Timberwolves

Jaylen Nowell Must Step Up With Towns Out

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is a make-or-miss league, and so far this season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have done their fair share of missing. The Wolves are a disappointing 12-12 through 24 games, with the NBA’s 17th-best offense while shooting only 32.7 percent from three, good for 26th in the league. A lot has been made about how the addition of Rudy Gobert hasn’t discernibly improved Minnesota’s defense, but the offense is equally to blame for the team’s slow start. And now, with Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a month with a calf strain, someone will need to gobble up his nearly 21 points per game. Anthony Edwards will undoubtedly take on extra responsibilities as the lead scorer, and D’Angelo Russell’s scoring should tick up a bit. Still, the Wolves need another scorer to keep the offense afloat when Ant and DLo sit.

Jaylen Nowell needs to become Minnesota’s third go-to scorer more consistently. Nowell has been a bucket ever since the Timberwolves drafted him in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft. They brought him along slowly; he played only 10 minutes a game and made only 15 appearances in his first season. He had bouts of falling out of the lineup but turned himself into a reliable eighth or ninth man off the bench to score a few baskets while the starters rested. But ever since Tim Connelly raided Minnesota’s depth to trade for Gobert, Nowell has rocketed up the depth chart and is expected to be a daily contributor.

Nowell started the season looking like a guy gunning for a big-ass contract when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer. In the first five games of the season, Nowell averaged 16.2 points per game in just under 22 minutes a night. The Wolves were 3-2, he was about to secure a huge bag, basketball was still fun, and Wolves fans were showering him with sixth-man of the year chants in November.

But the next month was a very different story for Nowell and the Wolves. Nowell hit a slump, and his standing in the rotation began to diminish. He averaged just over seven points per game on a putrid 36/23/77 shooting split while the Wolves puked away a few winnable games and somehow won five straight to end up a perfectly average 7-7 during the stretch. Nowell’s consistent play was nowhere to be found. The basketball stopped going through the hoop. He was lighting millions of dollars on fire. But what looked like the old routine of jerking Nowell in and out of the lineup on a nightly basis has turned into Nowell’s opportunity to finally show the NBA his true value.

Nowell is averaging a robust 19.6 points in his last five games while shooting 46 percent from deep in 26 minutes per game. In the three games the Wolves have played without Towns, Nowell has stepped up and dropped 24 points in an emotional win against the Memphis Grizzlies. He also had 21 points in a lackluster loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder and 14 in a see-saw battle with the inferior Indiana Pacers. All his scoring has come off the bench because Chris Finch elected to start rookie Wendell Moore Jr. over Nowell against the Grizzlies and Thunder with Jaden McDaniels out. It was an odd choice designed to keep Nowell’s scoring punch aligned with a bench unit that struggles to generate offense, scoring just 33.6 points per game.

Nowell creates his own offense, something nobody else on the Wolves’ bench is capable of. He’s third on the team behind Edwards and Russell, with just under half his field goals unassisted. He’s Minnesota’s best pull-up shooter and is one of its better pick-and-roll operators. He’s shown so many flashes of becoming the archetypal third guard in the mold of Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams before him. A microwave scorer who can keep defenses on their toes and teammates engaged when the starters are on the bench.

You hate to say it, but the defense should be just fine in Towns’ absence. However, the offense will need Nowell’s production to keep up in a deep, if unspectacular, Western Conference. The Wolves are currently out of the play-in tournament in 11th place but find themselves only two games behind the Denver Nuggets for fourth place and only four games out of the top spot in the conference. For as disappointing as this season has already been, to only be a few games out of first is nuts. Minnesota’s upcoming schedule while Towns is sidelined is mostly winnable games as well, with only a Dec. 23 tilt against the Boston Celtics and a Dec. 30 road game against the Milwaukee Bucks as the only games for the next month that should be near automatic losses.

With the Timberwolves, it’s far too easy to get cocky and then watch them turn in a 4-11 stretch real fast. But with the emergence of a secondary scorer to complement Ant and DLo, Nowell will be a big reason for either keeping the Timberwolves in the playoff hunt or watching Utah make a high pick in their honor.

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Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

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