Less than 18 months ago, Jarrett Culver was seen as one of the pillars of the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ efforts to rebuild the franchise. Now, after a rough rookie season led to a disastrous sophomore campaign, he’s on the outside looking in.
For a team flush with young talent and its sights set on competing for a playoff spot in the near future, Culver’s role with the team is in question. His name was mentioned in almost every trade scenario around the trade deadline as he fell more and more out of the regular rotation before missing the final 14 games of the season with an ankle injury.
In an offseason full of question marks surrounding their first-round draft pick, Malik Beasley’s legal issues, and the possibility of Leandro Bolmaro joining the squad next season, the Culver question gets lost in the shuffle.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Can Chris Finch salvage Jarrett Culver?
New head coach Chris Finch has a lot of work to do to ready his inexperienced squad for a run at the playoffs next year, and fixing Culver should be at the top of the list.
The question is, can he be fixed? And how long do the Timberwolves play the waiting game before acknowledging Culver as a sunk cost and move on entirely?
Culver was the No. 6 pick in the 2019 draft. It was the first draft for the then-new President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas. Rosas took a huge risk right away in his tenure when he traded up from the No. 11 pick to No. 6 to reportedly take Darius Garland. Unfortunately, the Cleveland Cavaliers took Garland with at No. 5, forcing the Wolves to settle for Culver. In addition, the Wolves had already sent Dario Saric to Phoenix alongside the No. 11 pick that turned into Cam Johnson.
Culver was supposed to be a Swiss Army Knife-type player. At 6-foot-6, 195 pounds, he was one of the best defenders in his draft class and meant to be a lockdown wing defender while acting as a secondary creator on offense.
The issues popped up right away. The biggest thing, of course, is that he flat-out can’t shoot. His rookie shooting splits of 40.4/29.9/46.2 showed that there was a lot of work to be done, especially at the free throw line, where he had a pronounced hitch in his release.
The pandemic hit, everyone was forced inside, and Culver had to rehab his shot in the most difficult offseason in NBA history. His work seemed to pay off at the beginning of this season.
In the first two games (both wins) Culver went 8-of-13 from the field, 3-of-4 from three, and 5-of-7 from the free throw line and averaged 12 points and eight rebounds. The wheels fell off soon after. Culver went 0-for-10 in a 23-point loss to the Lakers, lost his confidence at the free throw line, battle several injuries and eventually fell out of the rotation.
Culver averaged 5.3 points and 3.1 rebounds in just 14.7 minutes per game while shooting 41.1 percent from the field, 24.5 percent from three, and 60.4 percent from the free throw line.
Chris Finch swooped into the franchise in the middle of this lost season when Ryan Saunders was fired in February after a disastrous 7-24 start. Finch came in and turned the offense around with Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards thriving.
However, Jarrett Culver imploded under the new head coach. In 18 games under Finch, Culver saw the court for just 8.9 minutes a game while scoring 2.8 points on 31.6 percent shooting. Culver quickly became an afterthought in the rotation with his minutes spread out between Edwards, Josh Okogie, Jaden McDaniels, and Jaylen Nowell.
With a full offseason, Finch will need to take a look at Culver and decide to either dump him or repair him. The work begins and ends with shooting. If Finch and company can refine his shot, then Culver has the defensive chops to become a solid rotational piece. He’s just 22 years old and has one year left on his rookie contract with a team option for 2022-23.
If you look at Finch’s track record as an assistant coach, you’ll see he has helped similarly struggling guards find their groove and become productive members of NBA society.
During his one year tenure in Denver, Finch helped Gary Harris break out and become one of the more exciting young 2-guards in the league and hit 42 percent of his threes.
Most similar to Culver’s plight is what Finch did to rehab Lonzo Ball’s game in New Orleans. Like Culver, Ball struggle to shoot all over the floor, and especially from the free throw line.
In his one year with Finch on the bench, Lonzo shot 37.5 from three, up from 31.5 over his first two years, and 56.6 percent from the free throw line, up from 43.7 across his first two seasons. Finch played a huge role in Lonzo becoming a reliable 3-point shooter at the age of 23 and could do the same for Culver.
Of course, it all comes down to Culver himself. If he wants to get better and prove he belongs in the NBA, he has to put in the work this offseason to fix his shot. Chris Finch can help as much and anyone else, but ultimately Culver is in charge of his destiny.
Work hard and make good on his high draft pick, or stay stagnant, get traded for peanuts, and rehabilitate his image with a new team. If Culver stays the course, the 2019 draft will go down as a disaster for a team that can’t afford any more missteps.