As a diehard basketball fan, I often find myself playing armchair coach or general manager. Scheming up fake trades for the Minnesota Timberwolves to make, questioning why the real-life coach is playing one player over another. I mean, seriously, I write twice a week about this team. I’m obsessed.
I’m sure all the other diehards out there can relate. When you pay so much attention to a basketball team, it’s easy to find yourself falling in love with fringe rotation players. You might see some flashes that make you think that a player has some untapped potential that he could unlock were he to get some playing time.
Unfortunately, NBA rotations can’t cater to the desires of the fanbase. Chris Finch started the season playing 11 guys every night, but that strategy had mixed results. Lately, Finch has tightened up the rotations — going only nine deep on some nights. The back end of the rotation is short on two-way players so often that Finch is often faced with the choice between offense or defense. It can be a difficult balance to strike. No two players strike that difficult balance better than Jaylen Nowell and Josh Okogie.
Before the start of the season, I thought that Nowell would find some minutes in the rotation. The roster is a bit short on offensive playmaking beyond the starting lineup, and I’d hoped Nowell’s flashes of microwave scoring could be a viable option. As it stands, he hasn’t developed to the point where Chris Finch sees him as a consistent option off of the bench.
The tricky thing about Nowell is that he’s at his best with the ball in his hands, but putting the ball in his hands takes it out of the best players’ hands. If that’s the case, then the question is whether or not Nowell is good enough to give him the keys. He has only played 96 minutes this season, so there’s not much sample to see how much he’s improved this year nor get a good sense of how Finch wants to use him. However, he played 759 minutes last season, which is a sample size I can work with.
Nowell’s most common play type last year was as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. He’s got a real knack for scoring off the dribble. When he shot out of the pick-and-roll last season, he scored an impressive 1.037 points per possession, which was toward the top of the league in terms of efficiency. But he could only generate 0.873 points per possession when he passed out of that action.
It’s hard to make any sweeping judgments about Nowell’s playmaking skills using points per possession as a pick-and-roll passer. There are a lot of variables. It relies on his teammates making shots, and shooting has a pretty high variance.
Nowell has two clear paths to earning more minutes the way I see it. He’s got to improve his defensive awareness. Finch pulled him after five minutes against the Denver Nuggets because he was struggling on that end. The other route is to improve his spot-up shooting. He only shot 33% in spot-up shooting situations last season. He becomes a much more viable option off the bench if he can contribute offensively without the ball in his hands.
On the other hand, we have Josh Okogie. He has played more than four times the minutes that Nowell has. We all know about Okogie’s ability on the defensive end. He is a defensive playmaker and a spiritual leader of the team. We are also well acquainted with his struggles to score. Beyond his 27.2% 3-point shooting over his career, he has had difficulty scoring at the rim this season. He’s only converting 35% of his shots within three feet of the rim.
One strength of Okogie’s offensive game is his ability to draw fouls. He has consistently found his way to the free-throw line throughout his career. He is leading the Timberwolves in free-throw rate this season. Unfortunately, he’s only converted 50% of his attempts when he gets to the line.
An underrated aspect of Okogie’s game is his ability to crash the offensive glass. He is one of the best wings in the league at grabbing offensive rebounds. He is basically the 6’4” version of Jarred Vanderbilt — a compact car with a V8 engine. Using Cleaning the Glass, Okogie pulls down just about 6% of his teammate’s misses this season, which ranks near the top of the league for his position.
The hope has always been that Okogie would improve as a shooter. His numbers have not been trending toward a vast improvement on that front. I think Okogie’s path to a more stable role on the team is through his ball handling. I’ve always felt that he has more in his bag off the dribble than Minnesota’s coaches have allowed him to show off. When he plays Olympic basketball for the Nigerian team, he is the No. 1 option, and his game completely changes.
I’d like to see if he can show a little bit more juice on the ball. If he can act as more of a tertiary ball-handler instead of an undersized wing/big, he may find more consistent minutes. He doesn’t need to be a primary guy off the bench, but he needs to be attacking the basket to get to the foul line and sinking his free throws. If he can even run a little bit of pick-and-roll, or as the ball handler in other sets, the calculus for Okogie minutes becomes a lot easier.
Any way you slice it, the bench unit for the Wolves has yet to hit its stride. This two-game winning streak helped boost its rating, but the bench still ranks in the bottom half of the league in scoring and net rating. Barring a trade, Finch has still got some tinkering to do. Luckily the season is still young, and there is plenty of time left to experiment.