Wonky is the word that best describes the Minnesota Timberwolves 2020-21 season.
The Wolves had mild expectations heading into the year, which were immediately dashed by injuries, COVID, poor play in general, and the weirdest midseason coaching change in recent memory. And now they’re suddenly riding a three-game winning streak and making fans wonder if they could beat the ‘96 Bulls.
No other player has had a wonkier season than Juancho Hernangómez. The 6’9″ Spaniard came out blasting last year after being part of the Feb. 5 trade that sent Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt to Minnesota. In his 14 games with the Wolves before last season’s shutdown, Juancho averaged 12.9 points per game and 7.3 rebounds on 45.3 percent shooting while knocking down 42.0 percent of his 3s.
He started all 14 games in Minneapolis, albeit only two came alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, and the Wolves rewarded the 25-year-old with a 3-year, $21 million contract before this season started. Many fans assumed he would be the team’s starting power forward and expand on his breakout stretch from last year. But that didn’t happen. Ryan Saunders decided to go with Jake Layman in the frontcourt next to Towns to start the season and platooned guards Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie at the four before Juancho finally got his first start in the sixth game of the year.
Juancho struggled mightily in the first six games of the season, averaging just 14.8 minutes, 3.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game on a terrible 26.7/13.3/33.3 shooting split. And then bam, he goes 10-14 (5-of-8 from 3), scores 25 points and grabs eight rebounds in 34 minutes in a seven-point loss to the Denver Nuggets. Shortly after his breakout, Hernangómez was forced to miss 11 games due to COVID health and safety protocols. Upon his return he struggled, falling in and out of the regular rotation for months.
Even Chris Finch didn’t seem to know what to do with Juancho when he took over in February.
Recently, both the Wolves and Hernangómez are seemingly figuring things out at the exact same time. Minnesota is a Buddy Hield 3 away from a five-game winning streak. In that span, Juancho is averaging 12.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 20 minutes per game on a 56.4/36.4/50.0 shooting split. (Dylan says to make your free throws, Juancho.)
Minnesota is outscoring opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions with Juancho on the court and getting outscored by 2.1 points when he sits.
He’s benefiting the most from playing with D’Angelo Russell off the bench. In the last five games, the two have a plus-7.9 net rating in 76 minutes on the court together. Previously, Juancho was normally one of the only shooting threats in a lineup that usually features himself, Culver, Vanderbilt, Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell.
With DLo manipulating the defense, Juancho has more options. He can spot up from beyond the arc and find himself wide open.
Or he can move off the ball where Russell has the ability to find him cutting to the basket.
Juancho has two more seasons left on his deal, but only one is guaranteed. Does he fit into Finch’s future plans for the Timberwolves?
It’s not an easy answer.
The Wolves need any warm body to plug its gaping hole at power forward. If they end up surrendering their top-three protected first-round pick to the Golden State Warriors, they will not have a single pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Minnesota also will have little wiggle room under the salary cap next season. They are just $5 million under next season’s luxury tax but can sign someone using the non-taxpayer mid-level exception of $9.5 million.
Perhaps they can get a team to take on Ricky Rubio’s $17.8 million cap hit. But barring a blockbuster trade or draft lottery miracle, it looks like Juancho might be the best option to be part of a platoon at the 4 again next season. However, Jaden McDaniels is a viable option to supplant Hernangómez soon. The 28th overall pick in the 2020 draft is having a breakout rookie season and looks like a defensive wizard who can handle the ball and knock down spot-up 3s.
Juancho will never be the defensive presence that McDaniels has the potential to be, and his future with the Wolves will live or die by the 3. He’s a career 35.3 percent 3-point shooter. Hernangómez is having a wonky year, but aren’t we all? If he can right the ship and play at his pre-pandemic efficiency, he has a chance to be a nice rotational stretch 4 in Finch’s creative offense for the next few seasons.