Entering the 2019 NBA Draft, Jaylen Nowell was mostly viewed as a deadeye shooter and nothing more. He was mainly overlooked because most people were focused on his teammate, Matisse Thybulle. Who knows how the Minnesota Timberwolves envisioned Nowell’s future role, but at the 43rd pick, the Timberwolves appear to have gotten a steal.
Nowell has earned significant minutes in the NBA for the first time in his career, and he has made the most of them. Averaging 10.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.4 steals, and 0.3 blocks in only 16.9 minutes per game, Nowell is having a stellar sophomore season.
As so many scouting reports said, Nowell is an impressive sparkplug scorer off the bench. However, Nowell continues to prove that he is so much more than just an off-ball shooter.
This season, Nowell has proven that he is a good outside shooter and can create off the dribble, find open shooters, and play excellent defense. Nowell’s two-way versatility is a welcomed surprise and a much-needed boon for a bench unit devoid of shooting.
Nowell’s original projection as an off-ball shooter wasn’t entirely inaccurate. This season, Nowell is shooting 36.2 percent from three on 3.6 attempts per game. These aren’t elite numbers, but they are good enough that the defense has to respect him. When Nowell does shoot from outside, the odds are high that he will do it off the catch as 36.7 percent of his shot attempts come in these situations. When shooting off the catch from three, Nowell is shooting 37.5 percent and ranks in the 65th percentile in points per possession (PPP) when he spots up, per NBA Stats.
These numbers tell us that Nowell’s initial scouting reports weren’t flat out wrong, but they also illuminate Nowell’s shot selection. Nowell doesn’t force pull-up jumpers from outside. Instead, he picks his spots wisely and reacts to the situation. Nowell hasn’t taken a single three-pointer this season where he has been considered tightly guarded (defender within four feet). That is remarkable discipline from a young score-first guard.
Getting a disciplined and effective shooter in the second round is usually more than a team could hope for. Luckily, Nowell brings so much more to the table.
A lot of players in the NBA are good standstill shooters. The real value comes when teams can put players on the move and not see a drastic drop off in results. An increasingly common action to free up shooters is the dribble handoff (DHO). Suppose the defender goes under the handoff, then the shooter can pull-up without a heavy contest. If the defender stays with their man and chases over, the shooter can easily draw a foul or continue their momentum into the lane.
When Nowell runs through a DHO, he is scoring 1.15 PPP. This number ranks in the 80th percentile in the league. As we can see below, Nowell can punish defenses with this action. After setting up in the corner, Nowell is aided by a Ricky Rubio screen and lackadaisical defense by Collin Sexton. As Nowell receives the handoff, he recognizes that Sexton is lagging and deciding to go under the handoff. Without hesitation, Nowell rises and knocks down the three.
Nowell isn’t reliant on only shooting from outside. He has shown an excellent ability to penetrate the arc and be a versatile scorer. Nowell is put in an almost identical DHO situation like the one we saw above. As Nowell runs off the Jaden McDaniels screen to receive the handoff, he is tightly guarded by Patty Mills. Knowing that Mills is on his heels, Nowell decides to carry his momentum through the handoff and drive. Being the veteran that he is, Mills recognizes Nowell’s decision based on his not slowing down and quickly sneaks under the handoff. Nowell has a very sudden moment of pause as he sees Mills’ decision, but instead of second-guessing himself, Nowell keeps his momentum, shrugs off the smaller defender, and finishes through contact.
This action, while useful, is relatively simple. The beauty of Nowell’s game is that he can also be inserted into more sophisticated sets because of his quickness, off-ball movement, and constant shot readiness.
Here, we see Nowell do precisely that. As Jordan McLaughlin brings the ball up, Naz Reid and Nowell prepare for Horns (two players stationed at the elbow as the ball-handler brings it up through the middle). This offense is commonly used because of its effectiveness and the numerous variations out of it. Nowell goes to set the screen for McLaughlin and is always planning on slipping the screen.
However, since Terance Mann is so tight on McLaughlin and Luke Kennard aggressively hedges too early, Nowell promptly bails out of the screen. As Nowell pivots away, he runs off the backside screen set by Reid, which delays the franticly retreating Mann, and knocks down the three off the catch.
Similar to the DHO action, Nowell is a versatile scorer when he is run off screens. As McLaughlin brings the ball up, Nowell quickly bursts from a casual jog into a sprint off Reid’s screen. Kennard once again makes a questionable defensive decision by going over the screen despite being at the logo. Nowell takes advantage of Kennard’s mistake and eagerly accelerates to the rim. As Nowell gets to the lane, it turns into a two-on-one matchup where Nowell has to get Ivica Zubac to commit one way or the other. Nowell fakes a bounce pass to Jarred Vanderbilt, which Zubac unwisely bites on, and finishes with an uncontested layup.
Nowell being more than just a standstill knockdown shooter is incredibly valuable. It helps create confusion among the defense and allows for a more sophisticated offense. The diversity of Nowell’s off-ball shooting is more than most second-round picks can provide, but this season, Nowell has shown more as an on-ball creator.
