Prospect Microscope: Tari Eason
The LSU product might take some draft-night moving and shaking, but he has all the tools to thrive in the modern NBA.
Tim Connelly has barely been the President of Basketball Operations (POBO) for the Minnesota Timberwolves long enough to adjust the lumbar support on his new chair. The first wisp of steam has only just crept over the rim of his first coffee, but Connelly’s task of not only sustaining the mild success that the Wolves found in the 2021-22 season, but furthering it.
It’s all so fresh for the man who helped build the modern-day Denver Nuggets into a consistent Western Conference contender, but he has work to do, and that work won’t wait for him to settle in and get comfortable.
The brightest feather in Connelly’s front office cap is his excellent track record on draft night and with the latest one barreling headlong toward us, Connelly, along with former interim POBO Sachin Gupta and a troop of other front office colleagues, has his first key roster-addition chance landing squarely in his hitting zone.
So what does he do? The Wolves currently own the 19th, 41st, 48th and 50th picks, a back-ended bevy of selections and far too many to fit on Minnesota’s current roster. However, having that charcuterie board of picks is the perfect way for Connelly to kickstart the aggressive decision-making culture he was lured to the Twin Cities to implement.
One of the players who is surely glimmering on his big board is Tari Eason, an upcoming draftee who the Chicago Bulls pinch from the Wolves at pick 18 in Sam Vecenie’s latest mock draft for The Athletic and one who has been flying off boards even sooner in others. The 21-year-old has boomed since transferring from Cincinnati to LSU and, despite operating as Will Wade’s sixth man, he has cemented himself as a legitimate first-round pick and with a real crack at lottery selection.
If Minnesota wants to make a draft-night play — one that will swoon the fiending-to-be-swooned Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez — then building a package to get up toward the late lottery and snag the LSU sophomore could be the first signal of the kind of draft aggression that may just define the Connelly era.
Draft Age: 21.11
Position: Power Forward/Small-Ball Center
Weight: 217.4 lbs
Basic Stats: 24.4 MPG, 16.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.9 SPG, 2.2 TO, 2.8 PF, 52.1% FG (11.1 FGA), 35.9% 3PT (2.4 3PA), 80.3% FT (5.7 FTA)
Per 36-Minute Stats: 25.0 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.6 BPG, 2.9 BPG, 3.3 TO, 4.1 PF
Advanced Stats: 9.0 OBPM, 5.7 DBPM, 14.7 BPM, 33.5 PER, 61.5% TS, 55.9% EFG, 31.8% USG
Why The Wolves Should Want Eason
It’s always worth discovering and plucking out the nits confined within a prospect’s game, but one thing is consistent with every batch of draftees: team context decides early returns. The ability of a team to hide a youngster’s warts in his first seasons is just as, if not more, important than being able to maximize their strengths.
Of course, there can be immense benefits to handing a rookie more responsibility than he can feasibly handle and letting him make all the mistakes necessary to grow —think a young Zach LaVine playing point guard for the Wolves despite struggling mightily with that role — but as is there weight in letting them develop naturally in a role that won’t destroy their confidence, allowing them to expand their game organically while still impacting winning.
With that front of mind, these Prospect Microscopes will focus on the good in a potential incomer, on the ways they could slot into a playoff team like the Timberwolves and nestle comfortably into a legitimate role. Obviously, what a prospect does poorly will always weave its way into the conversation, but focusing on how they can add to Minnesota’s newfangled stability feels like a better approach and one the front office will also be taking.
Minnesota already has their core stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, they will be looking to draft someone who can insulate those players without having to be a franchise savior. It’s a warm and cozy place to be. Tari Eason has his flaws in terms of genuine blue-chip prospect ability, but he has a bunch of auxiliary talents that could become the perfect foundation for a hand-in-glove fit with the Wolves.
The Wolves need size, that much was obvious throughout the entirety of the regular season and it was a nightmarish monster that continued to rear its ghastly head in the postseason. Eason isn’t the towering big man that might sweeten the palette of those fans wanting a paint-dwelling mammoth, but it’s hard to deny his fit next to Karl-Anthony Towns or as a do-it-all backup for Jarred Vanderbilt.
