Timberwolves first-round pick Justin Patton — you know, the 7-footer and the other guy they got in last week’s massive trade that also netted Jimmy Butler — was introduced in person to the Twin Cities media on Tuesday and seems generally as affable and likable as his social media would indicate.
He even landed a couple successful attempts at humor without trying too hard. The first: when talking about selling funnel cakes at baseball’s College World Series in Omaha just three years ago, he said, “it was nachos, too. Can’t forget the nachos.” The second: when talking about his twin brother, Kendall, who is shorter than Justin at 6-foot-7 but still claims to be the better basketball player of the two, Patton said that very well might be true, “but he’s not playing for the Timberwolves.”
Patton also said all the right things when asked about what his role next year would be. Namely: he’s just going to work hard and let Tom Thibodeau and co. make those decisions.
That leads to this: Patton’s development, particularly next season, is going to be pretty interesting on a lot of levels. He’s a 20-year-old who is now almost a full foot taller than he was during his freshman year of high school. He played just one season at Creighton (after a redshirt year), surprising pretty much everyone with his progress.
His game is built more around potential than the here and now, though that’s not to say he’s totally raw.
When I asked Wolves head coach/personnel boss Tom Thibodeau what the most NBA-ready part of Patton’s game is, he had no hesitation when talking about Patton’s hands and ability to finish above the rim. Even though that’s perhaps not a unique skill for an NBA player, it’s a useful one.
The Timberwolves starting this year have their own developmental team in Des Moines, the Iowa Wolves. (The Development League, informally called the D League, is being rebranded as the G League because it’s sponsored by Gatorade, which starts with G. Get it?).
So the Wolves will have options when it comes to how they want to handle Patton’s development: keep him in Minnesota if he earns playing time, stash him in Iowa or shuttle him back and forth.
The Wolves don’t have to make that decision yet, of course. Both Thibodeau and GM Scott Layden said Tuesday the first step in evaluating Patton will come in the NBA Summer League, which begins in Las Vegas on July 7. One day earlier, NBA teams can start signing free agents, but official negotiations can start Saturday.
The Wolves will have about $20 million in cap space, which sounds like a lot until you realize Gorgui Dieng will make roughly $16 million per season over the next four years after cashing in last year on the NBA’s new economic world order.
Beyond projected — for now — starters Butler, Dieng, Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the rest of the roster is essentially Patton, Tyus Jones, Nemanja Bjelica and Cole Aldrich. The one downside to last week’s trade, which in almost every other way was a home run, is that it left a team already thin on depth even thinner by moving three likely rotation players for one sure one.
Again, the Wolves will have money to spend on at least one significant free agent move and can certainly find useful players while scouring the G League and other spots. But they might find themselves needing Patton’s minutes. And there might come a point where he could be playing much more in Iowa and theoretically advancing his development … or playing far fewer but still valuable minutes in Minneapolis.
In that case, though, the Wolves could also mix-and-match, as Layden suggested Tuesday. Having a team so close that is owned and run by the organization means could dip down to Des Moines for one game or over the span of a few when he figures to be used less with the NBA team while still playing within the system Thibodeau wants.
Patton’s ego and work ethic suggest he is up for anything and everything. He might get all of that and more in an interesting rookie season.