With his athleticism and versatility, Derrick Williams could earn a starting spot, but Shabazz Muhammad will give him a run for his money.
There will be a couple assumptions made in this piece, so let’s just go ahead and start with a big one:
The Minnesota Timberwolves will re-sign Nikola Pekovic.
It’s not far-fetched to think that the Wolves will get the big man back next year. CBS Sports’ Zach Harper reported that the Timberwolves made Pekovic a formal offer on July 8, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports tweeted that he was close to signing a four-year, $50 million deal and Marcus R. Fuller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Pekovic wants to stay.
So, safe to say, he will be in the starting five if (when) he returns.
The second assumption is that everyone will stay healthy this year.
Of course, there will be injuries here and there throughout the season, but let’s hope Minnesota does not have everyone sitting courtside in a suit and tie like they did last year.
Finally, make the assumption that Derrick Williams is the sixth man and Chase Budinger and Shabazz Muhammad are key reserves if they are not in the starting five.
The main question with the team, of course, is who plays the 3. Ricky Rubio will be the starting point guard, Kevin Martin will be his backcourt partner, Kevin Love will start at power forward and Pekovic will be the center.
In order to find a starting small forward, the Timberwolves should use these three lineups.
Derrick Williams as small forward
Timberwolves fans either love or hate Williams.
There is a segment of the fanbase that feels he is just one of many lottery busts the team has had over the years—he’s Johnny Flynn or Wesley Johnson waiting to happen.
At the very least, they feel Williams is not worthy of the No. 2 overall pick in 2011.
Then there are people who love his athleticism and versatility and see him as a starter who can be a volume scorer at the 3 and a backup to Love at the 4.
At the very least, they feel Williams is a solid sixth man who can generate offense off the bench.
If Williams is going to start next season, he has to play the 3. That means he needs to improve upon his three-point shooting percentage, which increased from 26.8 percent to 33.2 percent last season.
By improving his shot, he should open the floor up to slash his way through the defense and score with the ball. He has the speed, size and strength necessary to get to the hoop, but he needs to shoot well enough so that defenders don’t sag off of him.
Williams also needs to improve as a defender, something that will happen with focused offseason regimens and three years of experience in the league.
Williams has an opportunity to be a starter next season, but he has to seize it.
Shabazz Muhammad as small forward
Yet another polarizing player on the Timberwolves, Muhammad is a guy who some feel is talented enough to enter an NBA rotation right away, while others feel that problems both on and off the court will keep him from ever reaching his potential.
Muhammad’s father, Ron Holmes, mapped out a route to the NBA for his son by giving him a “marketable name,” fudging his birth date so he could play his freshman season at UCLA as a 20-year-old and providing him with top-notch coaching and athletic training at a young age.
Muhammad is essentially the next Todd Marinovich.
Marinovich, for those who are unaware, was put on a diet and training regimen by his father at a young age and became a blue-chip NFL prospect drafted in the first round out of USC by the Los Angeles Raiders.
He never reached his potential as a football player, eventually being kicked out of the league for drug abuse. As documented in ESPN's "30 for 30" The Marinovich Project, it took quite a long time before he finally found inner peace.
Hopefully things don’t go that far with Muhammad. He made the right move by telling his father to back off and appears committed to being a productive professional basketball player.
In order to get a starting spot, he needs to improve his defense, grab boards on both sides of the court and pass the ball. Essentially, he has to be a good teammate.
With his talent, Muhammad could easily be part of the starting five next season. He must be committed to helping the team, however, and cannot be distracted by issues off the court.
Chase Budinger as small forward
I hate to view Budinger as the “last resort,” but he sort of is.
He got a three-year, $16 million contract in the offseason and appropriately so—he’s a good backup. He basically does two things well: drilling three-pointers and throwing home dunks.
Those are two nice traits for a player coming off the bench, but his defense is suspect, and he struggles to score from the field.
He also has less upside than Williams or Muhammad.
With more to offer as a backup 2 or 3, Budinger still can be the starting small forward in a pinch. Minnesota needs shooting, and it’s always nice to have somebody who can excite the crowd with a monster jam. Budinger also passes the ball well and can grab boards, so it is not as though he has nothing to offer.
At the same time, he is not a permanent solution as a starting small forward, and the team has to be hoping that either Williams or Muhammad takes ownership of that position to allow Budinger to come off the bench.
As the player with more experience, Williams looks like the favorite to get the starting job, unless Muhammad outperforms him in camp.
Both players are talented enough to start in the NBA, but they have to prove that they have worked out their kinks on the court (and for Muhammad, off of it).
Budinger is an option as well, but he is probably served best as a bench player with a spot in the rotation.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.