in December.

“We have to build on it. It can’t be a one-game thing,” Thibodeau said. “We have to keep doing it. We have to do it day after day. Hopefully we can learn from that and continue to build.”

If Tuesday night was any indication, they will.

NBA Draft: Cam Reddish out to prove doubters, show he's a total package

NBA Draft: Cam Reddish out to prove doubters, show he's a total package

It's never easy being the third wheel. Ask Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, or more currently Klay Thompson. When Cam Reddish signed his Letter of Intent to play for Coach K at Duke, he was joined by a class that included RJ. Barrett and Cam Reddish. He and Barrett were expected to take on the scoring load and lead a freshman-driven Blue Devils team.

But two months after Reddish, Barrett and Jones signed on officially, Zion Williamson committed to Duke and turned everything on its head. On paper, it made the Blue Devils the No. 1 team in the country. It gave them a fourth five-star prospect and arguably the best player in the country. We all know what happened with Williamson; he turned in one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history and will be selected first overall by the Pelicans in a month. Barrett was excellent, too. The oft-criticized wing was an All-American, led the Blue Devils in scoring and cemented his status as a top-3 pick.

Reddish's freshman campaign couldn't have gone more differently. He was inconsistent throughout, finishing his lone season in Durham averaging 13.5 points on 35.6% shooting and just 33.3% from beyond the arc. Even his 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists were a far cry from what was expected of a recruit many had ranked ahead of Williamson when the season began. He showed flashes, to be sure, like his 22-point effort against Kentucky, his game-winner at Florida State and his 27-point outing against North Carolina in the infamous Zion-shoe-blowout game. But those flashes weren't enough to save a subpar season that saw his draft stock tumble throughout the fall and winter.

Then again, Reddish was the third option behind two of the most profilic scorers in the country. Barrett had a 32.2% usage rate - 25th highest in the country - and Williamson was a focal point every night he stepped on the floor. In a sense that should have created more open looks for Reddish as defenses keyed in on those two, but in reality it limited his opportunities and made it difficult for him to project at how he would be used on game-by-game basis.

Reddit wasn't making any excuses for his poor season when he spoke to the media on Thursday at the NBA Draft Combine. But he did say he's looking forward to opportunities in the pre-draft process to show off his entire arsenal that made him a top-5 prospect and a potential top NBA pick coming out of high school.

"I feel like I can do everything. I feel like I was more of a shooter this year (at Duke). I don’t really want to think of myself as a shooter," he said. "So I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things."

Two key statistics back up Reddish's claim. First, he was excellent on off-the-dribble jump shots, averaging 0.903 points per possession on 62 attempts. That ranked in the 71st percentile nationally. He also dominated in the small sample size of pick-and-roll actions he induced, averaging 1.114 points per possession (91st percentile nationally). It lends credibility to the notion that Reddish is capable with the ball in his hands. Reddish's usage rate was 15th in the ACC, so it's not as though he never touched the ball. But between the Williamson/Barrett combination and the lead point guard in Jones, he was rarely the main (or second) option.

Playing off the ball was certainly new to Reddish, who like so many NBA prospects deal with a new role in not being the go-to scorer once they arrive in the Association. Reddish got a dose of that as a college freshman and struggled to adjust. He was unguarded on 45 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts and yet ranked in just the 27th percentile nationally at 0.847 points per possession. Worse, he was in the 33rd percentile on spot-up jumpers on 193 possessions. The looks were there. He rarely knocked them down. He also shot just 51 percent at the rim, a troubling number, and that statistic includes freebies in transition that Duke thrived on during the season.

On talent and potential alone, Reddish is still a top-10 pick. He told reporters Thursday that he's hearing he'll fall somewhere in the 3 to 10 range, which sounds about right (though it'd be a shock to see him go before Barrett at No. 3). He still has prototypical NBA wing size - he measured 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-0.5 wingspan - and is an above average ball handler. But there's no denying his good traits combined with his poor showing at Duke make him a swing-for-the-fences, boom-or-bust pick.

For the Bulls, it might be time to pull the trigger on that kind of player. Both Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. fell into their laps at No. 7 the previous two seasons - that's not to say they shouldn't be applauded for the picks, just that they were expected. But in this year's draft class, players in the 4-14 range all fall into a similar tier. In the Lottery, there will be safe routes to take (De'Andre Hunter, Rui Hachimura), selections for need (Darius Garland, Coby White) and there will be high-risk, high-reward options (Reddish, Sekou Doumbouya, Jarrett Culver).

