Sunday’s showdown against the Cleveland Cavaliers was the bounce-back game that the Minnesota Timberwolves desperately needed. Shortly before the game, it was announced that the Cavs would be without Jarrett Allen and Donovan Mitchell. That was welcome news for the Wolves. Still, even with those two out, a win in Cleveland was far from guaranteed.
D’Angelo Russell had his best game of the season. Just as Timberwolves fans’ dissatisfaction with DLo was beginning to reach its peak, he reached deep in his bag to lead the Wolves to a narrow victory. But buried beneath DLo’s epic performance was another quiet night by Jaylen Nowell.
Nowell started the season well, using his 22 minutes per game to average 16.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, and two assists through Minnesota’s first five contests. But after the hot start to the year, Nowell hit a few bumps in the road, and his efficiency declined. Since Oct. 28, he has played only 16 minutes per game while shooting 35% from the field. During this stretch, the Wolves have posted a 3-6 record and looked severely disappointing.
Certainly, Minnesota’s struggles don’t lie very heavily on Nowell’s shoulders, but his inconsistencies have made things more challenging for Chris Finch to give him regular minutes. That has to be discouraging for Finch, who spoke glowingly about Nowell for much of the offseason. DLo won’t be able to score 30 every night, so Nowell’s microwave scoring off the bench will be paramount to the Wolves’ continued success.
Nowell’s struggles remind me a lot of how Malik Beasley started last season. Beasley finished the season as a primary option off the Wolves’ bench, and, ideally, Nowell will be able to match that production. Below is how Beasley started the year through 14 games compared to Nowell. Note that the Wolves were 5-9 after 14 games last season. Game 14 was a 10-point victory against the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 17, which would spark Minnesota’s five-game win streak.
These numbers show the main difference between Nowell and Beasley: Jaylen Nowell needs the ball to be effective. Though their 3-point efficiency was similar at the start of the season, Beasley was a catapult. Last season, he made a league-leading 197 3-pointers off the catch. Nowell only took 114 catch-and-shoot threes.
What Nowell has that Malik didn’t last season is an impressive ability to create off of a live dribble. Nowell has a diverse offensive skillset that can bring more dynamism to the Wolves bench when he’s cooking. The problem is that his play style requires a higher usage rate. With the ball in his hands more often, his inefficiency is felt more greatly than Beasley’s struggle to start last season.
Beasley’s ability to shoot quickly and on the move made defenses adapt to his game, whether the shot was falling or not. And he didn’t have to touch the ball for very long to have that impact. Beasley’s average time of possession was 1.98 seconds on last year’s Wolves. Currently, Nowell is averaging 3.1 seconds per touch. He has the ball in his hands much more often than Beasley. His inefficiencies take more time off the clock without providing the off-ball gravity that is so key to Beasley’s game.
But Nowell doesn’t have to be like Beasley to be an impact player. With his skillset, he could become an incredibly valuable player for the Wolves. High-volume second-unit scorers are highly sought after in the NBA. He’s got the ability to attack the basket, can score from floater range, and has an impressive ability to pull up from deep off the dribble. Nowell has flashed the ability to carry the scoring load on the second unit but has never put together a significant stretch of games in which he could do so consistently.
We know DLo won’t have a scoring outburst as he did on Sunday every night. Anthony Edwards has also been up and down since the start of the season. The Timberwolves need Jaylen Nowell’s self-creation ability to help carry the load on their offense which has been subpar to start the season. The Wolves’ offense ranks 18th in the NBA, but if Nowell can become the second-unit scorer that he’s shown flashes of, that could steadily rise.