Caged birds seldom sing.
For Minnesota Timberwolves combo guard Jaylen Nowell, that had been the case throughout the early stages of his professional career. Instead of being set free to showcase his voice and the flamboyant feathers his game had to offer, Nowell had to pick the lock. He had to do things the hard way. He had to scratch, bite and claw his way into an NBA rotation.
Despite starring at the University of Washington and earning himself PAC-12 Player of the Year honors, the Seattle native had to wait until the 41st selection of the 2019 draft to hear Adam Silver call his name. Then, he came in and soared in the G-League with the Iowa Wolves, averaging 21.1 points a night and standing as one of two players to make at least three 3-pointers per game on at least 43 percent shooting. Still, it wasn’t enough to break free from the captivity that kept him as naught but an end-of-bench guy in the big leagues.
It took until the end of January of this year — over 18 months since he was drafted — before the sweet-shooting guard found himself entrenched in then head coach Ryan Saunders’ rotation. While his inclusion came off the back of a string of injuries, poor form and mounting losses, his continued presence has been the result of consistent flashes of brilliance. Now, with new sideline leader Chris Finch, Nowell has started to blossom even further.
He has broken loose from his cage. He can spread his wings and fly. He can finally sing.
It’s now been 25 games since he became a rotation regular, and boy do those pipes sound sweet. Even with a few subpar outings in the double-header against the Phoenix Suns, he is averaging 10.4 points a game (20.4 per 36 minutes) and shooting 39 percent on the long ball, he consistently flashed a versatile three-level shot-making ability that raises even the most skeptical eyebrow, and the Timberwolves are currently 1.1 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.
Whenever he is questioned about his scoring prowess, the 21-year-old has made it abundantly clear that his scope extends far beyond that of the standstill shooter he was pegged as coming into the league. In fact, he is hitting them at a middling 34.7 percent clip so far this season, despite having shown encouraging signs shooting after running off pindowns and dribble hand-off actions.
Where Nowell thrives as a shooter is his ability to knock down shots off the bounce. It’s traditionally a much harder shot to convert efficiently, especially for young players, which makes it a much more valuable trait within an NBA offense. According to Synergy Sports, Nowell ranks in the 89th percentile on all jump shots coming off the dribble this season, registering 1.10 points per possession (PPP) in those attempts.
In today’s 3-point-heavy NBA, being able to effectively knock down pull-up jumpers is one of the most dangerous weapons in one’s arsenal. Nothing yanks a defensive shell out of position and forces rotations in the same way off-the-bounce shooting does. Not only does it lead to points for the ball-handler themselves, but the shot-making gravity forces defenders to overhelp and creates open and easier to execute passing reads. Here is a perfect how-to guide from Damian Lillard, whose extraordinary shooting skill is an offensive set in of itself.
He isn’t in the same pantheon as Lillard, but Nowell is quietly becoming one of the best budding pull-up shooters the league has to offer. For the 21-year-old, every movement is purpose-driven. From the preparation to the tickle of the twine and everything in between; there is no wasted energy. Even on this sidestep jumper coming off a high pick-and-roll in the left slot — a shot he has become very fond of lately — Nowell’s still teeming exceptional balance and technique. Stunningly, Nowell ranks in the 96th percentile in pick-and-roll possessions ending with a field goal (1.17 PPP).
While the body alignment and footwork leading into his jump shot is exceptional, there is no shooter’s trait more effective than a lightning-quick release — Nowell’s got that entrenched in his bag, and when you possess a quick trigger, it’s deadly for slower-footed defenders who are trying to gain ground to stop rim-attacks. Here’s a 36-year-old Carmelo Anthony learning why you can’t give Nowell space the hard way.
As much as the credit needs to be hurled toward Nowell for taking his opportunity by the horns, just as much needs to go to Finch for recognizing his player’s talents and finding actions that optimize those talents. And when the player involved starts absorbing those sets and making the right counters out of them, the player-coach bond grows stronger and the fruitfulness of said plays increases dramatically.
Finch has been hammering multiple versions of ‘Horns’ offensive sets since he took over as head coach, and they have been a key component of Minnesota’s mid-season offensive rebirth. Horns is typically characterized by two adjacent screeners/dribble hand-off partners standing at or around each elbow, with the ball handler coming up the spine of the court to initiate the play in-between them:
From this set-up, an offense can cycle through many different actions and counteractions with a game, and the one that Finch has taken a liking to when trying to get Nowell is going is a variation of Horns Flare action. This involves Nowell as one of the elbow operators, before popping out behind the arc, using a screen from the other elbow player to help him get open. The impressive thing about Nowell is that he is able to read how the defenders are playing the action and make the right reads to keep the cogs turning and still end with a profitable possession.
