• The Timberwolves are one of the brightest young teams in the NBA. Along with moving perennial All Star Kevin Love for franchise cornerstone Andrew Wiggins, they made a savvy move snagging high risk/high reward Zach LaVine with their lottery pick. This year they won the lottery which allowed them to select all-world talent Karl-Anthony Towns, solidifying their core for the foreseeable future. After a year of growth and improvement for the Wolves’ core, Tom Thibodeau was recently hired as the new head coach and president of basketball operations filling the late Flip Saunders role with the team.

    Overview

    The 2015-2016 season began with the stunning announcement that head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders had sadly passed away due to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Saunders had total control of the team and losing him in such an unprecedented way paved fears to a loss of continuity within the organization. After a deserved grieving period, the Wolves would eventually open the season with heavy hearts splitting their first 16 games with eight wins and eight losses.

    The Wolves finished the season with 29 wins which may not impress on the surface, but it beat their projected win total of 26.5. More importantly, the Wolves’ young studs Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns all showed significant improvement throughout the year coinciding with an increase in minutes from Sam Mitchell (Towns for example went from 27 minutes in November to over 35 in April). Everyone stayed relatively healthy with even fragile Ricky Rubio managing to play 76 games, which helped the starters with both growth and continuity.

    The Wolves ended 2014-2015 as a bottom-five offensive team averaging just 99.8 points per 100 possessions, but increased that to 104.3 this season which was eleventh in the league. They were also dead last in defensive efficiency in 2014-2015 but improved that to fourth-worst last season with the arrival of rim protecting KAT. With the length and quickness of all four of their young studs as well as the arrival of defensive-minded coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves should be at worst a top-15 defensive team in 2016-2017. Although that leap may seem large, Thibodeau’s Bulls led the league in defensive rating every year he was at the helm, and his Celtics from 2008-2010 also finished first in defensive efficiency.

    Coaching

    After Flip Saunders was hospitalized with lymphoma, Sam Mitchell was promoted to head coach just weeks before the season began. Despite last coaching in 2008-2009, Mitchell kept his team playing hard throughout the season. In the first few months, Mitchell would tinker with lineups and would insist on giving unnecessary playing time to aging vets like Tayshaun Prince instead of fully embracing the youth movement like he did later in the season.

    Although he did an admirable job filling in for Saunders, Mitchell was replaced by Tom Thibodeau, who will fill the Flip Saunders role as coach and president of basketball operations with the team. Regarding Thibodeau, he is known as a tough as nails defensive coach who gives his best players all the minutes they can handle. With the Wolves youth and relative lack of quality depth, all five starters should see heavy minutes from the onset, and the change should provide a benefit to the Wolves’ fantasy prospective.

    The Players

    Karl-Anthony Towns

    ADP: 60 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 58 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 8/12 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 11/17 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 82

    Coming into the season, the man known as KAT was viewed as a raw prospect with all-star upside. He went on to demolish even the highest expectations, becoming the fifth rookie of the 2000’s to average a double-double, posting first round fantasy value on his way to what should be a unanimous rookie of the year campaign. Towns averaged 18.3 points on standout percentages (54 percent from the floor and 81 percent from the line), 10.4 rebounds, two assists, nearly half a 3-pointer, 0.7 steals and nearly two blocks while playing all 82 games. He was even better over the last 35 games increasing his average to over 21 points, 11.3 rebounds and nearly three assists per game while maintaining his strong counting stats. Oh yeah, he also can handle the ball like a guard, run the floor and defend all five positions.

    Now for some tidbits on how out of this world KAT was this past season. He was the first rookie since Elgin Baylor (1959) to have at least 21 boards and nine assists in one game. He was the second rookie to average 18 points and 10 boards with 20+ 3-pointers with the first being Larry Bird. He is one of eight players to win rookie of the month six consecutive times. He had the second highest PER (22.59) for a 20-year old rookie ever behind Shaq. You get the point, Towns defines stud.

    Look for Thibodeau to play KAT along his March and April averages of 35+ minutes a night and he could be the first big off the board in fantasy drafts next year.

    Gorgui Dieng

    ADP: 34 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 86 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 34/39 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 51/61 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 82

    You may be surprised to see Dieng as the Wolves’ leader in fantasy value behind KAT, but he put up the best season of his career in 2015-2016. He averaged career highs in points (10.1), field-goal percentage (53.3%), free-throw percentage (82.7%) and steals at 1.1 per game. Not surprisingly, he was a top-30 fantasy play per-game over the last 35 games when Mitchell finally let him play over 30 minutes.

    Thibodeau said that he wanted to draft Dieng back when he was with the Bulls, so his role is tentatively safe as of right now. If he is locked into starter minutes he should have no problem posting early-mid value with upside. He’ll never blow you away with high points or rebound totals, but Dieng is a plus in the money stats (over a block and steal per game) with solid percentages. He also shot a career-high 20 3-pointers this year and made eight of them, so adding even 25 treys next season will be a boost to his burgeoning value.

    Ricky Rubio

    ADP: 41 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 83 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 41/31 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 47/34 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 76

    Rubio posted the best fantasy season of his career last season, finishing within the top-50 for the first time. More importantly for owners, he stayed healthy and played 76 games which are the second-most games played in his career. He hovered around his career averages of around 10 points, 8.5 dimes, a little over four boards, two steals and an anemic sub-38 percent shooting from the field. However, he averaged a career-high 84.7 percent from the line this year and a career-low 2.5 turnovers which buoyed his fantasy value to the top-50.

