Minnesota Timberwolves: What is Jarrett Culver’s ideal role?

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 18: Jarrett Culver #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves shoots over Royce O'Neale #23 of the Utah Jazz. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 18: Jarrett Culver #23 of the Minnesota Timberwolves shoots over Royce O'Neale #23 of the Utah Jazz. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images) /

Last June, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded up in the draft to select Jarrett Culver No. 6 overall. The results have been mixed thus far, but what is his ideal role moving forward?

Gersson Rosas was hired as Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations last May. The NBA draft was roughly six weeks away, and with it came Rosas’ first opportunity to put his stamp on the organization.

The longtime Houston Rockets executive wasted little time. In the hours leading into the June 20 draft, Rosas shipped the No. 11 pick and Dario Saric to the Phoenix Suns in return for the No. 6 pick.

Saric had been acquired by the previous regime only seven months earlier as part of the return for Jimmy Butler. Rather than figure out whether or not to pony up in restricted free agency for the underwhelming yet talented Saric the following summer, Rosas decided to cash in for the opportunity to pick Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland or Texas Tech’s Culver.

Garland, a 6-foot-1 point guard, was picked at No. 5 by Cleveland, leaving Culver for the Wolves at No. 6. Both players had plenty of struggles to go along with tantalizing high points as rookies.

Garland shot 35.5 percent on 3-point attempts and 87.5 percent from the free throw line, compared to Culver’s 29.9 percent from deep and a worrying 46.2 percent at the charity stripe. Both shot under 41 percent from the field. Culver was the superior defender, with his 6-foot-6 frame and impressive wingspan allowing him to guard multiple positions.

Of course, the Wolves now have D’Angelo Russell in the fold and just might have stumbled upon a more-than-capable backup point guard in Jordan McLaughlin, so perhaps getting Culver instead of Garland was a somewhat lucky stroke of genius.

As noted by Jon Krawczynksi in his summary of Culver’s rookie season (subscription required), he was beginning to thrive as a cutter just prior to the NBA hiatus in early March. Playing off of McLaughlin and new teammate James Johnson, a forward who initiated quite a bit off offense with the second unit, Culver managed to get a fair number of easy buckets without having to put the ball on the floor too much.

While grading Culver’s rookie season, yours truly mentioned some parallels between his early-season duties of running the point and former Wolf Zach LaVine’s rookie season. They’re different players, of course, but neither is a natural point guard and predictably struggled in running an NBA offense in their first few weeks in the league.

That begs the question, what is Culver’s best-case role moving forward? He’s not going to be asked to be a main scoring option and won’t likely even be a starter, assuming the Wolves retain Malik Beasley in restricted free agency this summer.

If he was a better shooter, he would simply need to clean up his defensive game and he could be relied upon as a key cog on the reserve unit, almost as a sixth-man who can play at least three positions. But since he’s struggled to create for himself off the dribble or knock down open jumpers, he’s better utilized as a complementary player.

In some ways, his best-case offensive game right now resembles when Andrew Wiggins was at his best in a Timberwolves uniform: getting easy baskets as a cutter, knocking down open corner 3-point attempts, and playing generally solid defense. Wiggins was a better shooter, but Culver was good enough at Texas Tech and has shown stretches of competent shooting to suggest that he could at least hold his own from deep as a pro — pretty much exactly where Wiggins has always been as a shooter.

This type of a role, as the primary backup wing and a switchable defender, would net him something like 20 to 25 minutes per game in his second season. He’ll need to shoot better than his rookie line of .404/.299/.462, of course, but even a modest uptick across the board and continual improvement on defense would make him a key member of the bench unit.

Not long ago, Tom Haberstroh at NBC Sports highlighted Culver’s creativity in finding an Airbnb to stay at during the pandemic that was furnished with an indoor basketball court. Not every player has that drive or want-to, and that no doubt matters to Wolves brass.

It seems likely that Culver enters the 2020-21 campaign as the top backup on the wing. Somewhere around the trade deadline or perhaps in the 2021 offseason, Rosas will probably have a better sense as to where Culver’s development is tracking and whether or not he’s an answer on the wing for a budding playoff contender.

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At this stage, Culver’s work ethic, size, athleticism, and overall upside suggest that he has a legitimate chance to stay on track, no matter how bumpy his rookie season was at times.