Timberwolves

Can Jaylen Nowell Crack the Rotation?

Photo Credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

One week into the preseason, the unbridled optimism surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves has yet to be quenched. The team stands at 2-0 as they wait to take on the Los Angeles Clippers Monday evening. Strong performances from both the starters and the bench units and solid defense across the board have propelled the Wolves to their meaningless undefeated record thus far.

Many players have found a way to stand out in one way or another. Anthony Edwards has shown the defensive improvement that head coach Chris Finch had predicted. Patrick Beverley has his fingerprints all over the team’s DNA as they are playing with aggression and tenacity. It may just be the preseason, but there is much to get excited about for the upcoming regular season opener on Oct. 20.

Jaylen Nowell’s late-game heroics stood out in the overtime win over the Denver Nuggets. After a couple bad shots and a fumbled dunk attempt that sent the ball to the moon, Nowell returned to being the flamethrower that fans had grown accustomed to seeing in Malik Beasley’s absence last season. His final statline reflected some typical inefficiencies (5-of-12, 1-of-3 from 3, and 12 points), but each of his made shots came up huge in crunch time for the Wolves. A soon-to-be-rare-again 4-point play was integral in getting Minnesota to overtime, and a couple of turnaround fadeaway buckets in the last few possessions ultimately sealed the win for Nowell and the Wolves.

It is no question that Nowell is a talented player. He has proved he can be a scoring spark when his shot is falling. However, with a stacked Wolves roster (lol), the opportunity for playing time may be hard to come by. Barring any injuries, Finch’s preseason lineups appeared to include 10 players consistently:

Starters: D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Jarred Vanderbilt, Karl-Anthony Towns

Bench: Taurean Prince, Josh Okogie, Naz Reid, Malik Beasley, Jordan McLaughlin

Even a 10-man rotation would be a hefty number for consistent regular-season minutes. Tom Thibodeau became famous for running a high-usage eight-man rotation, and Finch is likely to trim that number down to nine to keep his players fresh. The Wolves somehow have a bevy of talent and spot-specialists at their disposal, and many of these players have been just good enough at their roles to keep Nowell on the outside looking in.

Nowell realistically has a chance at eating the minutes of only three players out of the aforementioned 10: Okogie, Beasley, and McLaughlin. Nowell is nowhere near as good of a defender as Okogie, he’s not as potent of a shooter as Beasley, and he is not an adept facilitator/initiator like McLaughlin. Each of these three players outperform Nowell in specific facets of the game that earn them their playing time.

However, Nowell holds advantages over each of these players as well. Nowell is not an offensive liability like Okogie. He is a good five inches taller than McLaughlin, and is a more reliable scorer (plus-4.0 ppg last season over McLaughlin). Perhaps most notably, Nowell appears to be in better game shape than the incumbent Wolves flamethrower in Mr. Beasley.

Returning from a summer that did not allow him to play consistent basketball, Beasley has looked both out of shape and out of sync within the Wolves offense. In 20 minutes on Friday night, Beasley also shot 5-for-12 from the field and 1-for-5 on 3-point attempts. To put it plainly, these inefficient gunslinging performances won’t be tolerated from a player coming off a lengthy suspension, tumultuous offseasons, and sizable contract. Beasley was electric for the Timberwolves last season, though he will have to prove his worth with consistent outside shooting in order to ward off the surging Nowell.

It is not unrealistic to think that, if afforded the same opportunity and green light, that Nowell could plug in and play Beasley’s role on the team. With trade rumors around Ben Simmons still swirling, Beasley’s name is one that comes up often in terms of desired skillsets and contract size. If Beasley were to get shipped out of town for Simmons or someone else, Nowell would be the most obvious and cost-efficient replacement to fulfill that same role on the team. His overall numbers do not yet support the same efficiency as Beasley (33% from 3 last season, compared to 39.9% for Beasley), but he has shown flashes of being that dude.

Coming off a dazzling performance in the Summer League and the most recent Friday night heroics, Nowell looks poised to take a leap if the opportunity presents itself. He currently finds himself mired within the last five of the Timberwolves bench alongside fellow talented youngsters Leandro Bolmaro, Nathan Knight, and McKinley Wright IV. Barring injuries or other roster changes, Nowell may not find many minutes in Finch’s rotation.

If Finch is to be believed, though, Nowell could play his way into some minutes this season. Entering his third year in the league, Nowell should be eager to prove that he belongs and can hang with starting-caliber players. Expect him to be Duran Duran hungry like the rest of the Wolves and earn some meaningful minutes.

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Photo Credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

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