Charlie Johnson (@CJohnsNBA) contributed to this story.

The Minnesota Timberwolves preseason is here. Additional player profiles below. 

From 2008-12, James Nunnally was a four-year player at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The 6-foot-7 small forward appeared in 92 games over his final three seasons in the Big West Conference, starting in 86 of those matchups. During that time, Nunnally averaged 15.7 points per game while connecting on 165 of 423 3-point shots (39 percent).

Since college, Nunnally has played in the G League, signed several 10-day NBA contracts and ventured through Europe with numerous teams. All the while, he’s enjoyed relative success.

In 2016-17, he signed with Fenerbahce Ulker — more commonly known as Fenerbahçe — a storied Turkish Basketball League franchise. Over two seasons and 120 games played with Fenerbahçe, Nunnally saw 20.5 minutes of action per night — coming off the bench in almost half of his appearances — and posted 9.3 points on average. What stood out most about his performance abroad was an almost unparalleled proclivity to connect from deep. Nunnally took 400 3-point attempts over two seasons in Turkey; he made 208 of them for a staggering conversion rate of 52 percent.

In August, Nunnally signed a two-year, partially-guaranteed deal to join the Timberwolves. Let’s dig into his player preview.

Statistical Profile

  • Nunnally’s statistical profile includes 2017-18 games played in the Euroleague and in Turkey’s BSL (Basketbol Süper Ligi).
  • Nunnally’s EuroLeague and BSL true-shooting percentage of 70 percent and 69 percent, respectively, would have been the best marks in the NBA last season (Steph Curry, 67.5 percent).
  • Over two seasons with the G League (2012-13 through 2013-14) and four seasons abroad (2014-15 through 2017-18), Nunnally has connected on a combined 539 of 1,223 3-point attempts (44 percent)
  • In a Euroleague matchup against Khimki Moscow Region on Nov. 20, 2017, Nunnally scored 20 points on just six field-goal attempts

Role on the Wolves 

Nunnally, 28, agreed to a two-year minimum contract paying him $1,349,383 this season with the Wolves. However, only $350,000 is guaranteed for 2018-19; the 2019-20 portion is non-guaranteed if Nunnally is waived on or before June 29, 2019.

So, while he’s waited a long time join the NBA ranks, Nunnally is the member of this roster that could most plausibly be cut should his spot be needed for somebody else. But with only 13 players signed, this seems like an unlikely outcome.

On the other hand, should Nunnally step in and fill a wing-depth and perimeter shooting role that his new team has sorely lacked, the second year of his minimum deal can be picked up next summer. If he proves his worth this season, Nunnally’s would become a value contract in 2019-20.

What might filling that role entail?

As of now, the Wolves’ second unit appears to have four spots accounted for in Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose, Anthony Tolliver and Gorgui Dieng. That leaves the backup small forward position – or backup wing more broadly – up for grabs if you figure that Thibodeau will continue to lean on a shorter bench.

Ideally, Nunnally proving he’s capable in that role would allow rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop a more favorable timeline on which to develop. It would also create a situation where C.J. Williams – who the Wolves signed to a two-way deal that affords him 45 days on an NBA roster – only needs to be called up from Iowa when injuries or adverse variables require his presence.

On the court – though Nunnally’s greater than 50 percent clip from deep is almost certainly unsustainable against superior defenders from the NBA 3-point line – he has proven to be an effective threat from deep throughout his career.

Season

League GP 3PA 3P% eFG%

2008-09

NCAA

31

61

36.10%

53%

2009-10

NCAA

29 101 45.50% 53.40%

2010-11

NCAA

32

168

36.90%

55.30%

2011-12

NCAA

31

154

37%

54.40%

2012-13

G-League

49

175

40.6%

52%

2013-14

G-League

34

235

41.3%

57.1%

2014-15

BSL/ACB

31

182

37.40%

52.20%

2015-16

Lega A

43

231

41.10%

55.90%

2016-17

Euroleague

64

190

52.60%

65.40%

2017-18 Euroleague 56 210 51.40%

67%

Even if his percentages dip, Nunnally should be one of the Wolves’ most dangerous long-range options right off the bat. What’s more, his elite effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) is a sign of efficiency even when choosing to attack. If he picks his spots as successfully with the Wolves as he did overseas, he could slot in valiantly in a number of lineups.

