The Minnesota Timberwolves have returned to an area of familiarity. They are once again utilizing the end of the bench to remain competitive as the team struggles to stay completely healthy. In some regards, this has been an excellent way to evaluate talent. But this is not a sustainable model of action for a team desperate to win.
It has been nice to see hidden gems like Leandro Bolmaro find their stride in the regular rotation as the injuries pile up. Naz Reid started as an undrafted deep reserve, and Jarred Vanderbilt earned his minutes the hard way. There is value in having this time to evaluate players, especially when there is high upside that may otherwise go unnoticed.
This season is a little different for the Timberwolves regarding their bench talent. The reserve unit has been one of the team’s strengths, and the rotation has been fairly set with little roster turnover from last year. An initial 11-man rotation was smartly cut down to nine before the latest wave of injuries, though that number has started to creep up as Chris Finch is slowly running out of options.
The latest name to resurface as a rotational mainstay has been Josh Okogie. He started the first couple of games for Minnesota before falling out of the rotation in favor of younger and more talented players. While I had initially projected that it would have been hard for Okogie to find minutes this year anyway, he has been a situational gadget piece who has produced mixed results.
Recent injuries to Karl-Anthony Towns, Patrick Beverley, and a bout of the flu for Jaden McDaniels have paved the way for players like Okogie to get playing time. The team knows exactly what they have in him. He is a defensive specialist with well-documented offensive limitations. At times those offensive limitations have been crippling. They have occasionally been made up for by Okogie’s defense, but the lack of consistency hurts the Timberwolves more often than not.
The Okogie experience is consistent with that of a pendulum on a schooner at sea. It is a mixed bag of results that a team with a razor-thin margin for error cannot afford to rely on. The good times are always good, but the bad times are costly.
Okogie has averaged 17 minutes a game off the bench during Minnesota’s two-game losing streak. He scored a total of four points in those games, shot 1-of-4 from the field, and 2-of-4 from the line. Okogie also averaged a box +/- of minus-10. He was minus-11 in DC and minus-9 in Brooklyn. BPM never tells the entire story of a player’s performance, but it has been more of a polarizing experience this year than in years past.
Okogie’s defensive impact this year is almost unmatched. According to Cleaning the Glass, Minnesota is only allowing 98.9 points per 100 possessions when Okogie is on the floor, which is in the 97th percentile of all teams. Opponents are also turning over the ball on 19.9% of their possessions, good for 99th percentile. He is living up to his reputation as a defensive specialist, and that drastic impact goes a long way in helping the Timberwolves maintain their newfound defensive identity.
Conversely, Okogie’s effect on the offensive end has been a direct foil to his defensive prowess. Minnesota is scoring 10.5 points fewer per 100 possessions when he is on the floor, in the eighth percentile. The team’s effective field goal percentage sits at 47.7% (ninth percentile) as teams can completely ignore Okogie on the offensive end. Because Towns has been struggling against double teams this season, it is not in the team’s best interests to allow those two players to share the floor. Towns commands the lion’s share of the minutes when healthy, making it difficult for Okogie to see the floor.
With all of the injuries, Finch has no choice but to sprinkle in Okogie wherever he sees the matchups to be fit. Okogie is still arguably the team’s best 1-on-1 defender, and he will likely be an essential plug-and-play specialist moving forward.
However, his time as a consistent option may cease to exist when the Timberwolves are fully healthy. With an offense that is struggling as much as it has been relative to the dynamic star power it employs, Minnesota can ill-afford to let the offense get any further off-track in favor of some Okogie minutes.