Minnesota’s Backup Point Guard Needs To Be Himself

Photo Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

With 3:25 left in the first quarter of Game 3 between the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves, Chris Finch subbed Jaylen Nowell in for Mike Conley, with the Wolves leading by one point. At this exact moment, I, one spectator out of 19,536 in Target Center that night, realized that the team had a dire issue they needed to attend to before the start of this season.

At that time, the Wolves were missing key players, such as Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels. Obviously, this led Finch to make some rotational moves. The largest change was using Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the starting five. That took Minnesota’s only true backup point guard option out of the mix. Jordan McLaughlin was sitting on the bench and was available to play, but he became a liability on the floor due to a lingering calf injury. Nowell and Austin Rivers had to tag team to relieve Conley’s 35-year-old legs. The result wasn’t pretty. Minnesota struggled to make the right pass, the offense stagnated, and the team became dependent on keeping the starters in the game.

Adding some point guard depth seemed like it should have been high on Tim Connelly and his staff’s agenda after the Nuggets beat the Timberwolves in five games. We never saw Minnesota fully healthy last season, so making a substantial trade seemed unlikely.

If the Wolves were going to add a backup floor general, it would have to be via the free-agent market, which hasn’t been kind to mid-market teams in cold climates. Names such as Bruce Brown and Donte DiVincenzo popped up as possible suitors, but both players decided to either head to a team that promised more money or a larger market. Ultimately, the team came to terms with someone who wasn’t on the radar of most fans – Shake Milton.

Aside from the draft, Minnesota only brought in two new faces, Milton and Troy Brown Jr., this summer. I know what you may be thinking: Charlie, I thought you said the Wolves needed to add PG depth. Milton may not come to mind as a prototypical point guard. However, his unique build and playstyle are precisely what the Wolves are excited about with their new backup guard.

In an interview with The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski, Connelly spoke on the team’s view of what Shake will bring to the team’s table.

We view Shake as a point guard. He’s started enough NBA games at that position where we feel confident that he can handle that load. He’s a guy that, when given the opportunity, he always produced and produced for good teams. Philadelphia has won as many games as anybody in the last three or four years. So we were excited to get him in. I think it gives us a different look with size at that position, his ability to score around the paint, and his ability to be a good match for our bigs. He can make some of the passes that, at 6-5, 6-6, he’s allowed to make that maybe smaller guards can’t make. So we’re excited about him.

Milton didn’t have a defined role with the Philadelphia 76ers. He would go from getting only three or four minutes in garage time one game to being Philly’s sixth man or sharing the floor next to James Harden the next. When Philadelphia called his number consistently, they primarily asked him to score in bunches. After all, as Connelly said, Milton has some unique size in the backcourt and can easily get to his spots from within the three-point line.

The clip above is from Philly’s 136-131 overtime win against the Atlanta Hawks in early April. The Sixers were resting all their starters as they geared up for the playoffs – opening up a starting role for Milton. Shake answered the bell by tallying a career-high 16 assists that night.

Milton thrives when driving into the painted area. Therefore, the pick-and-roll can be of an advantage. Due to his revolving offensive role in Philly, Milton’s PnR stats aren’t special. He ranked as the 87th most efficient PnR ball handler in the regular season last year. Regardless of what the numbers say, the simple eye test can prove that he knows how to handle himself in those sets very well. Having said that, it’s essential that Milton stays within himself and doesn’t try to change his game that he’s now in a new, more concrete role with the Timberwolves.

“I’m a big fan of his [Shake’s] game; I just want him to go be himself,” said Finch during a training camp media scrum.

He can really get to where he wants to go with the ball. Makes the right play. So far, he’s made the right play all the time. Whether it’s shot, kick out, or late play. Be aggressive and be yourself. We have told him that we would like him to take more threes. He’s a really, really good shooter, but he’s also really good with the ball in his hands. I don’t want him to turn down his threes.

Milton’s experience playing alongside Joel Embiid can be something that he taps back into now that he will likely share the floor with Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns during stretches. Embiid needs to be close to the painted area to be the most effective. Of course, Towns and Gobert are much different players, but learning how not to clog the paint should come more naturally to Milton than other players.

“I think it’s definitely helpful to know how big guys move and where they will be out on the floor,” said Milton when asked about how his experience playing next to Embiid can help him navigate the two-big lineup. “Joel definitely helped me a lot on defense, and I’m sure Rudy and KAT are going to help me a ton on defense, too. You try to stay in front, you try to do the best you can, but if you can try to just funnel into the bigs, sometimes the big will clean up a lot of your mistakes. I’m definitely grateful to have them, and I’m excited to get playing with them.”

Few forecasted the Wolves picking up Shake Milton. However, he has the potential to impact both sides of the ball. Shake will have to adapt to his new team, but if the Wolves want to get the most out of him while running the floor off the bench, they will let him play within himself.

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