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Timberwolves’ Jarrett Culver is the NBA Draft’s most versatile prospect after Zion Williamson

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Inside the rapid improvement that made Culver the 6th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Jarrett Culver’s competitive spirit was forged through the timeless tradition of sibling rivalry beneath the unforgiving west Texas sun. As the youngest of three boys in a family full of athletes, Culver honed the talent that made him the No. 6 pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2019 NBA Draft by facing his older brothers on the courts and fields around their Lubbock home.

The Culvers didn’t just play one sport — they played all of them. Oldest brother Trey beame a two-time NCAA high jump champion who is training for the 2020 Olympics. Middle brother J.J. currently plays college basketball at the NAIA level. Jarrett first excelled as a running back and wide receiver on the football field. His soccer ability was the stuff of urban legend. But upon enrolling at Coronado High School, he decided basketball was the sport he would devote himself to in full.

Randy Dean coached all three Culver boys on Coronado’s basketball program. He described Trey as a glue guy who provided defense and rebounding. J.J. “only knew one speed” which led to spectacular moments but also some mistakes. And Jarrett?

“He just had that presence on the floor that the great players have,” Dean told SB Nation. “He wasn’t flamboyant or cocky about it. But you knew he was the guy.”

The youngest Culver flourished in his junior year as Dean moved him from the wing to full-time point guard. He was turning into the best player in the area by the time Coronado went to a Christmas tournament when misfortune struck. Culver went up for a ferocious dunk, got caught up on the rim, and came down with an injured shoulder. The pain lingered through the season but he never took any time off.

When Coronado was eliminated from the playoffs, the school soccer coach asked Jarrett and J.J. if they’d be interested in joining his team for the end of the season. Jarrett scored four goals in six games to help the squad qualify for the postseason. Then it was back to basketball for his debut appearance on Nike’s EYBL circuit.

Culver had only been receiving mid-major college interest to that point. Everything change when he was asked to join Texas-based program Pro Skills for their trip to Brooklyn on the opening weekend of EYBL play. In his second game, Culver scored 18 straight points, drawing legitimate headlines and opening up the flood gates for his college interest.

Two days before Culver would fly to New York, Texas Tech hired Chris Beard away from UNLV in one of the strangest and most impactful coaching carrousel fiascos in the history of the sport. While former Red Raiders coach Tubby Smith never extended an offer to Culver, Beard did so immediately. Culver committed before the start of his senior year, choosing to stay in his hometown for college. He was still considered a three-star prospect at No. 312 in 247 Sports’ rankings.

Finally, Culver saw a doctor about his shoulder. They told him he had a torn labrum and advised getting surgery immediately. Culver couldn’t stand the thought of missing his senior year, so he opted to play the entire season injured and have the procedure when the year ended.

“That’s really the story of his character right there,” Dean said. “The other guys on the team were guys he had been playing with since seventh or eighth grade. He wanted that senior year to be good for them not just for himself. That’s why he chose to play”

[Do you like NBA Draft grades? We have 2019 NBA Draft grades]

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Michigan State vs Texas Tech Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Texas Tech had never been past the Sweet 16 in the history of the program when Culver arrived on campus. As a freshman, he emerged as the third leading scorer on a team that would go all the way to the Elite Eight. Still, Culver wasn’t even the breakout recruit on his own team. That would be Zhaire Smith, another three-star prospect who blossomed into the surprise No. 16 NBA Draft pick last year after a brilliant one-and-done season no one expected.

That gave Culver the blueprint to follow his own NBA dreams. As the Red Raiders lost six of their top eight leading scorers from the year before, Culver assumed the mantle as Beard’s leading man. Like high school, he was moved on the ball from the wing. And like high school, he thrived with the move to de facto point guard.

All Culver did as a sophomore was take a team full of overlooked recruits just like himself to the national championship game. He was the hub of everything the Red Raiders did on offense, turning into a dynamic off-the-dribble creator on a team where no one else could easily get their own look. Here are seven plays that show the versatility of his scoring ability out of pick-and-rolls and isolations:

Culver always has a counter. With hesitation dribbles, spin moves, and wrong-footed layups, he turned into a crafty driver and one of the sport’s great finishers. On the season, he converted 69 percent of his shots at the rim with only 25 percent of those field goals coming off assists, per Hoop-Math. While a player like R.J. Barrett drew criticism for having tunnel vision and seemingly predetermining his drives, Culver consistently had a trick up his sleeve to get a bucket.

Culver was the driving force on the Red Raiders’ offense, but the real reason the team ran all the way to the national championship game was because it had the most efficient defense of college basketball’s modern era. It’s defense where Culver will likely make his biggest impact early in his career for the Timberwolves. He projects as a three or potentially four-position defender who can switch screens, hold his own at the point of attack, and help teammates by making quick reads away from the ball.

His advanced feel for the game shows up on both ends, giving him tremendous role player potential as he makes the jump to the NBA. Even if he never develops into a go-to offensive option in the league like he was at Texas Tech, his defensive ability, passing skill, and high IQ all project to make him a valuable player for Minnesota. Here are three defensive plays and three passes that show Culver’s two-way versatility.

Culver was widely considered of the best perimeter defenders in this draft. Critics will point to his 30 percent three-point percentage as a reason for TImberwolves fans to worry about his offense, but it’s also worth noting he scored efficiently in a variety of different ways. Culver graded out as “good” or better in every play type this season in Synergy Sports’ database.

Jarrett Culver is good at everything

Play type Percentile Points per possession Rating
Play type Percentile Points per possession Rating
Transition 67 1.118 Very good
Overall halfcourt 65 0.909 Very good
P&R Handler 63 0.806 Good
Spot up 58 0.94 Good
Isolation 77 0.95 Very good
Off screen 64 0.986 Good
Cut 62 1.205 Good
Post-up 68 0.893 Very good
Hand off 94 1.3 Excellent
Miscellaneous 84 0.776 Excellent

The jumper will get better, too. Culver reworked his shot over the last offseason to create a higher release and improve his rotation on the ball. The fact the Culver was able to get off 5.2 three-point attempts per-40 is encouraging. Volume is a skill in itself, something that contemporaries like De’Andre Hunter (3.4 three-point attempts, per 40) couldn’t match even as a more accurate shooter.

Versatility is the name of the game in today’s NBA. Jarrett Culver is as versatile as any player in the 2019 NBA Draft this side of Zion Williamson.

Culver can initiate offensive sets as a ball handler and find a way to score efficiently regardless of the situation. While he lacks ideal first step burst, he makes up for it with a full bag of counters and an unusual rhythm to his attacks. He also knows how the make smart cuts off the ball and even has a solid post game when a smaller defender switches on him on.

Defensively, Culver has the size, quickness, and feel to be impactful. He measured at 6’6.75, 194 pounds with a 6’9.5 wingspan at the combine, giving him the type of frame to handle a plethora of different offensive players as he adds muscle to his frame. He thrives in help-and-recover situations, which is a vital part of defense in today’s NBA.

Players typically get drafted in the top six for takeover scoring ability, blistering first-step athleticism, or knockdown shooting. Culver doesn’t have any of those traits, at least not yet. What he does have is a well-rounded, intelligent game that translates at both ends. He had a massive impact on winning at the college level and projects to do the same for the Timberwolves.

Whatever Minnesota needs, Culver is there to do it. His game isn’t done blooming yet.