When I wrote last year’s version of this column, I tabbed Austin Rivers as the new role player that would have the biggest impact. And would you look at that? I was kind of right. Rivers had a totally serviceable 52 games as a veteran 3-and-D wing for a 42-win team that got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Since I was right last year, we’re running it back, much like the Minnesota Timberwolves.
A few ground rules before we begin. We’re going to define a star and role player a little differently than the NBA. Adam Silver and his henchmen, I mean executives, have defined an NBA star as a player who has been named to an All-NBA or All-Star team in the previous three seasons. Under those guidelines, Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and Mike Conley would all be considered star players. The rest of the roster are role players. However, we’re going to add a middle tier of too good to be a role player, not quite a star that includes Jaden McDaniels, Naz Reid, and Kyle Anderson.
That leaves Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Shake Milton, Troy Brown Jr., Josh Minott, Leonard Miller, Wendell Moore Jr., Luka Garza, Jaylen Clark, Vit Krejci, and Daishen Nix to choose from. The reality is that most of these guys will be hard-pressed to pop this year with the seven-deep rotation likely gobbling up most of the minutes this season. But the job of the role player is to find a way to positively affect a game or a season with limited playing time.
As much as we want to think that everyone has an equal chance to make the roster, most of the spots are already spoken for. Krejci, Nix, Clark, and Garza all have an uphill battle for the last roster spot. They likely won’t be in a place to battle for consistent minutes beyond a two-way contract this season. Any one of them might have a chance in a game here or there, but nothing sustained enough to win this prestigious award.
If we want to just pick the Austin Rivers carbon copy and run it back for Year 2, the choice here would be Nickeil Alexander-Walker. Coming off a great run to a bronze medal with Team Canada at the FIBA World Cup this summer, NAW is Minnesota’s No. 1 3-and-D guard off the bench. He shot 38 percent from long range last season. He also locked down his cousin and Team Canada teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the Play-In game and started four of the five playoff games with Anderson and McDaniels injured.
Jordan McLaughlin would be the choice for former fan favorite who needs a bounce-back season. JMac had a rough go of it as Minnesota’s backup point guard last season, though. His career in Minnesota may have run its course if he can’t find his jumper and keeps getting every floater blocked.
Troy Brown Jr., Leonard Miller, and Wendell Moore Jr. are likely to find themselves buried on the depth chart behind extremely deep positional groups. Josh Minott popped during summer league, but he will also start the season behind McDaniels and Kyle Anderson at small forward. Still, Minott is versatile enough to make an impact elsewhere.
That leaves Shake Milton as the winner of the second annual role player who will make the biggest impact on the Minnesota Timberwolves award. (Might need to shorten the name to fit it on the trophy.) Milton is coming in with a baked-in role as the de facto backup point guard to Mike Conley. Milton nearly shot 38 percent from three and 3.2 assists as a combo guard in Philadelphia last season.
Hopefully, he’ll bring some much-needed juice to the Wolves’ bench guard rotation that they never quite got from Jaylen Nowell and JMac last season. Milton is the biggest beneficiary of Minnesota’s depth chart. With just the the soon to be 36-year-old Conley ahead of him, Milton has a chance to see big minutes at both guard position. The Wolves will task him with being a primary scorer off the bench.
Minnesota’s season rests on the shoulders of its star players. If Ant, KAT, Gobert, or Conley falter, the whole thing will fall apart and the Wolves will have another disappointing season. There will be opportunities for non-stars to affect the season and endear themselves to Timberwolves fans. Shake Milton has the best opportunity ahead of him to excel in his role and make the biggest impact from the bench this season.