Let’s be honest — things are dark in Wolves World right now. After a blistering 7-3 start, the team dropped 16 of their next 19 games, including 11 straight that culminated in the most recent disaster against the Golden State Warriors, and are now searching high and low for the good vibes that encompassed the early part of the season.
You would need a cluster of hands to put a finger on every one of the problems dragging down Ryan Saunders’ team. From a free-falling defensive acumen and misshapen offensive scheme to a consistent lack of effort and a rotation that makes no sense on any given night — something’s gotta give.
Most fans are clamoring for trades to shake up this team and add an injection of talent. While that would be warmly welcomed, it’s always hard to swing for a real game-changer in the middle of a season, especially with a roster as bone-dry on assets as the Timberwolves’ is.
One thing the organization can do is succumb to another lost campaign and evaluate some of the youngsters they already have in tow. Who knows, maybe they provide more of a win-now game than some of the underwhelming veterans that currently eat up minutes.
There are currently a few potential-laden kids running around on a nightly basis in Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, but there are two more that arrived in the summer, Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid, that could stand for some experience in the big leagues.
In Nowell’s case, he has received an early Christmas present with rotational minutes over the last three games. It was 15 minutes and 6 points against Denver, 14 minutes and 4 points against Portland and 16 minutes, 6 points and 2 assists in the Warriors debacle. By no means are these mind-blowing numbers, but they represent a reward for the effort the 43rd pick in this year’s draft has put in during his early-season G-League stint.
Down in Iowa, the 6-foot-4 guard has quickly become a talismanic scorer. He is averaging 21.3 points per game and holding a scorching 64.3 true shooting percentage while sprinkling in 5.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists a night. He’s knocking down 44.1 percent of the 6.8 3-pointers he is launching per game and his +5.9 net rating is the third-highest of any Iowa member who has featured in 10 or more games.
Unfortunately, he has been unable to connect on any of the six triples he has jacked in this three-game stretch, but Nowell has a sweet looking stroke that should hit its peak as quick as it has fallen into a valley. He is more than adept at spotting-up and knocking down catch-and-shoot triples, but he can just as easily fire off the dribble. With a pretty advanced handle and a quick trigger, looks like this have been child’s play for him in Iowa.
His shooting numbers in the G-League are fantastic, but Nowell is more of a scorer than a shooter. He prefers to work his man on all three levels and his game isn’t one to be pigeonholed into just a stand-and-deliver role.
In the larvae beginnings of his Wolves career, he has already shown his tendency to get into the paint and mid-range area and use his nose for a bucket to sniff out an easy deuce. Here, he turns Mason Plumlee into a statue before finishing strong with his off-hand.
And here, he punishes the pick-and-roll drop coverage with a silky smooth mid-range jimmy.
He isn’t the perfect playmaker, especially for someone who is the size of most point guards around the league, but Nowell has clearly been a well-known shooter for his entire life and knows exactly how and when to leverage that gravitational pull to find open teammates in better scoring positions. If he can hone in on his playmaking and become a passable combo guard, his ceiling will rise dramatically.
Take these two dimes for an example of his gravity. First, he passes out of the jumper mid-air and finds Jaylen Johnson open and under the rim with a pinpoint pass. Then, he draws the hard close-out, maneuvers past his man and feeds Jordan McLaughlin — whose man was forced to zone onto Nowell — for the with the wide-open triple.
These are skills that are highly translatable to the NBA. They are also skills that the Wolves desperately crave in their offense. So far this season, and particularly in this losing skid, they are completely dearth of shooting and players who can create easy shots for themselves and their teammates. If Nowell can provide those qualities in his current rotational role, he could quickly see his minutes and usage spike. That will become especially true if and when the Timberwolves continue to descend out of playoff contention and feel the need to prioritize youth.
Much like Nowell, Naz Reid oozes youth, potential, and a skill set that could be beneficial to Ryan Saunders and his coaching staff. He is yet to feature in meaningful NBA games, but he is averaging 19.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.8 blocks through 14 G-League starts. He is shooting 50.5 percent from the field, 36 percent on 5.4 3-point shots a night and currently has a +3.0 net rating.
While the numbers are just as impressive, the undrafted center is a very different player to his Iowa Wolves teammate. Reid, all 6-foot-10, 265 lbs of him, plays the quintessential game for a modern big man. With Gorgui Dieng, Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell all having backed up Karl-Anthony Towns this year with varying success, it seems only right that Reid, who has the most intriguing skill set of the quartet, gets a run.
Much like Towns, the 20-year-old has a smooth stroke and the ability to fire long-bombs over any defender. He looks a legitimate threat as a pick-and-pop scorer who can stretch the floor in the way Gersson Rosas envisioned when he instated the five-out offensive system.
His release isn’t as quick as would ideally be, but he looks very comfortable shooting standstill 3-pointers regularly and has even flashed this nasty step-back that people his size shouldn’t be able to unleash.
As is the case with Nowell, Reid’s shooting prowess headlines his potential but it isn’t the part of his game that he uses to dominate right now. The big man is already a handful for defenders when he is chugging that big frame down the lane to the front of the rim or when he is allowed to post or face up single coverage.
He isn’t an uber-athletic big who will jump out of the gym, but he works extremely hard at beating his man down the court and providing a rim-running option for his teammates in transition. That often pays dividends for him by way of easy buckets as his man watches on from behind.
When he isn’t running in transition, he is using that same rim-running mentality to put pressure on the rim in pick-and-roll game. He has good hands, great touch around the cup and, more importantly, the disposition to constantly roll hard and force rim-protectors to keep him in the back of their minds.
Unfortunately, the Wolves don’t have many bigs with that mindset. In the example below, Andrew Wiggins uses his newfound gravity and passing aptitude to serve Vonleh up an easy bucket, but Vonleh and his frontcourt cohorts rarely roll hard enough and with enough intensity to make this a regular occurrence. Reid would flourish in that role and make Wiggins’ and other ball-handlers life a lot easier by forcing defenders to focus on his rim runs.
Defensively, Reid’s impressive stocks (steals + blocks) numbers are less likely to translate to the big leagues. He is still slow-footed and sometimes late to react — two faults that will be exposed exponentially by NBA athletes and scorers. However, he has still gone above and beyond expectations as a rim-protector and continues to show that he might not be a complete liability on the defensive end.
Plays like this should inspire confidence. He stays at home when his matchup spaces out to the perimeter and shows excellent timing and hand-eye coordination to break up the alley-oop attempt.
Even if he is only an average defender at the next level, it shouldn’t be much of a drop-off for the Timberwolves, who have been a defensive disaster thus far. They currently rank 20th in defensive rating — a number that has been free-falling for the entire 11-game losing streak. Much of that comes down to opponents having an open runway to the rim. If they are going to continue to struggle with veterans who are unlikely to be here in the future, it makes no sense not to give Reid a shot and see if he can become one of the key cogs to the next generation.
At this point, every game that Minnesota drops is another giant leap away from the playoffs and competitive basketball. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to get Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid minutes and acclimatize them to NBA basketball.
Who knows, maybe the Wolves will find the latest diamond in the rough.