But the Bulls could do worse than coming out of this year's draft with a player who 7 shorts months ago was a potential pick to go No. 1. He'd have lower expectations playing on a second unit and could spread his wings a little behind Zach LaVine and Otto Porter. Having that freedom on a second unit could be what unlocks that untapped potential that was missing at Duke a year ago.

Is this the year for Bulls to think outside the box at No. 7?

Is this the year for Bulls to think outside the box at No. 7?

With the majority of mock drafts coming out after Tuesday’s lottery having the Bulls selecting North Carolina point guard Coby White with the seventh overall pick in the June 20 NBA Draft, it had me thinking about whether this might be the year to take a chance on a high risk/high reward pick.

Yes, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson has made it clear he plans to bring in a point guard to challenge incumbent starter Kris Dunn, but with so many options in free agency, are the Bulls still inclined to go in that direction with their first round pick?

Before the lottery, the odds of the Bulls being in position to select either Ja Morant or Darius Garland looked pretty favorable if they stayed in the top-5. But after dropping all the way to No. 7, it’s almost a certainty that Morant and Garland will be gone, leaving White as the highest rated point guard available. White showed tremendous speed and scoring potential in his one season at North Carolina, but he has a lot to learn about directing an offense at the NBA level and will need to get stronger.

If Dunn returns for the final season of his rookie contract, there’s a good chance he moves into a backup role behind a veteran free agent, so maybe this isn’t the year to draft a developmental point guard.

So then, what do the Bulls do at No. 7?

Maybe it’s time to take a flier on a high upside athlete, something they really haven’t done since the infamous LaMarcus Aldridge-Tyrus Thomas draft night deal in 2006. This year’s draft contains a number of players who didn’t live up to expectations in their one collegiate season, but rank high on the athletic testing charts.

I had a chance to talk with a number of players at the draft combine in Chicago, and one who impressed me is USC guard Kevin Porter Jr. Scouts love the athleticism of the 6-foot-4 Porter Jr., but he underperformed in his one collegiate season, averaging just 9.5 points on 47 percent shooting from the field in a mostly reserve role.

Porter Jr. missed seven games because of a thigh injury and also had to serve a team suspension for “personal conduct issues.” But he’s not lacking in confidence, telling me he was a top-5 prospect at the start of the season and will be able to work his way up draft boards after teams get a chance to interview him and put him through individual workouts. Porter Jr. also mentioned comparisons to last year’s NBA MVP James Harden, mostly because they’re both 6-foot-4, played at PAC 12 universities and are left-handed.

No one is predicting Porter Jr. will ever come close to the unique scoring talent Harden displays on a nightly basis, but he definitely looks the part of an NBA player with a strong upper body and impressive leaping ability. Don’t be surprised if he winds up being a top-10 pick on draft night.

Other players projected for the late lottery include Indiana shooting guard Romeo Langford, Kentucky SG/SF Keldon Johnson, North Carolina small forward Nassir Little, French forward Sekou Doumbouya and Oregon 7-foot-2 center Bol Bol.

Much like Porter Jr., Little was considered a top-5 pick at the start of the college season, but never earned Roy Williams’ complete confidence at North Carolina, and struggled to find consistent minutes and shot attempts. He shot the ball well at the combine and projects as an elite defender at the NBA level. The Bulls really aren’t in the market for another small forward with Otto Porter Jr. and 2018 first round pick Chandler Hutchison already on the roster, but the wing positions offer the most talent in this draft.

Bol is a fascinating prospect with many scouts saying he’s one of the best pure shooters in this draft as a 7-footer. Problem is Bol suffered a foot fracture early in his freshman season at Oregon, the same type of injury that cost Joel Embiid his first two NBA seasons. Any team that drafts Bol will have to understand the risk of further injury, and the likelihood he won’t be able to contribute much in the 2019-2020 season.

If the Bulls stay at No. 7, White is the most logical pick, but they could go with a player that drops unexpectedly, like Duke forward Cam Reddish or Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver. The Bulls have always been aggressive in scheduling personal workouts and interviews with all the prospects in their draft range, and this year that process will take on more importance than ever.

Remember, Donovan Mitchell was one of the most impressive athletes at the combine two years ago, but stayed on the board until the Utah Jazz worked a trade with Denver to get him at No. 13. Now Mitchell is one of the best young guards in the NBA. Kyle Kuzma also moved into the first round in 2017 with a strong combine showing and is thriving as a productive two-way player with the Lakers.

It’s up to Paxson and his staff to find which player has the most long term upside and maybe come up with their own version of Mitchell or Kuzma next month.

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