Timberwolves Rookie Preview: Josh Okogie & Keita Bates-Diop

After a great season, the Timberwolves improved their thin roster dramatically through the draft. Be ready for both Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop to make an instant impact.

Last season the Minnesota Timberwolves finished 47-35 (their most wins since 2002-03) and snapped the NBA’s longest playoff drought of 13 years. Even though the Timberwolves had their most talented roster in years and were able to break the crushing playoff drought, the season felt like a failure. Most of the year was spent jockeying for the third seed in the West until Butler suffered a knee injury that led to him missing an extended period of time. Naturally, the Timberwolves proceeded to go just 8-9 without their leader but were still able to sneak into the playoffs after a dramatic win over the Nuggets. 

This off-season has produced an ominous cloud hanging over the team. Internal conflicts and clashing personalities are producing this atmosphere. Fans are hesitant to buy into this team because of what is being produced by their stars. Towns' social media activity suggests he doesn't want to be in Minnesota long term. There are reports of Butler's frustrations with the effort level of his teammates. Wiggins signed for the max last off-season but has yet to prove that he is worth that amount of money. Despite these omens, the Timberwolves are returning one of the best starting fives in the league.

The Timberwolves were a flawed roster last year but their starting five was one of the best in the league. The net rating for the Timberwolves when the starters were on the floor was an impressive plus 8.5. When Tyus Jones entered the lineup for Teague, the net rating jumped to a gaudy plus 23.5 (sorry Jeff, but Tyus needs more time). The most important number though is the plus 10 net rating of the Butler, Towns, and Wiggins combination. The headaches occurred once the bench was forced into action, despite Thibodeau’s best efforts to play his starters the whole game. The bench was extremely thin and mostly consisted of one-dimensional inefficiencies. They were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league, combined with an extremely unorganized mess of a defense. Free agency tends to be the best option for teams to inject impact players into the roster, but the Timberwolves limited cap space this year restricted their options. Even after that glowing description of the Timberwolves' current state, I still believe that they are primed to have one of the best seasons in franchise history because they improved their roster immensely the only way they could: through the draft.

With the 20th and 48th picks the Timberwolves added Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, two versatile wings that should make an impact from day one. These two rookies bring very different skill sets to the table, but they will fit in nicely and improve the wing depth that left much to be desired last year.

Okogie shot up draft boards this year after displaying a rare energy level and the ability to develop into a very talented 3-and-D guard. His immediate impact will come on the defensive end of the floor. His 7’0 wingspan, combined with his defensive awareness and intensity, will make him a nightmare for teams to deal with. At Georgia Tech he averaged 1.8 steals and 1 block per game. His timing on jumping passing lanes is already very impressive, allowing him to turn defense into instant offense. This defensive tenacity continued to shine in Summer League as he averaged an impressive 2.3 steals and 2 blocks per game. Obviously, Summer League is not a perfect representation of what players will be, but it is encouraging when projections about a player are confirmed. 

The biggest concern with Okogie is whether or not he will be able to develop his offensive game enough to become a true two-way threat. At Georgia Tech he shot 38% from three; he only shot 30% from the floor in Summer League. His playmaking abilities will need some work, but that shouldn’t be a massive concern as he should be used as an off-ball threat. He is a very intelligent cutter and is a better shooter in catch-and-shoot situations rather than off the dribble. For Okogie to really make an impact, his shooting form will need some improvement. His release is currently far too low and slow, which makes it easy for opponents to close out and disrupt the shot. 

Even if his offensive game never develops to the desired levels, his defensive impact and willingness to compete will greatly help this, at times, lethargic team. His energy is infectious, his defense is inspiring, his offensive potential is promising, and his rebounding ability is better than what fans expected from Wiggins.

