The Minnesota Timberwolves “Big 3” have been scoring at an impressive rate this season. Karl-Anthony Towns averages 24.4 points per game, Anthony Edwards averages 22.1, and D’Angelo Russell averages 18.9. Those scoring totals put them at 12th, 18th, and 34th in the league, respectively.
However, the Timberwolves bench has not given them a lot of help this season. The Wolves are tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Indiana Pacers for 20th in league-wide bench points per game at 32.8. That is not terrible considering that several other star-driven teams average fewer bench points per game than the Wolves yet still have a significantly better record than them, including the Brooklyn Nets, the Chicago Bulls, and the Milwaukee Bucks.
But the collective shooting efficiency of the Timberwolves bench is alarming. Minnesota’s reserves rank at the bottom in the league in field-goal percentage, shooting 38.9%. In contrast, the Chicago Bulls’ bench is shooting an incredibly efficient 48.1% from the field (second in the league), and the Brooklyn Nets bench is shooting 45% from the field (11th in the league). The Milwaukee Bucks’ bench is shooting only 40.1% from the field. However, a string of injuries to key players throughout their season has likely skewed these numbers meaningfully.
The Timberwolves are now hitting a streak of illness themselves. They have five players out due to the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, including Edwards, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Josh Okogie, and Taurean Prince. It’s a reminder that the proliferation of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is scary, and we should all be taking extra precautions to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Edwards’ absence has meant that the Wolves needed someone from their bench to step up and score to take some of the pressure off KAT and DLo. So far, that player has been Jaylen Nowell.
Nowell got buried behind players like Malik Beasley, Jordan McLaughlin, and Leandro Bolmaro at the beginning of the year while coach Chris Finch was trying to figure out the teams’ rotations. Nowell played in only 11 of the first 25 games this season. On top of that, Nowell was only allowed to play over seven minutes in three of those games. He’s never exceeded 10 minutes of playing time in any of them.
However, in the last five games, Nowell has been given over 10 minutes in all but one of them. The results have been promising. In those five games, Nowell shot an impressive 18-of-37 from the field (48.6%) and scored at least 10 points in three of the five games. However, what has been especially impressive is how he has stepped up in the last two games in Edwards’ absence.
Against the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 17, Nowell put up 14 points on 6-of-13 shooting in just over 19 minutes. He showed off his ability to get to the rim quickly and score around a crowd of defenders and his smooth shooting motion from three-point range. Nowell was even more efficient in Sunday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks, shooting 6-of-9 from the field and hitting both of the three-point shots he took. He consistently cut up the Mavericks defense with his mid-range pull-up jump shot and made shots over two players who are over seven feet tall, Kristaps Porzingis (7’3”) and Moses Brown (7’2”). Nowell also did an excellent job of recognizing when the center he was playing with had room to drive or shoot from the three-point line and tallied three assists as a result.
Nowell has the potential to score more if given the opportunity. In a game against the New Orleans Pelicans last season, Nowell put up 28 points in just over 28 minutes while shooting 6-of-7 from three-point range and 11-of-13 from the field. That game was the highest-scoring performance of Nowell’s NBA career so far. However, he can potentially become the spark plug scorer that the Timberwolves need coming off their bench if he is given more regular minutes as the sixth or seventh man.
The consistency and smoothness of his shooting motion suggest that he can continue to become an even more precise shooter. His defense may still need some work, but he’s only 22 years old and in his third season and has shown a lot of improvement on that end already this year. So far this year, Nowell’s defensive rating per 100 possessions is 109 – already 8 points better than the 117 defensive rating he had in his first two seasons.
In Tuesday’s rematch with the Mavericks, Nowell will likely get the opportunity for more minutes with Edwards and Beverley out. It may even be a good chance for Finch to give Nowell the first start of his career, given how good he’s played in the last two games. Considering how depleted the Timberwolves roster is at the moment, it may be a better time to give Nowell that opportunity than ever before.