The Timberwolves have the No. 5 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft. With very little leaking out of the front office, a good bit of speculation has filled the void:
• New President of Basketball Operations and coach Tom Thibodeau wants to trade the pick in a deal for an established vet.
• Or, Thibodeau will draft an older, more mature prospect such as Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield or a Jamal Murray, who is young but physically mature.
But what if the Wolves go for big potential? A couple of big men are squarely in the mix at the top end of the draft, after Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are gone.
If guards Dunn, Hield or Murray go after Simmons and Ingram, the Wolves will be faced with this dilemma: Do they take another big man, a year after selecting Karl-Anthony Towns first overall?
Leading the list is Dragan Bender, the big man from Croatia who has been near the top of many mock drafts and could be available at No. 5. Then there is Marquese Chriss, the Washington forward with the amazing upside whose stock has risen fast. Another rising star on draft boards is Jaylen Brown, the small forward from Cal.
Bender’s stock has been helped by the success of Kristaps Porzingis’ rookie season with the Knicks, even though the two — while both tall and European — aren’t really the same player. Porzingis played enough for an elite team in Spain for NBA teams to get to know him. Bender played far less for Maccabi Tel Aviv and remains a bit of a mystery.
“He’s not Sidd Finch,” said Fran Fraschilla, ESPN’s European basketball expert, referring to the fictional pitching phenom George Plimpton wrote about for Sports Illustrated’s 1985 April Fools’ edition. “There is an actual Dragan Bender. He’s not Porzingis, but he is younger.”
Porzingis’ success likely has changed some minds about Europeans. Who can forget Knicks fans screaming for their team NOT to pick the tall, thin Porzingis at last year’s draft? All he did was have the second-best rookie season after Towns’.
The 7-1 Bender might not be the athlete Porzingis is, but he can protect the rim, rebound and shoot.
“He moves pretty well laterally, but he’s not as explosive as Porzingis,” ESPN draft expert Chad Ford said. “On the upside I think he’s a better shooter right now than Porzingis. … He’s gotten very good at spotting up in the corners, which is what a lot of NBA teams want their stretch 4s to do.”
But the team that drafts him will have to be patient. As Fraschilla said, the team that takes him needs to have “great alignment” between the front office and the coach. “In the T-wolves case, they have that,” he said.
Fraschilla could see Bender fitting in well with Towns and Andrew Wiggins, using his shooting ability to stretch the floor. “And boy, if he matures the next couple of years, you’re talking about a great tandem inside,” he said. “So he’s enticing. … Knowing [Thibodeau] the way I do, there’s certainly that element to win now, and sometimes this is where the coach has to take his coach hat off and put his president’s hat on and say what’s best for the next 10 years. That’s going to be the dilemma with Bender vs. a Buddy Hield or a Jamal Murray, let’s say.”
Teams might need patience with Chriss, too. But that hasn’t stopped him rocketing up the charts. A recent ESPN blog asked if the Lakers should take him at No. 2 ahead of Ingram. The 6-9 Chriss has dazzled some with his athletic ability, shooting and shot-blocking, worried others with his perceived immaturity. Ford said he has as much upside as anyone in the draft, but also one of the lowest floors. He needs to rebound more, foul less.
“I think I’ve grown up,” said Chriss, 18, at the draft combine. “People say I’m immature. I feel like that’s a misconception.’’
Staff writer Jerry Zgoda contributed to this report.