    Despite Thibs calling Rubio “very good”, there is still a question mark about his long-term future with the team. He was almost traded at the deadline, but he has the game to fit the Rondo-mold that Thibodeau had when he was in Boston. One major difference between these Wolves and those Celtics is a lack of 3-point shooting. Only one T-Wolf had more than one trey per game last season (Zach LaVine) and it may be hard to field a core in this era where the wing and point guard both have trouble spacing the floor.  In terms of fantasy, I feel Rubio has reached his ceiling last season and his lack of shooting has limited his once tantalizing potential. He may be a stay-away player if his ADP backs his finish from last year.

    Andrew Wiggins

    ADP: 81 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 45 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 81/63 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 112/ 86 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 81

    Andrew Wiggins took a big step forward in his second NBA season and became the go-to scorer for the Wolves. He averaged 20.7 points (45.9 percent from the field, 76.1 percent from the line) which was 19th in the league, adding nearly one trey, 3.5 boards, two dimes, a steal and half a block per game. He was a target to be overdrafted at his 81 ADP but his durability (163 games played over the last two years) and scoring prowess gives him a pretty safe floor. His usage rate skyrocketed to 27.2 this season which was 21st in the league, and his shooting numbers improved nearly across the board from last season. His true shooting percentage improved from .517 to .543 and his shooting from 3-feet to the 3-point line improved from 34 percent to 39 percent in year two. Wiggins is one of the best young scorers in the league and he still is just scratching the surface of his potential. Thibs should be able to turn him into a two plus combined steals and blocks guy and he is another young Wolf who will be gathering tons of hype once again on draft day.

    Zach LaVine

    ADP: 137 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & 114 (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 101/79 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 132/108 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 82

    Coming out of UCLA, LaVine was viewed as a raw, ‘toolsy’ prospect. His  athleticism was off the charts and his jump shot had range and a beautiful release. Year one did not go as planned for young LaVine as he ranked as one of the worst players in the NBA in real plus/minus (not an end-all stat by any means), while logging nearly all his minutes out of place as a point guard.

    Year two began with Sam Mitchell saying he wanted LaVine to be the starting shooting guard for the team, but that idea was quickly shot down after a slow preseason and an early injury to Ricky Rubio. LaVine replaced Rubio as the starting point guard and once again (unsurprisingly) disappointed. Once Mitchell freed the reigns on LaVine and gave him minutes at his natural two-guard spot he flourished. As the starting two-guard, he averaged 17.3 points (47.4% FG, 81.1% FT), 2.4 treys, a little over three dimes, almost three boards, one steal and two turnovers in 34 minutes per game which had him flirting with mid-round value.

    LaVine remains an important part of the Wolves future and his outside shooting is desperately needed for one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA. It is to be seen what Tom Thibodeau thinks of LaVine, but he is a special talent and it should be hard to take him off the floor. If he is starting at the two, his numbers should be at least in-line with what he posted as a starter this past season, making him much more appealing than his top-105 cumulative value would indicate.

    Shabazz Muhammad

    ADP: 141 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & Undrafted (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 212/212 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value: 287/283 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 82

    Despite a big sophomore leap, Muhammad took a step back in production this season. He finally played over 38 games for the first time in three seasons, but fantasy owners were expecting bigger things from the former top high school recruit. Muhammad’s numbers were down across the board this season, except for increasing his free-throw percentage to a career-high 76.4. This may be attributed to less playing time, but he only averaged two less minutes per game than last season.

    Muhammad is a hard worker, but owners can expect only late-round value at best, coinciding with the production he gave over the last nine games of the season. During that span, he averaged 15.6 points, under one 3-pointer, three rebounds, a little over one assist and no defensive stats to speak of which ranked him outside of the top-175. Maybe Thibs can get him going on defense, but he is not even worth a late-round flier next year with limited upside.

    Nemanja Bjelica

    ADP: 140 (Yahoo! 9 cat) & Undrafted (ESPN 8 cat), Total Value: 244/254 (9/8 cat), Per Game Value:245 /258 (9/8 cat), Games Played: 60

    Bjelica rolled into the season with a small amount of hype on the backing of a decent preseason, however he just did not see consistent minutes in the rotation to be a fantasy asset in standard leagues. He did however finish the season on a high-note, averaging 9.6 points (62.5 percent FG, 86.7 percent FT), 1.4 treys, 5.7 boards, 2.1 assists, half a steal and half a block over the last nine games .

    He is a good player in space on offense and he has serious stretch-four potential off the bench. The question entering next season is can he find a role in Thibodeau’s rotation becoming his next Nikola Mirotic? Bjelica is a player to watch if the Wolves don’t make any moves in the frontcourt, and he could be an early riser in fantasy drafts as the Wolves desperately need his shooting.

    Doctor’s Orders

    There is no better collection of young talent which did not make the playoffs in the Association. Although the 2016-2017 hype machine will be rolling, Wolves fans should be hopeful for a borderline playoff team, with 2017-2018 being the year they truly breakout into contention. They already struck gold this off-season with the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, and he will look to unleash the sky-high potential of his cornerstone players. If I were Thibs, I would look to add a back-up point guard and another knock down shooter through the draft or free agency. This is a team on the rise and it should not be long before they are knocking on the door of the NBA’s elite.

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