Minnesota Timberwolves: Is Jarrett Culver worth the risk?

Should the Minnesota Timberwolves gamble on Jarrett Culver when there are potentially better options for them in the draft and free agency?

What exactly this offseason will look like is still up in the air, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are among many of the teams that are keeping a close eye on the global situation, especially in regards to how it will affect the league.

When the Timberwolves traded Jeff Teague, they suddenly found themselves in a bit of a hole for a starting-caliber point guard. Jarrett Culver was promising, but his NBA career hadn’t begun the way one would hope; Jordan McLaughlin was surprising everybody with his performance coming from the G-League, but he wasn’t necessarily at that level yet.

Then, in a move that was being anticipated all season, the Timberwolves traded away Andrew Wiggins and in return got D’Angelo Russell from the Golden State Warriors.

All of a sudden, they had their starter.

However, this trade also had ramifications for the role that Culver had on the team. Up until this point, he was splitting time between the starting role with Shabazz Napier, or he was sharing the key backup role with McLaughlin. But, once this trade went through and Napier subsequently was sent to the Washington Wizards, Culver found his role being reduced to the third-string behind McLaughlin.

It wasn’t acknowledged at this point, but this move gave the Timberwolves a limited amount of time to decide on what they wanted to do with Culver. And this offseason, whenever it begins, will be the first major point where the Timberwolves have to make a decision.

Here’s the basic situation; Culver is most likely taking the third spot in the point guard rotation behind McLaughlin, and considering Culver started 35 of his 63 games, he’s probably not too happy about that. Now Culver’s production hasn’t really been that bad, as averages of 9.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.7 assists aren’t awful for a bench player–but he just hasn’t shown the same promise as McLaughlin, who is averaging 7.6 points, 1.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game despite being seven inches shorter than Culver. McLaughlin is also averaging 4.2 fewer minutes per game than Culver and has played half the number of games.

While Culver could be moved to the backup shooting guard spot behind Malik Beasley, this spot isn’t going to be the best fit for Culver. First off, he’s much better at starting a fast break than he is at finishing one. Out of all of his driving shots this season (which admittedly will include those which weren’t on fast breaks), Culver shot just 46.0 percent. Take dunks out of that, and the average falls to 38.9 percent. On catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, Culver shots just 29.3 percent.

That leads to another problem with Culver as a 2-guard: his 3-point numbers aren’t great. Culver shot 29.9 percent on 3.5 attempts per game at the time of the league hiatus, and it’s likely that those numbers won’t skyrocket when thrust into the backup role.

At 6’6″ and 195 pounds, Culver does have good size for the 2- guard spot, and his perimeter defense seems to hold up to the level of that position, but his 3-point problems do raise an eyebrow for the team that attempted the third most 3-point shots per game while being the third-worst in 3-point percentage.

That takes us to the offseason. This year, the Timberwolves sit in a nice position to pick up some talented guards. On the free agent side (and I’m running under the assumption that all unrestricted free agents are unable to sign contracts with their current team before the free agency period), there are players like Kent Bazemore, Jordan Clarkson, Courtney Lee; all of whom could find a nice spot in those backup rotations.

Then, there’s the draft side. Bleacher Report’s mock draft has the Timberwolves with the third overall pick (they based the picks on records at the hiatus, because honestly, what can you do?), and suspect that the Minnesota Timberwolves would use it to take LaMelo Ball (please, God no). Even if that seeding is slightly off, if Minnesota lands a pick between three and 10, Bleacher Report still has three different guards being taken in that range.

While it may seem a little strange that Gersson Rosas would want to draft another point guard, he comes from the philosophy of drafting the best available, not the best fit, so it isn’t unlikely.

This puts the Minnesota Timberwolves in a pretty tight situation: do you trade Culver or not? Culver is going into the second season of his rookie contract, and in the NBA, that makes his contract about as good as gold. He’s still pretty cheap, Culver will make $6.1 million next year, and if you like him you could keep him at that rate for another three years (next season, plus a two-year team option).

Not only that, but after his fourth year, he’d become a restricted free agent, keeping his costs relatively low for his next contract. However, if after this year you don’t like the fit, you could decline his two-year team option and not worry about any financial hit you took.

The problem really comes with what are you going to get for Culver, and the answer is probably not much. But do the Timberwolves need that much? Could they send Culver to a rebuilding team for a rotation guy and a draft pick?

Is keeping Culver worth the risk of being too full at the point guard position while passing up on potentially better options?

Well, yeah, probably.

You see, Culver is already skilled in one area that the Timberwolves are in dire need of: Defense. He averaged 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks per game this season while playing under 25 minutes. Not only well those numbers continue to grow as his game evolves, but his shooting numbers could likely get better too.

It’s much easier to teach a rookie offense than it is defense, and while he may not be a dead-eye shooter at the end of his fourth season, there’s every chance he’ll become a reliable 3-point option. At that point, you could move him to the 2-spot as a solid backup for Beasley, or you could even have him as a wing backup to Josh Okogie to aid in the development of Kelan Martin.

Culver could end up being a really solid player for the Timberwolves, with a realistic floor of being a sort of Ricky Rubio 2.0. Admittedly he would still have to work on his assist numbers, but those will come with time.

For now, Culver is a fairly low-risk player in terms of financial or morale detriment to the team, and the payoff for showing a bit of loyalty to him now could pay off tenfold down the road.