The Timberwolves tied the Milwaukee Bucks for the fastest average offensive possession length (14 seconds) last season and they spent 16.6 percent of their offensive possessions in transition, the fifth-highest mark in the league. They play quickly, they run whenever they can, and they prey on teams who aren’t able to switch into their halfcourt defense quick enough. So does Eason, a man-amongst-boys who averaged 1.33 points per possession (90th percentile in the country) in transition last season, per Synergy.
He has the size — his strength, length and girth surpassing the athletic stylings of Vanderbilt immediately — to slide into a power forward role and do the scrambling work and low-man duties that Minnesota requires in their pick-and-roll defensive scheme, but in the when his team has the ball with hardwood ahead, he turns into a gazelle. One with legs of oak, unending arms, and enough ball-handling, body-shiftiness and bounce to lead or finish fast breaks.
In the halfcourt, Eason isn’t a four-man who can make plays for others or operate as a pseudo-heliocentric force, but because he can legitimately take over a game as a fast break phenom, he can leave his mark in the scoring column without having to commandeer any possessions. That’s important for Minnesota. Head coach Chris Finch and his coaching crew don’t need a first-rounder whose primary talents require a bunch of on-ball reps in the halfcourt to blossom. They need a player who fits in quickly.
Eason’s tendency to act as the shot-missile in transition stems from his want-to. Sure, the aforementioned anthropometric freakishness doesn’t hurt, but Eason wants to be the one who gets his team easy buckets. He wants to showcase those mouth-watering genetics. He wants to rev his engine.
Look where he starts in relation to his teammates and his opponents on this turnover and leak-out. When the ball dribbles out of the hands of Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr., there are six players ahead of Eason. Within the beat of a heart, he is trouncing them down the floor and stuffing an open look. It takes a legitimate chasedown-block threat to stop him on the break and very few of those will be able to outpace him.
He will face bigger and stronger and faster athletes than he ever has when he gets to the big leagues, but the willingness to persistently hustle up and down the court is going to help his fast break talents translate. On a team who has an outlet passer like Towns, a couple of pass-first transition guards in D’Angelo Russell and Jordan McLaughlin, a live-ball turnover terriers like Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley, and lane-filling savants in Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, Eason’s running game would immediately pop.
Again, there are things that Tari Eason can’t do in the halfcourt, and they don’t take a telescope to spot. His irregular attempts to set the table for others constantly blur the line between unskilled and pure insanity. He relies on his right hand too often and his left-hand forays are a choose-your-own-adventure. However, the Wolves don’t need immediate halfcourt creation from their power forward position, but they do need a legitimate power forward-sized player who can do more than loiter in the dunker’s spot and shrink the floor around Towns and Edwards.
Eason is a quintessential jack of all trades, master of none type player. Importantly, even if there are still some sharp edges, he can hang about the perimeter for entire possessions (creating space) and then still slither to the rim off the catch when the ball swings around the horn and into his enormous mitts.
Plays like the one above typify Eason’s halfcourt experience. The tentative probe left, the cross back to the right hand at the first chance possible, the strength to displace a backtracking opponent, and the soft touch around the rim. Even when he isn’t able to finish through contact or get to his spots around the cup, he uses his body and his mind to draw fouls and often lived at the line throughout the recent collegiate season.
The 21-year-old will likely have trouble strutting those moves consistently against strong wing defenders in the NBA, but he has the size and scoring nous to punish certain matchups — or teams for double-teaming off him to stop Karl-Anthony Towns. If Eason can get his long levers past a defender who is rotating back out of a double team, he is going to win the possession a lot.
It’s unpolished and it’s not something an NBA offense is going to want to rely on for a consistent stream of points, but there is just something to Eason off-the-catch. Something herky-jerky and aesthetically bizarre, but something that could pump, in small bursts, another dimension into Minnesota’s offense.
The one thing that stands out when Minnesota is struggling with those double-teams is their inability to put four shooters around their All-NBA big while maintaining their girth and strength at the power forward position. While Eason’s long-range shot is inconsistent in both mechanics and results, his 35.9 percent clip, willingness to fire in a multitude of ways, 80.3 percent free throw clip (on super-high volume) and general touch around the rim bode well for his future shooting projections. It’d be madness to consider him a shooter right out of the gate, but he does enough from deep to make defenders keep an eye on him.
