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In rookie Justin Patton, Timberwolves see late bloomer with high ceiling

Justin Patton, acquired by the Minnesota Timberwolves in a draft-night trade with Chicago after being selected with the 16th overall pick by the Bulls, was introduced to the media Tuesday, June 27, 2017 in Minneapolis. Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations/Head Coach Tom Thibodeau is at left. Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Justin Patton's introductory press conference was Tuesday afternoon, in Minneapolis, but a more apt initiation took place during a Monday night dinner with Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau and newly acquired star Jimmy Butler.

Butler is known for his fashion sense; Patton wore shorts throughout high school because his rapid, and constant, growth made it hard for him to find pants that fit.

"I said, 'I'm not big on fashion,'" Patton said Tuesday, June 26, "and (Butler) said by the time he's done with me, I'm going to be a fashion guy, so I can't wait."

Evolution and change are nothing new to Patton. Three years ago, he was working concessions, selling funnel cakes at the College World Series in his hometown of Omaha, Neb.

"Nachos, also," Patton said. "You can't forget about the nachos."

Now he's a first-round NBA draft pick and part of a bright, young Timberwolves core expected to challenge for championships in the not-so-distant future.

"If anyone would have said this guy's gonna be a pretty high first-round pick," Thibodeau said, "no one would have expected that."

Certainly not while he was in high school. Standing 6 feet, 1 inch as a freshman, Patton was a lifelong point guard. But between his freshman and sophomore year, he grew eight inches. Suddenly, he was a center.

"I had to learn how to do simple things all over again," Patton said. "Like run."

And all the other stuff big men do, such as sealing defenders off on the interior. The good thing was Patton still had the base of guard skills he developed growing up. There aren't many 7-footers who can dribble, pass and create. Patton can.

"The thing that probably surprised us some was his ability to put it on the floor and make plays," Thibodeau said. "He's got great vision. It's unusual for a guy his size to make the type of plays that he does."

Patton wasn't a McDonald's All-American in high school, and his lone Division I offer came from hometown Creighton. He even had to take a redshirt year in college to continue to develop, a rarity today for top basketball talents. Those guys aren't supposed to be first-round picks.

But Patton busted onto the scene last season at Creighton, going from relative unknown to a can't-miss prospect as he averaged 12.9 points on 68 percent shooting. Thibodeau remembers Wolves general manager Scott Layden going to scout a Creighton game and coming back with a message: "There's a big at Creighton we've got to keep our eye on."

"Through his performance, and he had some really big games where he did some pretty amazing things, he put himself in this position," Thibodeau said.

Patton won Minnesota over with his ability to run the floor and put pressure on the rim. But as the season progressed, so did the skills he flashed.

"By the end of the season, when he was trailing in on plays, he was hitting trail threes and very comfortable," Thibodeau said.

Patton has the type of skill set that makes talent evaluators drool. His potential roles in the NBA are endless.

"We're seeing the versatility of bigs now that we haven't seen in the past, when you look at (Karl-Anthony Towns)," Thibodeau said. "And we're excited about Justin, not only by his offense, but we think he's just scratching the surface defensively. He's got great feet. He can run. He's a multiple-effort guy. I think the shot blocking will get better and better."

There are still a number of things for Patton to work on, particularly his strength. The 230-pound center put on roughly 30 pounds at Creighton but should continue to grow. A common thought is that Patton could do some of that growing in Iowa next year with the Timberwolves' new developmental G-League team.

But the rookie might have other ideas. One thing he demonstrated Tuesday is confidence.

"I'm going for rookie of the year," Patton told reporters the day before the NBA draft. "If I can win MVP, then I'll win MVP. I'm just going to set the bar high and try to go chase it."

"Just chase your dreams and never give up," he said Tuesday. "I'm in a situation because I've worked hard and I have good people around me doing it. I get to lead by example now. Hopefully other people will follow suit."