So how will Okogie make an impact on the Timberwolves? Does he have the potential to be rookie of the year? Not a chance. His impact won’t come in a statistical sense. Will he break into the starting lineup as an impactful 3-and-D wing? Unlikely, barring injury. Okogie will come off the bench and hopefully play 15-20 minutes a game. In this role, he won’t light up the stat sheet, but he will grab a handful of rebounds, run the fast break, work his ass off, and play elite defense. It is rare to find impactful talent later in the draft but the Timberwolves were able to fill a massive hole in their roster with Okogie.

After selecting Okogie in the first round, the Timberwolves got an absolute steal with the 48th pick in Keita Bates-Diop. After winning the Big Ten Player of the Year award this past season, many experts had Bates-Diop slotted as going to Minnesota. The surprise though is that these projections were for the first round, not the late second. Like Okogie, Bates-Diop will provide that much-needed wing depth from day one but in a very different way. While Okogie succeeds with his raw athleticism and intensity, Bates-Diop has found his success through finesse, skill, and instincts. 

Bates-Diop is already a two-way ready NBA player. His offensive game is well developed and impactful from all three levels of the floor. At Ohio State, he shot 35.9% from three on 5.4 attempts per game and his form suggests a smooth transfer to the NBA. His footwork allows him to dissect opponents in the post while his nimbleness grants him the opportunities to beat slower defenders off the dribble. Finishing around the rim won’t be an issue as he utilizes both hands well and has a soft touch on floaters and layups. At 6’8 with a 7’3 wingspan, his defensive versatility is immense. He uses his length and instincts to disrupt passing lanes, block shots from the weak side, and contest at the rim. 

After that glowing endorsement of Bates-Diop, why in the world was he passed on 47 times? Even though he is one of the most well developed two-way rookies, there are some issues with his game that will require more than just practice. The biggest concern is his injury history. In college, he was often plagued by nagging injuries -- most notably, he underwent surgery in 2017 for a stress fracture in his left leg. Another red flag is his erratic toughness and motor. His body allows him to guard essentially every position on the floor, but too frequently he waived the white flag when battling bigger opponents in the post. His toughness was shaky and will need to improve for him to become the versatile defender he should be. 

It is exceptionally rare to find an impact player in the second round, but hopefully, the Timberwolves struck gold with Bates-Diop. I see him sliding nicely into the role that Bjelica had last year. Bjelica was a better shooter, but Bates-Diop will provide a more versatile scoring arsenal while still being an above average shooter from outside. The biggest improvement will be on the defensive end. When Bjelica was on the floor last year, the Timberwolves had a paltry defensive rating of 108. Bates-Diop should be a much more effective defender if he is able to play at a consistent level. 

While it is exciting to draft two impact players in the same year, it doesn’t mean anything if they aren’t given the chance to perform. It has been well documented that Tom Thibodeau prefers to run his players into the ground and play his starters as much as possible. Last year there wasn’t one starter who played less than 33 minutes a game. On the surface that isn’t too bad. But it led to injuries for both Teague and Butler, who missed extended periods of time due to being overplayed. 

Coming into this season the Timberwolves lost their top two minute leaders from the bench in Crawford and Bjelica, both of whom averaged only 20 minutes per game. Okogie and Bates-Diop project to fill both those roles respectively, or at least they should. The resigning of Derrick Rose and the continued improvement of Tyus Jones will eat up minutes. The constant battle to prove that Gorgui Dieng is worth $14 million a year will be a roadblock. Despite that, the best players should play, and Okogie and Bates-Diop project to make more of an impact than Rose or Dieng. 

Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop are the archetypal players that the Timberwolves were in dire need of acquiring this offseason. The team was able to add much-needed wing depth with two versatile rookies who will be able to make an impact from day one. The energy that they will inject into this team will be exciting and exactly what is needed from role players. Going into this season, Minnesota fans shouldn’t get caught up in Towns’ extension or if Butler will resign or if this team’s future is doomed. Instead, they need to be excited about these young players and the next level they will be able to help take this team to. Don’t be surprised when the Timberwolves are repeat visitors to the postseason with a much higher seed than anticipated.

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