This season, Nowell is operating out of the pick-and-roll more (26.6 percent of possessions) than he did last season (17.5 percent of possessions). Nowell’s efficiency has dropped quite a bit from last season (due to volume, role, and who he was playing against), but he has still been highly effective. Nowell is scoring 0.91 PPP out of the pick-and-roll (56th percentile), but the real asset has been his ability to find open shooters.
Nowell’s assist numbers have dropped off substantially this year, but that isn’t due to his lack of passing ability. Instead, it is due to the role he is being asked to play. Per Cleaning the Glass, Nowell has an assist-to-usage ratio of 0.34, ranking in the second percentile. On the surface, this is horrendous. However, last season Nowell had an assist-to-usage ratio of 1.1, which ranked in the 77th percentile.
Nowell is being asked to be a scorer off the bench this season, where last season he had to fill in as more of a backup playmaker at times. While his assist numbers may have dropped off, his passing ability certainly hasn’t.
Here, we see an excellent example of Nowell’s passing vision and comfort level operating the pick-and-roll. As Vanderbilt slips the screen, Nowell uses a slight hesitation dribble. He knows that his initial defender will easily get through the slipped screen, but Nowell focuses on getting Vanderbilt’s defender to commit. After sucking in both defenders, Nowell attacks the lane. This attack forces the defense to enter scramble mode and make a series of rotations. Cedi Osman does an excellent job of staying with Nowell’s initial drive. Knowing he’s been cut off, Nowell decelerates to create space from Osman. As Nowell does so, he sees that JaVale McGee has foolishly rotated away from Naz Reid, a 44 percent corner three-point shooter, to help block a drive that had already been contained. Nowell makes a perfect pass to Reid’s shooting pocket, and Reid knocks down the three.
With a healthy roster, Nowell likely won’t be asked to do much playmaking. When injuries pile up, though, it is a role he can fill. He sees the floor well and rarely forces things that aren’t there. Even as a secondary or tertiary option, Nowell is an excellent playmaking option off the bench.
Nowell’s offensive capabilities should be plenty to be happy with from a second-round pick (give me a second to harness my inner Billy Mays), but wait, there’s more!
Nowell has been a terrific defender. This development is something I did not expect, but he passes the numbers and eye test.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Nowell has a block percentage of 1.1, which ranks in the 83rd percentile. The Timberwolves also allow 10.2 points per possession less when Nowell is on the court vs. when he is off (94th percentile). Finally, when Nowell is on the floor, opponents have an effective field goal percentage that is 7.1 percent lower than when he is off the floor (99th percentile).
If you saw this level of effectiveness coming, then I need you to slide into my DM’s with gambling advice. Sure, these numbers are somewhat skewed by who is on the floor with and against Nowell, but the sample size is large enough at this point to prove Nowell’s effectiveness.
Watching Nowell play defense is oddly similar to how he plays offense. He is very quick, slippery around screens, and has excellent footwork. Nowell is proving that not only can he hold his own, but that he can defend the opposition’s best guards.
Here, Nowell does an excellent job defending Terry Rozier. Rozier initially sprints off two screens to receive the ball at the top of the arc, but Nowell dodges both and stays attached to Rozier’s hip. Rozier then uses an aggressive hesitation (some more old fashioned than me would call it a carry) to lose Nowell. Nowell doesn’t bite, though. Instead, Nowell stays attached to Rozier and doesn’t foul. With limited remaining options, Rozier relies on pure speed to beat Nowell, a decision that works against most defenders. Nowell stays with Rozier the entire way and uses his quick hands to grab the ball once Rozier exposes it on his gather. Nowell rips the ball loose and forces the turnover.
Before we get into this next clip, I need a disclaimer. Nowell does get scored on here, but that’s ok because sometimes good offense beats great defense. The point of this clip isn’t the result; it is everything that leads up to it.
Lou Williams is one of the best scoring guards in the league. Defending him in isolation is no easy task, so it isn’t surprising that Nowell fails to do so here. What Nowell does show, however, is his impeccable footwork and defensive fundamentals. Nowell does an excellent job of staying low in his stance the entire possession. This discipline allows him to move his feet and react to Williams’s moves without losing position. As Williams feigns a drive right, Nowell flips his hips and slides his feet accordingly. Since Nowell is in a low defensive stance, he can quickly flip his hips back as Williams crosses over. Nowell’s feet never cross or get narrower than his shoulders. This movement allows him to contain Williams and get up a heavy contest on a nice shot.
Entering this season, I had zero expectations for Jaylen Nowell. I hoped he could provide some shooting off the bench, but I never expected him to be as productive as he has. His offensive versatility continues to grow, and his defense is a very welcomed surprise. As the weeks go on, the Timberwolves continue to show glimmers of hope among the roster. Jaylen Nowell absolutely should be towards the top of every fan’s list of players to be excited about as he continues his breakout year.