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What Can We Learn About the Timberwolves’ Back-Court Rotation from Preseason?

Despite it being preseason, there are a few crumbs for us to collect regarding Chris Finch’s plan for the back-court.

Minnesota Timberwolves Open Practice and Scrimmage Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Three preseason games in and there’s a few things we know for sure: Jaylen Nowell retained his bucket-getting skills this summer; Bryn Forbes is, in fact, lights out from deep; and Jordan McLaughlin is as crafty as ever.

The back-court rotation is still a bit up in the air for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as recently-signed veterans Forbes and Austin Rivers have played similar minutes as Nowell, meaning we still might have to wait to see the 2018-19 Pac-12 Player of the Year secure a consistent role.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Even as a Jaylen Nowell Believer™, I understand there’s a reason he’s perpetually fighting for a spot in the rotation. Despite his incredibly deep offensive bag, his play on the other end of the floor is a work in progress.

Malik Beasley surely wasn’t a lockdown defender during his time in Minnesota, but with improvement and effort he became a relatively neutral defender. It’s possible Nowell could become a more (or just as) potent offensive threat than Beasley in due time, but with his defensive deficiencies, it’s difficult to give him enough minutes to truly shine.

However, with the three-time Defensive Player of the Year now in the mix, Chris Finch might just be able to let the former Husky off the leash.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Beasley’s departure leaves a hole on Minnesota’s bench, one that ushered in Forbes and Rivers. The latter enters as a 10-year NBA veteran, theoretically filling the Patrick Beverley role by providing veteran leadership and point-of-attack defense. Forbes provides floor spacing, as he’s a career 41% shooter from 3-point range. He’s also an NBA Champion, winning the 2021 title alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

Thus far, it seems as if Finch has welcomed some healthy competition for Beasley’s rotation spot. Nowell got the starting nod in the first preseason game against the Miami Heat, scoring 14 points on 6/11 shooting in 23 minutes played, while Forbes caught fire off the bench, scoring 14 points on 4/6 shooting (2/3 from deep), and Rivers didn’t provide quite the same offensive input, shooting 0-6 from the field. It’s not expected that Rivers provide a Nowell or Forbes-type spark on offense, though, as his defense has become his strength.

The subsequent pair of games have given similar takeaways from Nowell and Forbes, with improved offensive play from Rivers. The former Duke star shot a combined 5/10 in games against the Lakers and Clippers.

At point guard, McLaughlin is picking up right where he left off. It’s been clear for a while now that Finch loves to give the USC alum minutes, and it seems as if J-Mac has all but locked up the backup point guard role. It was his role to lose after trading Beverley, and there seems to be zero concern about McLaughlin being one of the first guys off the bench.

Through three games, McLaughlin has 17 assists, six steals, is a combined +20, and has scored 13 points, which is a great representation of what he brings to the table: the extra stuff. With plenty of scoring talent on this roster, it’s going to be so much fun to watch J-Mac thrive in his “extra stuff” role.

Forbes, Rivers, Nowell and McLaughlin have seen plenty of minutes in preseason, but C.J. Elleby, P.J. Dozier, and A.J. Lawson haven’t been given much run in the Wolves’ first three games. Elleby’s played just nine minutes so far, not making much of an offensive impact. However, the expectations for Elleby are similar to Rivers’, meaning he can focus on providing defensive intensity and versatility, something that could prove valuable for a group without Beverley.

A similar set of expectations are there for Dozier, who hasn’t played yet in the preseason. The former Nugget is coming off an ACL tear, but is now fully healthy. His size (6-foot-6, 205 pounds, seven-foot wingspan) and athleticism theoretically slot it well in Minnesota’s backcourt rotation.

Both Elleby and Dozier signed Exhibit 10 contracts, meaning they can be converted to NBA contracts or two-way deals (if Eric Paschall and Lawson don’t retain those spots), or they can be waived and likely kept as members of the Iowa Wolves.

Lawson showed out in summer league for the Dallas Mavericks, flashing explosive scoring ability and knockdown shooting. He played 16 minutes combined in the first two preseason games, shooting 2/5 from the field and making one of his two 3-point attempts.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Tim Connelly has gathered an interesting group to fill a bench spot (or a few), and through three games Nowell has proven that he deserves a spot, while Forbes has put his shooting ability on full display.

As for Rivers, Lawson, Elleby and Dozier, the competition will continue. Rivers’ contract is partially guaranteed, meaning he’s not a lock to make the final roster. Dozier and Elleby (and Rivers, too) could really help the Wolves’ perimeter defense, making each of them valuable theoretical additions to the final roster.

Regardless of how the final roster ends up, the front office has done a good job of throwing a bit of everything at the board and seeing what sticks. Because of that, the Wolves have some solid options to round out the rotation.