Then, when you think a middling catch-and-shoot guy might just be enough to allow his other talents to pop, he flashes things like this. Things that you don’t want him whipping out regularly at the next level and things that he wouldn’t have the leash to do right away under Finch, but things that make you sit up a little and start paying serious attention.
The shot’s a little catapult-y, the handle is still a little robotic, but those two pull-up triples are laced in potential. If he can get the 3-point shot to a reliable level, he starts forcing defenders to close a little harder on him. That’s when he can use his gangly first step and driving force to get the looks at the rim he really wants.
For the Timberwolves, if he is the one who finishes draft night on their roster, he will be asked to catch-and-shoot, attack of the dribble, cut hard off Minnesota’s high-usage stars, and set screens to free them. He will be asked to be a working cog in the offensive machine but not one that the machine relies on to operate at a high level..
That’s what he can do. A bit-part scorer with surprising versatility and an ever-deepening bag. Jack of all trades, master of none.
Even if Eason isn’t able to find success as a loping leopard in transition or his limitations strangle him as a halfcourt scoring presence, it’s very likely he is still going to be a defensive demon. There is just so much to clay to mold that it seems close to an impossibility that something workable won’t be sculpted.
It’s worth mentioning that Will Wade deploys an uber-aggressive defensive scheme that sees his team regularly deploying full court traps and often switching one-through-five (where Eason has thrived against every matchup). That noise might mean some of his defensive numbers — he is ninth in the country in steal percentage at 4.5% and his defensive rating and defensive box plus/minus both rank in the top five — might be a touch overinflated, but very few could have oscillated between matchups and areas on the floor while maintaining the smothering success that Eason did.
Still, even in the halfcourt when everything but the level of competition replicated the big leagues, Eason was a monster. A player who is simultaneously able to stand up an opponent in one-on-one situations and lay waste to an offense as a team defender.
Some players feign digs at the ball when guarding in gap help (something Minnesota do as much as anybody), some players make legitimate attempts to pry the ball free from a driving ball-handler, but few ravenously claw at the ball as Eason does. He trusts that he can swipe any ball and he has faith that he can recover or contain a mismatch on a switch if he isn’t able to complete the pickpocket. He makes plays that fuel transition offense and he loves to douse games in that fuel.
Eason loves risk. He plays a risky game every time he launches into a passing lane and gambles can submarine an NBA defense if they’re unsuccessful too often, but Chris Finch’s Wolves survived on a risky defensive diet all season long and Eason wins his bets more often than not. For a team like Minnesota, whose defensive scheme relied on rabid ball pressure and frantic scrambling behind the ball, Eason’s mindset, nous and athletic tools would be a godsend on both fronts.
That defensive skillset manifests itself not just as a gap helper, but as a low man — a role that acts as the glue holding Minnesota’s pugnacious scheme together. Eason might not be the prototypical shot-blocking presence that would undoubtedly be on Tim Connelly’s shortlist of immediate needs, but if he can make smart rotations and use his 7-foot-2 wingspan and draft combine-leading 11-inch-wide hands to swat away or deter shots as a low-man helper, he would provide immediate and immense value.
The thing about the aforementioned defensive scheme that Finch runs is that Minnesota will have to find a way to weave other ones into their style. They overachieved playing up at the level and attacking pick-and-rolls with two on the ball, but they’re going to have to learn to play other ways or the league will catch up to them and rip their singular trick asunder. They won’t traipse into next season as the unknown hunter. Teams have a full season of film and it will be used to hunt them.
Eason probably doesn’t help the Wolves run drop coverage any better than they can now, but he would add a sharp sword to their switching scheme arsenal. He has had a full season’s worth of experience guarding power forwards and centers while switching every screen and getting in a stance against shifty ball-handling wings and guards. It’s unlikely he is going to enter the NBA as a switching demon, but he should have enough equity in that area to make an impact immediately, with acres of room to grow into said demon.
It feels like a longshot that former Tiger is going to be the kind of prospect that launches a bad team into a new stratosphere, but the importance of star-in-their-role players in today’s NBA is as high as ever, and he has that kind of eventual footprint written all over him. A multi-positional defender who is a stocks machine, a mega-athlete in transition, and a versatile halfcourt scorer — all of those traits seemingly ready to go from day one.
The Timberwolves will likely need to make a legitimate swing to get up the board and pick Eason, but it might just be worth it.