With few assets to peddle, Tim Connelly snags Rob Dillingham to boost Wolves offense (2024)

When the dust settled on one of the best seasons in franchise history, the Minnesota Timberwolves headed into the summer licking their wounds from a decisive defeat to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals and vowed to improve offensively to make the final step.

But how? With almost no money to spend on free agents thanks to their skyrocketing payroll, adding veteran help from outside the organization was going to be almost impossible. They also started Wednesday with the 27th overall draft pick in the first round and a steadfast desire to not part with any of their rotation players to move up.

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That left president of basketball operations Tim Connelly to conjure a top-10 pick out of thin air in search of the kind of backcourt bucket-getter his team desperately needed. And that is essentially what he did.

With a few major targets in mind, Connelly spent all day calling the teams in the upper half of the draft. Figuring prominently on that wish was Kentucky scorer extraordinaire Rob Dillingham, who Connelly said he considered the best shot creator in the draft. Connelly swung and missed on a couple of attempts to get into the top seven picks but then found a willing partner in San Antonio at No. 8.

The Spurs had already picked fourth in a draft that is considered short on elite talent and wanted to push their pick inventory out into the future to give themselves more flexibility to build around Victor Wembanyama.

The Timberwolves want to win right now. The two timelines meshed in the moment, and Connelly sent the Spurs an unprotected first-round pick in 2031 and the right to swap picks in 2030 for the eighth pick, allowing the Wolves to grab a player they coveted. They also held on to No. 27, where they took Illinois wing Terrence Shannon Jr., another skilled scorer to help an offense that ranked 17th in the league last season.

“I can’t think of any time that you can get that high without losing a core piece,” Connelly said, adding that he understood San Antonio’s logic in swapping out a pick now for a pick down the road. “And certainly it’s a real asset we gave up. It can inhibit deal-making moving forward. But knowing the restrictions you start to enter when guys rightfully get paid, yeah, we just looked at it and we think, ‘How can we get a guy that can be this impactful?’ ”

Dillingham averaged 15.2 points, 3.9 assists and shot 44.4 percent from 3-point range in his lone season at Kentucky. He was named SEC Sixth Man of the Year and is pure electricity with the ball in his hands. He is one of the very best offensive players in this draft, a daring, three-level scorer who can also throw the lob pass better than most players on the Timberwolves roster right now.

Rob Dillingham is going to be a star

Dillingham is an electric scorer and a prolific high-volume shooter

A perfect fit on the Minnesota Timberwolves pic.twitter.com/kVVaUGRbYi

— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) June 27, 2024

“He brings an unrelenting aggression to games and always seems to be attacking at full gear,” The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie wrote in his draft guide. “He gets out in transition and consistently beats the opposition down the floor. He also has remarkable deceleration capabilities, allowing him to instantly go from fast to slow and vice versa. Dillingham’s all-around athleticism with the ball in his hands is in a class of its own among the guards entering this year’s draft.”

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Connelly has been an aggressive dealmaker since he took the job in Minnesota, but the deal for Dillingham was his most creative foray yet. It was rooted in two key factors. First was their desperate need for shot creation. They were able to mitigate that during the regular season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs thanks to elite defense.

But it caught up to them in the conference finals against Dallas. Anthony Edwards was the only player who could be relied upon to create his offense at a high level, leaving the Wolves short on firepower when trying to match up with Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving.

The second driver of this deal lies in the mechanics of the collective bargaining agreement. The Timberwolves’ cap sheet is about to explode with Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jaden McDaniels all getting gigantic raises that will send the payroll soaring into the luxury tax.

If they do reach the second apron, there will be team-building penalties down the road, including using their midlevel exceptions for free agents and losing the ability to aggregate players in trades. If they finish next season in the second apron, which is a payroll exceeding $189.5 million, their 2032 first-round pick would be frozen and unable to be traded, leaving the 2031 pick as the furthest one out that they could trade under league rules.

The inflated payroll also will make it even more difficult for a team that traditionally has had a difficult time attracting free agents to get into the market and add veterans who can help them. That makes trades the easiest way for the Wolves to address needs.

