It was much clearer this time a year ago — the Timberwolves had concise needs, and there were few dissenting views as to what pool of draft prospects could fill them.
No NBA offseason is fraught with certainty. But a year after president of basketball operations Flip Saunders’ first NBA Draft preparation, the waters have grown murkier.
The holes are, once again, readily apparent. Minnesota needs defense. It needs wing help, particularly in one-on-one scenarios.
But it also needs to figure out what to do with its star player and open head coaching job.
Assuming the Timberwolves vindicate owner Glen Taylor’s word to the Pioneer Press they’re not trading superstar Kevin Love this summer, their needs lie in an offensive threat that can create his own shot and pack some exterior scoring punch, and a defender that augments Corey Brewer’s pesky presence and gives Minnesota more than one viable wing stopper.
A year after posting an NBA-worst 3-point percentage, the Timberwolves moved up to only 26th (34.1 percent) in 2013-14. Their defensive field-goal percentage of 47.1 tied for second-worst in the league.
The top of the Class of 2014, it would seem, can take help take care of the first chasm. But even as deep as this year’s pool is, there doesn’t appear to be a player within Minnesota’s current range that can do both.
It’s difficult to project very accurately without a particular coach’s system in place, but a conventional pick would be a 3-savvy shooting guard or a small forward, one that can develop behind Brewer, Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger — assuming Budinger can stay healthy after having two meniscus surgeries within a year of each other. A surveying of mock drafts turns up Michigan’s Nik Stauskas, Duke’s Rodney Hood, Kentucky’s James Young and Croatian prodigy Dario Saric as primary targets.
Stauskas, a 6-foot-6, 207-pound shooting guard, may be the most complete player of the bunch. He’s an adroit 3-point threat who made 44.2 percent of his 3s during his sophomore season and is particularly effective in catch-and-shoot scenarios.
But he’s just as deft at seeing the floor and playing unselfishly. He sported a 1.76 assist-to-turnover ratio last year and averaged 3.3 helpers per contest.
Stauskas’ defense needs some work, but of the players in Minnesota’s projected draft range at 13, his effort and energy at that end of the floor stand out the most.
If the Timberwolves are looking for a close-out, do-it-himself shooter to help alleviate their propensity for close defeats, Hood may eventually be the man. A solid 6-8 and 208 pounds, he’s a 42-percent 3-point shooter who’s comfortable shooting from a set position or off the dribble. He made 43 percent of his pull-up jumpers as a sophomore, tops among NBA Draft Express’ rankings, and sported only a 10 percent turnover rate.
Like Stauskas, he doesn’t mind distributing. Unlike Stauskas, he’s not known for voracious defense.
But Hood, who transferred to Duke from Mississippi State in 2012 and had to sit out a year, is out to change that perception.
"A guy that can space the floor," Hood called himself at the combine. "A guy that’s going to come in ready and not have to wait for him to get ready. A guy that’s going to score the ball and defend multiple positions and is hungry to win."
A freshman coming out of John Calipari’s Kentucky system, Young is more of a raw talent with considerable upside. He, too, is a solid spot-up shooter — he attempted more jumpers of that variety than any player in the country, according to Synergy Sports Technology — but shot just 40.7 percent from the floor, largely because he took so many contested shots.
He’s an average defender, too. But he won’t turn 19 till October.
Although FOX Sports’ Sam Amico and the Sporting News have Young going to Minnesota in their mocks, Young feels he’s worthy of a higher selection.
"I feel like I’m in the top five, yes sir," Young said, "and I feel like I could do a lot of different things both with the ball and off the ball."
That’s not exactly the case with Saric, who at 6-10 and 223 pounds has played both small forward and power forward in the Adriatic league since 2009. He’s most comfortable with the ball in his hands, which makes him a versatile scorer who can operate in transition, isolation and, at times, away from the ball while rebounding at a high rate (9.7 per game in his most recent season with Cibona Zagreb).
But while he displays supreme defensive effort, his limited athleticism keeps him from projecting as a highly effective wing defender. With his wiry frame, he’d have a hard time guarding bigger NBA fours in the post, too.
If Minnesota wants a power forward — particularly if Love is traded away — it may be better served drafting Michigan State’s Adreian Payne. The 6-10, 239-pound college graduate reinvented himself as a stretch four this past season and made 42.3 percent of his 3-point attempts while converting at a 70-percent clip around the basket.
At 23 years of age, Payne’s lower on upside but closer to being NBA-ready. In his mind, he already is.
"I think I’m ready to contribute right away," Payne said. "I have had a lot to improve in. I don’t know everything about the game. And I’m just trying to get better. You know, I got better in a short period of time. Look at me now; I became a great player. So just imagine what I can do if I have more time and people invest more time in me."
Those are some of the popular picks more than a month out from this year’s draft. But as last year’s last-minute trade of the No. 9 pick for Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad at 14 and 21, anything can happen.
And depending what happens with Love and the team’s coaching vacancy, the list of prospects could change in a hurry.