It hasn’t always been easy to envision where Jaylen Nowell fits in.
A 6’4” second-round pick out of the University of Washington, Nowell came into the league with a solid set of scoring instincts, good mobility and a solid stroke from outside. All NBA-necessary skills for an off-guard.
It’s been an up-and-down season for him, both in terms of minutes and production. He started the year out of the rotation, but between a series of injuries health and safety protocols, he’s seen those minutes go up.
The last six games, he’s seen an uptick in minutes — up to 24.1 per game — and is putting up 14.7 points on 49.8/46.4/77.8 splits. Not shockingly, his usage has increased significantly, and he currently has the best on/off net rating for any non-regular starter on the team — albeit at a -2.3 — according to Cleaning The Glass.
We’re not consistently seeing production that convinces us he’s “arrived,” but there’s plenty to like.
Monday night, he dropped a career-high 29 points. What came to light through that game is layered, but one thing shone through: Greg Monroe had no idea who the hell Jaylen Nowell was.
Greg Monroe when asked if he knows who all of his teammates are:— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) December 28, 2021
"Not gonna lie, Jaylen Nowell played awesome tonight, but I had no idea who that was."
Nowell has looked like a guy that belongs in an NBA rotation this season, and his resume leading up to these moments suggests he’s had that ability all along.
But sometimes, guys who can score in college don’t always see that translate to the next level. Sure, you’ve got a good handle, stroke, and can put up 20-plus against Stanford — but what happens when you have Jaylen Brown checking you? Or, in non-COVID times, Marcus Smart?
For some players, that’s what ends up happening. Even looking strictly at the history of the Minnesota Timberwolves, you can find some examples.
In 2005, Rashad McCants finished second in scoring for the eventual national champion North Carolina Tar Heels. He shot over six 3s per game in college at a 42 percent clip — this led to him being picked by Minnesota in the lottery, only for him to fall out of the league in less than five years.
That same year, Bracey Wright, who led the Big Ten in scoring in 2005, has a similar build to Nowell and had a similar skillset. He was drafted 47th overall in 2005 (Nowell was drafted 43rd) on the upside of his scoring ability and natural handle.
After leading the then-D League in scoring (in its inaugural year), he managed just 26 total NBA games before beginning a respectable overseas career.
Unless you’re there watching practice every day, it’s been nearly impossible to get a good gauge for Nowell’s development through his first two seasons and change. We finally got to see glimpses of him a season ago, from late January onward, only to see mixed success.
We got 42 games of Nowell last year, and got a mixed bag of success. He shot just 33.5 percent from deep, and the only spot on the floor he saw real success from deep were on the corners.
From the slot and the top of the key, which made up nearly 80 percent of his attempted 3s he shot a brutal 30.1 percent. His paint production wasn’t much better, including shots right at the rim.
This year, Nowell is at or above league average in every slot from deep, and has improved at the rim and even from mid-range. Simply put: He’s hitting shots, and lately, is doing so in big moments.
(stats and shot charts are up to date through Monday night)
So, what’s changed?
A big part of it, simply, is putting in catch-and-shoot buckets. According to NBA.com/stats, Nowell shot 38 percent and 32 percent from deep on catch-and-shoot attempts. This year, he’s up to 48.3 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from 3 in those same spots.
But he’s also taking fewer of those shots — catch-and shoots made just over a third of his shots last season, and make up just over a quarter of them so far this year. Instead, we’re seeing more one or two-dribble pull-ups before taking his shots. That small adjustment is giving Nowell more time to make a calculated decision, and it’s improving his productivity.
Several of them are resulting in shots at the paint — he’s finishing at a higher clip inside this year — but he’s also more productive from mid-range this year. He’s learning to use his body to create separation as he gets ready to pull up, and while it’s still new, it’s becoming a more frequent part of his game.
All of this leads to one important detail — he’s making decisions quickly and decisively this season. According to NBA.com/stats, nearly two-thirds (61.5 percent) of his shot attempts happen with two dribbles or less, and he’s shooting well over 60 percent from the field on those shots. The shots when he gets into an isolation situation are often when he gets stuck.
He shoots 35.4 percent from the field when he takes 3-6 dribbles, and just 25 percent when it’s seven dribbles or more (which is a not small 15.4 percent of his shot attempts). When he’s in rhythm, he’s been on-point. But when some form of offense isn’t presented to him, and he’s forced to create something out of nothing, that’s when he gets stuck.
As long as the Wolves continue to have open spots in the rotation, especially to the degree that we’ve seen around the holidays, it might force Nowell to take more shots that he (and Chris Finch) would normally rather not take. But as the lineup begins to return to normal, the hope is that Nowell can get back to what he’s doing well, and what he’s improved on.
Will his spot in the rotation be there when he gets back, when Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Patrick Beverley return to their regular slots? Probably not. As long as Malik Beasley holds his spot in the rotation, regular minutes might be hard to come by for Nowell.
But Nowell’s recent play has delivered some good news. The Wolves have some real depth, and when the Wolves need him to deliver, he’s figured out a way to make that happen.
If nothing else, and unlike some of his predecessors, he’s learning how to make a name for himself at this level.