Just four games into the season, it looks as if Jaylen Nowell could sneak into the Sixth Man of the Year race.
Minnesota Timberwolves fans were hoping the 2018-19 Pac 12 Player of the Year could step into Malik Beasley’s role, and they might get exactly what they’d hoped for.
So, let’s take it game by game and dive into the film.
Wednesday vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Nowell played 18 minutes in the season opener, scoring 13 points on 5/11 shooting. Throughout a game in which Anthony Edwards struggled to score, Nowell provided (efficient) juice off the bench.
After checking into the game when Karl-Anthony Towns was at the free throw line, Nowell made a tough layup off a pass from Edwards on his first possession on the floor.
Shortly after, he caught another pass from Edwards to convert what would be a four-point play.
And at the buzzer, he capped off the quarter with a layup.
That totals eights points in less than three minutes played. Truly lightning in a bottle, which is an incredible luxury to have in your (at least in this game) third guy off the bench.
On a play that was drawn up just for him, Nowell flashed a bit of playmaking ability after the Thunder collapsed on him as he tried to get into the lane. He finds Taurean Prince who pump fakes, sending Josh Giddey to St. Paul, and nails the mid-range jumper.
If Nowell can add some facilitation to the second unit (particularly without D’Angelo Russell), it would do wonders for this team. The question of whether he can play point guard has been thrown around for roughly two years, but simply acting as a solid secondary ball handler would suffice for this team.
Friday vs. Utah Jazz
Again the third guy off the bench behind Kyle Anderson and Jordan McLaughlin, Nowell entered the game with 3:27 left in the first quarter and ended the period with a bucket and two assists.
One of the assists came from a lob to Gobert, another nice bit of playmaking from Nowell.
To cap off the third quarter, he finishes a difficult and-one through a foul by Talen Horton-Tucker.
To start the fourth quarter (in a close game) Chris Finch let Nowell run with the starters, filling in for Edwards in the lineup. Although not drastically telling, it shows Finch is comfortable inserting him into the starting group and having him take the reins of the scoring role with Edwards off the floor.
Nowell finished with an efficient 18 points on 8/14 shooting in 20 minutes played. He also led the team in plus/minus on Friday night at +7, for whatever it’s worth.
The X-Factor for the fourth-year guard is his defense, as it’s been the biggest hurdle to him securing a consistent role thus far in his career. With his scoring abilities well known, becoming an average defender would surely lock him into a full-time rotation spot on just about every team.
Through two games, there were a few instances that showed some improvement on that end of the floor. On this play, Nowell keeps Lauri Markkanen in front of him, effectively switches onto Kelly Olynyk and doesn’t allow him to roll to the rim, and finally, grabs the rebound before Olynyk can get there (and then a nice outlet pass to Russell).
Really encouraging defensive possession from Jaylen Nowell pic.twitter.com/sP4JsKeUOj— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) October 22, 2022
Sunday at Oklahoma City Thunder
In a less efficient effort, particularly from 3-point range, Nowell still scored 14 points in 24 minutes against the Thunder.
He started his scoring by pushing the pace in transition and finishing over the taller Darius Bazley with a nice right-handed hook shot.
Like Russell, Nowell works well with a rolling big in the pick and roll. In the first quarter, he hit a mid-range jumper off a Gobert screen, and drew a foul after attacking the rim off of another.
One thing he did many times in Sunday’s matchup (as well as in the first two games) was bolt up the floor after an opponent’s missed shot or when Minnesota gets a steal. He’s had plenty of transition opportunities so far, and that’s why. Although it doesn’t bode well for the Timberwolves when the opposing team gets an offensive rebound.
(Happens at the very beginning of this clip)
It was a game that featured a few forced and erratic shots from Nowell, which is often what it will look like when his shots don’t fall. He takes difficult shots, and when they don’t go in, they’ll probably look like bad decisions.
Monday vs. San Antonio Spurs
Going to try and keep things brief for this one (really don’t want to watch this game back, once was plenty).
Nowell finished third in the team in scoring Monday night, ending the game with 13 points on 6/16 shooting in 26 minutes played. He tacked on a few more minutes than normal in a game that was out of hand early.
However, right as Nowell entered the game he got a steal and then hit a three on the other end. It wasn’t his most impressive steal (he read Josh Primo’s eyes, but basically threw the ball right to him), but shows he was active as soon as he stepped on the floor.
Once again, he finished with a tough layup near the very end of the quarter.
The second quarter was when things started to get sloppy for Nowell, as he went 1/6 from the field in the period (0/4 from beyond the arc). The third quarter wasn’t much better, as he still struggled to find a rhythm offensively, getting just three of his shot attempts to fall.
Four games in and Nowell has once again put his scoring ability on full display, while generating some optimism about his defensive game. It’s not as if he’s become a lock-down defender, but seeing signs of improvement is a step in the right direction.
Now it’s up to him to continue to defend at the level that keeps him in his current role. Consistency on the defensive side of the ball is what will take him to the next level. He’s proved to be an impact player for the Wolves thus far, providing much-needed sparks in dire offensive situations, but that’s not necessarily new. If Nowell’s defense continues to be (roughly) average, we’ll be able to watch him develop within his Lou Williams-type role off the bench.