The Minnesota Timberwolves have now won four straight games to climb back to .500 and the eight seed in the West. After scraping by with a depleted roster due to COVID protocols, it is incredibly reassuring to see the Timberwolves get right back on track with very little difficulty. I’ve been saying it all season, but this Timberwolves team feels different. That’s not to say there won’t be another losing streak right around the corner, because given their roller coaster nature there will be one, but I would be stunned if it completely derailed their season like it so easily has done in previous seasons.
First Things First
The Timberwolves have been one of the best first quarter teams in the NBA this season. They are averaging 28.6 points (6th in the league) and a net rating of plus-8.3 (fifth in the league). Recently, the Timberwolves are seeing a massive scoring outburst from one of their stars to start the game as Karl-Anthony Towns (18) and Anthony Edwards (17) have helped give them a significant cushion to start their last two games.
Obviously first quarter leads don’t mean as much as fourth quarter leads. Coming back from large deficits has never been easier, but it is a refreshing change of pace for a Timberwolves team notorious for getting off to slow starts. In their last three seasons, the Timberwolves have ranked 28th (-11.3), 24th (-5.4), and 21st (-3.1) in first quarter net rating.
The Timberwolves have proceeded to blow their fair share of substantial leads this season, but the fact they are coming out of the gate firing and competitive defensively is incredibly encouraging. They aren’t constantly taking their opponents for granted. If this continues, it should put the Timberwolves in the playoffs as only two teams in the last three seasons with a top-10 first quarter net rating missed the playoffs (Both happened last season as the Indiana Pacers still made the play-in as the 9th seed, while the New Orleans Pelicans missed out as the 11th seed).
V8 Shifts Into Another Gear
Against the Houston Rockets on Sunday night, Jarred Vanderbilt set a career high in scoring with 21 points. The energetic forward also collected 19 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks. I won’t go too in-depth on Vanderbilt because I am working on a more comprehensive long form breakdown of his game. However, to not mention him at all would be a dereliction of duty.
Since he isn’t a household name or in a major market with a substantial amount of nationally televised games, it is likely a long shot that Vanderbilt will be included in post season awards. That isn’t for lack of merit, though, as Vanderbilt has earned consideration for an All-Defense team selection and should absolutely be in consideration for Most Improved Player.
The Timberwolves entered the season with a glaring hole at the power forward position. Vanderbilt confidently and succinctly plugged that hole from the start. He is a significant reason why the Timberwolves are a top-10 defense, one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, and force the most turnovers in the league.
What is even more stunning is that Vanderbilt is only 22-years old and has played a total of 127 games. For comparison, Anthony Edwards has played 106 games. That is absurd. I’m not saying they have similar upsides or career trajectories, because they don’t. However, Vanderbilt is often thought of as this finished product, when in reality, we may only be scratching the surface of what he can do.
Sixth Man Applications
Entering the season, this role seemed pretty clear with either Malik Beasley or Patrick Beverley, depending on how Coach Finch decided to proceed with the starting lineup. Beverley has earned the starting spot, so we’ve mostly seen Beasley as the first guard, and player, off the bench for the Timberwolves.
Unfortunately, the Beasley sixth man experience has been underwhelming. Beasley currently is shooting the lowest field goal percentage of his career along with the lowest three-point percentage since his rookie season on a career high in three-point attempts. Additionally, the on/off differentials for Beasley are incredibly unkind as his net rating differential is minus-15 (5th percentile), his offensive rating differential is minus-4.7 (25th percentile), and his defensive rating differential is plus-10.3 (3rd percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. In short, the Timberwolves are getting blown out when Beasley is on the court compared to when he is off.
Still, the hope is that Beasley can turn his poor shooting performance around. However, Jaylen Nowell has made the decision for that role incredibly competitive. Nowell saw only spot minutes early in the season, but due to the COVID absences, Nowell was gifted a bigger role and has taken full advantage of it.
Nowell’s on/off defensive rating differential is only slightly better than Beasley’s at plus-8.6, but his offensive rating differential of plus-3.4 (68th percentile) is significantly better and the best on the team outside of the starting five. Everything Nowell has been doing on offense has had positive effects on the team’s performance.
I’m going to throw a lot of numbers at you, so I apologize, but I think they show how efficiently Nowell is playing. This season, Nowell is scoring 1.214 points per shot attempt (94th percentile), has an assist percentage of 22.2 (73rd percentile), has a turnover percentage of 6.3 (98th percentile), has an eFG% of 58.2 (94th percentile), is shooting 75 percent at the rim (97th percentile), is shooting 49 percent from the mid-range (90th percentile), and is shooting 40 percent from three (82nd percentile). Additionally, Nowell is recording a steal percentage of 1.8 (79th percentile) and a defensive rebounding percentage of 12.9 (89th percentile). Everything Jaylen Nowell is currently doing on the court is resulting in positive effects for the Timberwolves. If he keeps this up, it will be impossible to not give him more minutes.