Here’s a good example of that intuition combining with Nowell’s off-the-dribble shooting proficiency:
For Nowell, the different components of his shot-making profile work in tandem to create a multi-faceted threat that has become increasingly hard for the opposition to contain. If defenders go under on screens, he can immediately punish them with his aforementioned textbook long-range stroke, but he is just as damaging when the opposition fights over the screen and Nowell can put him on his hip and operate in the mid-range area.
He may have been involved in less than 50 NBA outings, but Nowell navigates around screens like a seasoned veteran. Displaying patience when waiting for the moment to make your move, staying tight around the pick to ensure the defender is impacted by the contact and using the space created to get the maximum value out of the ensuing shot; those are the keys to pick-and-roll success, and that’s what Nowell has exhibited thus far. The ramifications of that gold-standard process is Nowell shooting 40/80 (50%) on mid-range jumpers this season.
Here’s an example of his shot-creation chops at work:
As you can see, Nowell is adept at creating for himself in complex ways out of the pick-and-roll, but it’s important to be able to keep the game simple and capitalize on the advantages that the defense hands out throughout a game. When your name starts to be underlined as a catch-and-shoot threat on the scouting report, inevitably defenders will start closing out on jumpers with a greater sense of urgency; and that’s when dipping a shoulder past and stepping into a pull-up mid-range becomes a viable option. Nowell has become just as comfortable attacking those situations as he is launching the spot-up 3-pointer.
When the defense takes away the opportunity to shoot from deep or get into his mid-range sweet spot, Nowell applies the same scorer’s mentality to getting to the rim, although he hasn’t quite reached the same levels of efficiency that he has with his jump shot. The former Husky has consistently flashed his silky touch on shots close to the basket and the craftiness to get there, but his lack of strength and size relative to the tall timber that is camped around the rim hurts his efficiency on a play-by-play basis.
According to Basketball Index, Nowell ranks in the 55th percentile in terms of getting to the rim and finding a shot, but he grades out in just the 19th percentile when it comes to converting those looks. Overall, he is knocking down 55 percent of his field goal attempts at the rim. Listed at 200 pounds, the second-year guard has yet to develop the strength to withstand the crash-and-bash nature of an NBA rim-attacker. At times, he has to rely too heavily on weaving around traffic and attempting to finish high-difficulty shots. Sure, he has displayed a knack for getting them to fall, but they’re never going to drop at a high enough clip to make them a good shot.
Still, there are flashes of what could lie ahead for Nowell as a downhill finisher as his body, handle, and experience blossom. It’s easy to forget how long it takes many players to get a true foothold in the crevices of the big leagues and, while he is technically in his second season, Nowell has played less than a full season’s worth of games and, thanks to the COVID-19 situation, he didn’t have the extended training camp or Summer League to hone his game like most in his position would.
One thing Nowell does do very well already is use his change of pace to create advantages. He is no slouch athletically, but he isn’t the mind-blowing athlete that can skate by on that alone. He needs to find ways to wrench rim-protectors out of position and generate easier looks for himself. His handle will need to improve to do that more regularly, but for now, he can definitely freeze some lumbering bigs with hesitation moves and pace variations.
Again, this move intertwines with his pull-up shooting adroitness. Kristaps Porzingis has to take a step away from the rim to try and nullify the mid-range threat, and the stutter-step hesitation move cements the Dallas Mavericks big man’s feet for just long enough for Nowell to get his shoulder past him and get an angle on the rim.
There is no doubt that there is plenty of avenue for growth in Nowell’s at-rim game, and considering his advanced technique in virtually all other facets of scoring, he should be able to grow without sacrificing playing time in Finch’s system. He already packs multiple NBA-ready tools in his belt and that should keep him on the court as a sharp-shooting spark plug as he irons out the kinks that remain in his scoring package.
With any young player, there are going to be inconsistencies. For all of Nowell’s impressive film and numbers, he still has games where he can go missing or he doesn’t make enough of an impact. That will need to improve over time if he wants to continue to see his minutes trend upwards, but he has an entire career ahead of him. For now, just breaking free from his cage, spreading his wings and singing loudly enough for the broader NBA community to start to hear him is a huge step.