Will Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell become Stockton & Malone, or Pooh & Brew?
(After more than 30 years of woeful franchise history, this is my homage to the Wolves' original pick-and-rollers, Pooh Richardson and Randy Breuer.)
Will the defense evoke memories of Sam Mitchell's elbows, or Isaiah Rider's ole's?
Will Ryan Saunders prove himself? Will the Wolves trade for a power forward? Will Ricky Rubio justify his rock-star status?
As in any team sport, there is not just one key for the 2020-21 Minnesota Timberwolves, but here's one that is being underplayed:
The Wolves' past two first-round draft picks enter the season with relatively low expectations, or at least remarkably little hype. For a still-rebuilding franchise facing low expectations, with a proven inability to attract top free agents, Jarrett Culver and Anthony Edwards rank among the most pivotal individuals in the organization.
They could, immediately or eventually, improve the Wolves in these areas:
Defense. If the Wolves are to improve, they're going to need to give more minutes to quality defensive players. Culver's strength is as a defender at the moment. Edwards has the bulk and explosiveness to match up with quality offensive players. The defense is more likely to improve because of Culver and Edwards being good defenders than from Towns or Russell suddenly becoming better defenders.
Offensive versatility. The Wolves have three gifted, proven offensive players: Towns, Russell and Malik Beasley. To make or contend in the playoffs, they'll need at least one more. Edwards could be that player.
Three-point shooting. Neither is an accomplished three-point shooter yet; both will need to improve dramatically in that area. If they do, the Wolves' offense could flourish.
Depth. The Wolves are still looking for a true starting power forward, still giving lots of playing time to an "energy" player in Josh Okogie, and could still see Beasley suspended for his gun dalliances. It would be convenient for the Wolves if Edwards and Culver become stars, or if Edwards becomes a star and Culver a solid starter; it may be necessary for them both to play well immediately if the Wolves are to make the playoffs.
The Wolves have chosen three players in the top six picks of the draft since 2016. They took Kris Dunn two picks ahead of Jamal Murray in 2016, then traded him to the Bulls in the Jimmy Butler deal. That pick was a disaster that enabled a disaster.
They chose Culver with the sixth pick in 2019, and Culver proved to match his draft profile: high character, hard worker, iffy shooter, needs to improve his ballhandling.
This summer, they chose Edwards with the first pick. In three preseason games he has looked uncertain at times but has produced moments brimming with promise, including when he hassled Luka Doncic in Dallas.
If the Wolves become a quality team, they can't count on any more high draft picks. They need to make these last two count.
Edwards is the more important and promising of the two. He possesses the athletic ability of a future star. If he becomes a powerhouse wing who complements Towns and Russell, the Wolves become much more difficult to guard.
Culver is not the athletic outlier that Edwards is, but he appears to have improved his ballhandling and free-throw shooting. If he can add a reliable outside shot to his floor game, he could become an asset. Remember, he's had only one season above high school in which he was highly productive — when, as a sophomore, he was the top ballhandler and scorer for Texas Tech on its way to the championship game of the Minneapolis Final Four. He had an uneven rookie season last winter, starting 35 games and averaging 9.2 points per game.
A reminder for those, including owner Glen Taylor, who expect this to be a playoff team: The Timberwolves went 19-45 last year. This is a historically inept franchise coming off a horrible season. Notice how many times a writer will use the word "if" when gauging their chances.
Horrible teams get to make high draft picks. The Wolves need to make the last two count.