‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the Target Center, not a Timberwolf is stirring because five players are in the NBA’s health and safety protocol thanks to the Omicron variant.
It’s a tough holiday season for the NBA, and the Timberwolves haven’t been saved from the long tail of the pandemic. Anthony Edwards, Taurean Prince, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Josh Okogie are all missing games due to COVID protocols, leaving plenty of opportunities for the guys at the end of the bench to prove themselves in the NBA. The Timberwolves are already thin at the power forward position, and with Vando and Prince out for the foreseeable future, things on the front line could get shaky in a hurry. Luckily, Minnesota has a man deep on the bench who has played well in spot minutes all season and deserves more playing time regardless of who is out.
Nathan Knight should be part of the regular rotation going forward.
The second-year forward has only played 59 minutes this season but has excited Timberwolves fans ever since he dominated the summer league. Knight is precisely the type of player the Wolves need to step up in the frontcourt. At 6’10”, 253 lbs., Knight is the second-biggest player on the team behind Karl-Anthony Towns. The 24-year-old brings the beef whenever he steps on the court, something Minnesota badly needs as they rank 24th in rebounding.
In his brief time on the court this season, Knight has shown that he belongs in the NBA. He trails only Vanderbilt on the Timberwolves in rebound percentage. Knight only played in 13 of Minnesota’s first 30 games and is averaging 4.5 points, 2.2 points, and 1.5 rebounds per game.
Those numbers might seem paltry compared to the stats KAT or Vando put up on a nightly basis. But when you begin to look at his numbers per 36 minutes or 100 possessions, you quickly find it’s much closer to a starting caliber power forward. His 23.8 points per 100 possessions are comparable to Naz Reid’s 26.4, while Knight’s 15.6 rebounds per 100 aren’t far from Vanderbilt’s 16.7. Knight’s plus-11.7 on/off-net rating is third on the team behind D’Angelo Russell and Vanderbilt. The Wolves are generally a better team on the rare occasion when Knight gets some run.
Advanced stats are usually favorable to players who don’t see much court time. It’s easy to put up eight points in three minutes here or there to pad things out against another team’s scrubs. But Knight plays with intensity when his name is called and can help Minnesota start to bully other teams in the paint.
Chris Finch will almost certainly increase Knight’s playing time over the holiday stretch while Vanderbilt and Prince remain in the protocols. On Tuesday, he played nearly 13 minutes during Minnesota’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks. The Wolves, like most other teams, are so short-handed that they need all hands on deck for the next few weeks. But when things die down and regular rotation players come back, Knight should still be in consideration for more playing time with a full roster. If that happens, which it should, someone’s playing time will have to be cut.
There are a few options. The first is Prince.
In the offseason, the Wolves acquired Prince and a second-round pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers for Ricky Rubio. Prince was supposed to come in and help the platoon at power forward while providing some outside shooting. Although he’s played better recently, Prince is struggling to find a rhythm this season. He’s shooting only 30.9 percent from three and is too small to be the enforcer Minnesota desperately needs next to Towns and behind Vanderbilt. Prince still has value as a versatile defender, and maybe he’ll find his shot after a few weeks off. But for now, it shouldn’t hurt the Wolves to give a few of Prince’s 15.4 minutes per game to Knight.
Knight can also take whatever spot minutes Jake Layman would get in blowout wins or losses. Jaylen Nowell should begin to gobble up some guard rotation minutes from Jordan McLaughlin and Leandro Bolmaro, leaving the only other option to be to eat frontcourt time from KAT, Naz, Vando, or Jaden McDaniels. That’s not likely to happen as the Wolves will need to exhaust their top eight rotation players (Anthony Edwards, Towns, Russell, Vanderbilt, Beverley, Malik Beasley, McDaniels, and Naz) to push for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. After that, Knight might be the best ninth option the Wolves have right now.
Nobody is saying that a two-way player who has never played more than 26 minutes in an NBA game should all of a sudden play 20-plus minutes per game for a playoff-hopeful team. But Chris Finch should find a consistent 8-to-12 minutes a game for Knight to see what he can bring to the rotation.
Knight has done well with his small opportunities ever since he signed with the Atlanta Hawks last season. Now is the time to reward his efforts with more consistent playing time and see what the kid can do in the big leagues.