How Do D'Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley Fit In When They Return?

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

This week the Minnesota Timberwolves played the Portland Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Phoenix Suns twice, and somehow came out with a 2-2 record. Since the All-Star Break, they are 3-3. This feeling? It’s a Wolves fan’s sole source of sustenance — hope. But as any Minnesota sports fan can tell you, even winning comes with its complications.

These wins came despite two of the four players with the most expensive contracts on the team not playing. I frame it this way because, despite solid statistics, the on/off splits of D’Angelo Russell have been rough. I also say this because no matter how the team performs without Malik Beasley and Russell, they’ll both be getting their jobs back.

This got me thinking about a game of Survivor. With the Timberwolves finally approaching a full bill of health, who gets to stay in the rotation, and who gets exiled to the Land of Misfit Basket Boys?

The Safe Starters
  1. Karl-Anthony Towns, duh.
  2. D’Angelo Russell: Some people throughout the season have been clamoring for DLol to be benched or traded, but there are 30 million reasons and a draft pick why it’s important to see D’Angelo make sweet R&B with KAT. Let’s hope that, like the singer of the same name, it’s worth the wait after his last successful venture. It certainly feels like 14 years since DLol has played on his last competitive basketball team.
  3. Anthony Edwards: Did you see him score 42?
The Fringe Starters

4. Malik Beasley: The BeasLords can’t believe that I don’t have him as a no-brainer starter, but hear me out. During these nine games he’s been suspended, Edwards has shifted from playing small forward to shooting guard. During this stretch, Ant has scored 25.3 points per game versus 15.7 in the rest of his time as a starter. He also looks far more comfortable on the defensive end. The shooting and defense are currently not at the Beasley level of efficiency, but for Ant it’s about building cohesion in a non-competitive year. Besides, at this point, the Wolves have to be thinking about top-three lottery odds for the best chance at keeping their 2021 pick.

Until Ant settles into the NBA pace and size, I think he should be playing shooting guard. And given that Beasley is even smaller than Anthony Edwards, I would not expect the Wolves to start Beasley against most opposing NBA starting lineups. That being said, Finch should consider Beasley to start for select matchups and especially for small closing lineups.

5. Jaden McDaniels: Look, he has had a rough couple of starts in his young NBA career, and last night he struggled from deep. He went 0-for-4, including a couple of wide-open misses that began to remind me of Dario Saric when he was here. But he always finds other ways to contribute, whether in stocks (steals/blocks), clamping down/altering shots, or cutting to the basket like he did last night. This is why, even on an inefficient shooting night (eight points on 11 shots), he was able to lead the team in plus/minus on Friday night.

6. Jake Layman: He began starting again post All-Star Break after being relegated to the fringes of the 11-man rotation. Layman is fantastic as a low-minutes starter because he always brings energy on both ends along with shooting (at least more than Josh Okogie).

7. Juancho Hernangomez: Since the All-Star Break, Hernangomez has begun to show signs of life. He doesn’t possess Jarred Vanderbilt‘s frenetic energy, but he has, ahem, one offensive skill. He shoots. And if necessary, he can put the ball on the deck and drive, to mixed results. Ultimately, I believe he fits the pace and space offense that Chris Finch will be installing for the rest of this season.

They also have rapport:

Non-starter Rotation Players

8. Ricky Rubio is, um, back? At least until he gets used to match salary for an Aaron Gordon trade — although that may be in jeopardy after Ant has continuously praised Rick for his tutelage, including after the 42-point shellacking on Thursday.

9. Jaylen Nowell: Jaylen has earned himself some playing time. Size will be difficult with Malik, Rubio, and him in the same lineup, but this isn’t as much of an issue against bench units that are typically smaller and/or less athletic. Between Nowell and Ant’s comeuppances, there may be a trade coming, and Rubio and Malik’s contracts conveniently add up to max salary.

10. Naz Reid: He’s slipped over the past couple of games, but his insane usage was probably not a winning formula for the Wolves. He’s a backup center, not a PF except in limited minutes against very specific teams like the Los Angeles Lakers.

11. Josh Okogie: Once again, the Wolves have a lot to figure out, and Okogie is so good when he can primarily guard point guards and shooting guards rather than power forwards. We all got to see him rent out Devin Booker’s head for free this week.

As it currently stands, the rotation sits at 11 players, minimum. There are only five days to make a trade to alleviate those issues this year, but the Wolves MUST solve this problem in the offseason. Fortunately, if Gersson Rosas doesn’t solve this with a trade, I’m confident that Finch will still find a way to cut the rotation to 10 players by next season.

For now, the Timberwolves are the basketball embodiment of this:

And only one of the cooks is a Michelin Star Chef.

Exiled to the Land of Misfit Basket Boys

12. Jordan McLaughlin: While J-Mac can really run a pick-and-roll, it remains to be seen whether he can succeed in Finch’s more fluid system. At the very least, he is a solid injury replacement for one of the primary ball-handlers.

13. Jarred Vanderbilt: V8 has shown instinct, quickness, and anticipation on the defensive end, but he lacks the size and offensive skills to ultimately crack the rotation. He has been a diamond in the rough during this stretch of inactives, but last night he played less than five minutes off the bench, and it’s difficult imagining a staunch pace-and-space coach hanging his hat on a guy with such limited offensive skill. An undersized center (offensively) who can’t shoot is tough, even if he does rebound and create good chaos on the defensive end.

14. Jarrett Culver: Unfortunately, the Wolves have better bets at the wing position on their roster right now, but here’s to hoping that Culver has an opportunity to blossom in a different situation a la Josh Jackson with the Memphis Grizzlies and Detroit Pistons.

15. If we see Ed Davis play again this year, something has gone terribly wrong (again).

Ultimately, the Wolves have 14 players who could survive. Each of them is capable of earning minutes on half of the teams in the league, so cutting down the rotation is going to be fascinating and terrifying all at the same time. It will likely require trading a valuable asset in addition to Finch’s tough coaching decisions for the manifestation of the pRosas to begin.

These are the crucial final decisions that will make or break this rebuild, and for once in my life, I feel confident in the execution of both the coaching and the front office in Minnesota.

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Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

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