It’s difficult to project just how easy Nunnally’s transition will be on the offensive end. What’s even more challenging – given a lack of available EuroLeague film – is to estimate the defensive success he’ll be able to enjoy at the NBA level.

Nunnally has good size at 6-foot-7, and though it’s not public information, his positive wingspan is evident on the floor. He’s boasted plus defensive win-shares in each of his EuroLeague seasons – ascending almost homogeneously. And relative to Fenerbahçe’s team defensive ratings (DRTG) of 113.2 (2017-18) and 106.8 (2016-17), Nunnally’s individual DRTGs of 109.6 and 109.0 have fared adequately.

What can be gleaned from tape and analysis reveals a player who lacks the athleticism to stop elite wings one-on-one. Though he utilizes an aggressive stance and moves laterally just fine, he doesn’t have the burst to fight through screens or consistently stop an offensive weapon from driving past him.

As part a Fenerbahçe team that implemented a switch-almost-everything defense toward the end of last season, Nunnally had a difficult time picking up and containing smaller players.

Where he seems to excel as a defender is on the weak side of the floor; a thematic skillset in the Wolves’ offseason acquisitions. Nunnally relies on intuition to stunt and tag a big man who is rolling to the rim, and then uses his length and frame to recover back to the perimeter – a staple of Thibodeau’s defensive philosophy.

Given the drop-coverage scheme that Thibodeau employs, switching should be less of a concern for Nunnally this upcoming campaign. If he’s able play to his strengths and adapt under Thibodeau’s direction, the California native should be given every opportunity to claim a consistent role on this refurbished second unit.

Film Clipboard

Because there is very little “film” available on Nunnally, perhaps a better way to approach how this addition will look on the floor is to find relevant approximations of what Nunnally will bring.

For the Thibodeau Wolves, that’s easier said than done. Only two rotation players have really been high volume shooters from deep (Jamal Crawford and Zach LaVine) and only four (with Bjelica twice) have taken over four per-36 minutes in the two seasons.

Player (season) 3PAs per-36 minutes 3P%
Jamal Crawford (17-18) 6.8 33.1
Zach LaVine (16-17) 6.4 38.7
Nemanja Bjelica (16-17) 5.4 31.6
Nemanja Bjelica (17-18) 4.8 41.5
Andrew Wiggins (17-18) 4.1 33.1

The next highest volume shooter in the Thibs era is Brandon Rush, who averaged 4.0 3PAs per-36 minutes in 2016-17. Listed at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, Rush is physically and stylistically the best approximation of the 6-foot-7, 200-pound Nunnally.

That season, Rush battled back problems and adopted more of an “old man” game. Really, his role was to move into space on offense to provide space for kick outs.

Converting on 38.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, this was helpful. In Turkey, Nunnally filled a similar, tertiary role in the offense.

Many point to a shorter FIBA 3-point line as a reason for expected shooting regression for players once they transition to the NBA. A value of the deeper line is that defenders have an extra stride to close out on shooters. If Nunnally can acclimate to the deeper shot, he may realize more similar distance closeouts of his defenders.

To see the floor, this will have to be the case because like Rush, the rest of Nunnally’s offensive game is allegedly limited to pump-and-gos when defenders run him off the line.

Nearly 79 percent of Rush’s attempted field goals in Minnesota were either 3s or at the rim.

Defensively, Rush was able to stay on the floor not because of his on-ball chops but due to his understanding of how to function as a weakside help defender. It was likely because of this understanding and Kris Dunn’s slow acclimation to off-ball defense that Rush received a heaping spoonful of the leftover wing minutes early in the 2016-17 campaign.

Below-average on-ball ability with an understanding of off-ball technique is a reason that Nunnally could find himself in a similar wing minute split this season. Okogie is, in ways, this season’s Dunn.

Here, Nunnally sees the roll man and pulls off a rare Brandon Rush-esque block at the rim.

The assumption, at least to start the season, is that the path to backup wing minutes will come from production on the defensive end. Because of this, how Nunnally’s passable defense in Europe translates to the NBA game will be as big of a factor as his shot falling.

Nunnally is the biggest mystery entering the 2018-19 campaign. The hope is that he will be a younger, healthier Rush.

To find additional Zone Coverage player profiles follow the below. Links to be updated throughout the preseason.

 


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