“I don’t know how we can achieve that in the next two or three years via free agency,” Connelly said. “We don’t want to trade our core guys. It’s pretty simplistic. I think we’ve checked a major box that we lacked last year.”

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As ESPN analyst Jay Bilas noted on Wednesday night, the player the Spurs will take with that selection is 11 or 12 years old right now. Making the deal for Dillingham, even though he is just 19 years old and will go through growing pains, is an emphatic message that the Wolves want to take the next step next season.

Glen Taylor, who is locked in a dispute with Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez over who will own the team, is calling the shots right now. He signed off on an extension for coach Chris Finch and cleared Connelly to go into the luxury tax to improve a team that believes its championship window is wide open. Lore and Rodriguez also support paying the tax, but their arbitration case against Taylor will not be resolved for months yet.

“Ownership was fantastic,” Connelly said. “Certainly any time you’re aggressive, there’s financial realities. We think we have a chance. We’re at the big table, so it’s not time to get scared now.”

Dillingham is listed at 6 foot 1 and 164 pounds, which is small by NBA standards. Connelly said he envisions Dillingham as a point guard in the NBA, pointing to his unselfishness in the pick-and-roll and his abilities to make plays for others in the half court as defining characteristics. He went through a nomadic journey in high school, from Charlotte to Donda Academy, Kanye West’s ill-fated school in California, and finally to Overtime Elite, a basketball league for 16 to 20-year-olds in Atlanta, before landing at Kentucky.

In Minnesota, he will learn under veteran Mike Conley, the only point guard on the roster right now, and come to a harmonious locker room that will be counted on to help the 19-year-old find his way. And Connelly made it clear on Wednesday night that he will be relied upon immediately.

“He’s a guy who from Day 1 is going to have a role and a responsibility,” Connelly said. “Certainly it’s going to be hard for him. But I don’t think you’re that aggressive in the top 10 with a guy you don’t think can play right away.”

Shannon brings another dimension that the Timberwolves wanted to add — size and scoring on the wing. The 6-6 guard averaged 23.0 points and 4.0 rebounds for Illinois last season. He will turn 24 in July, bringing a more physically and emotionally mature player into the fold.

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Connelly said Shannon can guard three positions and he shot 8.6 free throws a game while playing with a physicality that the Wolves like. His poor assist-to-turnover ratio as a fifth-year senior is a concern, but Connelly wanted a wing who could attack the basket.

“Our challenge was to try to play a little bit faster in our second unit and I think we got two of the fastest and most athletic and aggressive guys in the draft,” Connelly said.

Shannon may have dropped on draft boards after he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman while visiting Lawrence, Kan., for a Sept. 8 football game. He was charged on Dec. 5 and was found not guilty of charges of rape and aggravated sexual battery last week after deliberations by a Douglas County, Kan., jury.

Connelly said the Timberwolves did extensive background work on him before the draft and received rave reviews about Shannon’s character.

“Oftentimes, the minute you’re accused you’re found guilty,” Connelly said. “Thankfully he went through the legal process. He chose to go to trial because he knew he did nothing wrong. I just think it’s a shame he went through that and I think it’s a testament to who he is as a kid and his ability to play through a tough distraction.”

The Timberwolves still have the No. 37 overall pick in the second round of the draft, which is held on Thursday. Connelly also said they want to do everything they can to keep their team intact, which means trying to re-sign veterans Kyle Anderson and Morris when free agency opens.

“We like what we have and we like what we’re building,” Connelly said. “So I think the more guys we can get to come back, the better. That’s the goal.”

(Photo of Rob Dillingham: Michael Hickey / Getty Images)

With few assets to peddle, Tim Connelly snags Rob Dillingham to boost Wolves offense (1)With few assets to peddle, Tim Connelly snags Rob Dillingham to boost Wolves offense (2)

Jon Krawczynski is a senior writer for The Athletic covering the Minnesota Timberwolves, the NBA and the Minnesota Vikings. Jon joined The Athletic after 16 years at The Associated Press, where he covered three Olympics, three NBA Finals, two Ryder Cups and the 2009 NFC Championship Game. Follow Jon on Twitter @JonKrawczynski

With few assets to peddle, Tim Connelly snags Rob Dillingham to boost Wolves offense (2024)
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