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Can Jaylen Nowell Make Wolves’ Primary Bench Scorer Role His Own?

Nowell has hinted at real upside in limited minutes thus far in his career. Can he take on the responsibility of being Minnesota’s spark plug reserve?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves have undergone massive changes in the 2022 offseason, and it’s worth wondering how exactly it will all come together for Minnesota in 2022-23 as they look to build on a promising year. Each week from now until the start of the regular season on October 19, I will be writing about one specific thing for each potential rotation player that I am most intrigued to see in terms of how the team ultimately fits. For the previous story on Jaden McDaniels, click here.

Much has been made of the Minnesota Timberwolves potentially sacrificing depth in this offseason’s trade for Rudy Gobert, but there is also warranted hype that this will still be one of the deepest teams in the league. One line of thinking is that Minnesota was so stocked with talent up and down the roster that remaining players who didn’t have a consistent role last season will be able to step into real bench roles without much of a drop-off.

Jaylen Nowell is perhaps the poster child for this perception. He has repeatedly flashed the scoring chops that got him drafted with the No. 43 pick in 2019, but the rest of his game has prevented him from carving out regular minutes. With Malik Beasley gone, though, the 2018-19 Pac-12 Player of the Year is primed to step in as Minnesota’s bucket-getter off the bench, sicced on opposing reserves with the intent of spark-plug scoring production.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

However, Nowell is a very different player from Beasley; the former is best with the ball in his hands while the latter is a formidable long-range sniper with the versatility to launch while spotting up and flying off screens. How might Nowell leave his mark on this crucial job?

What Nowell Can Do

First and foremost, Nowell is an exceptional pick-and-roll scorer. Out of 132 players with at least 100 PNR ball handler possessions last season, Nowell’s 1.06 points per possession ranked first (!!) per It’s a smaller sample size than the league’s best players, but he is elite when he gets his chances.

Nowell has a very functional and protective handle, which allows him to get to his spots with ease, and possesses the body control that helps one raise up quickly to release over defenders. Here, he is unbothered by San Antonio Spurs big Jakob Poeltl because he jumps almost backward while maintaining his floater alignment.

He also has a surprising amount of burst when he wants to get downhill. He changes speeds well and makes good use of his strides to find the open real estate in the paint.

You can see the effect of his ball and body control in his pull-up scoring, both on the film and in his stats. His 52.8 effective field goal percentage on such shots ranked 15th among 171 players with 100-plus attempts per

The players on either side of him in that ranking are Tyrese Haliburton and Steph Curry, players who are the lead ball handlers on their teams. That bodes well for Nowell’s success in a bench scorer role.

He also shot 41.3% on 46 pull-up 3-point attempts last season. When paired with a solid 38.1% mark on catch-and-shoot attempts, he has an excellent profile as a floor-spacer.

Lastly and most impressively, Nowell does not turn the ball over. He ranks in the 97th percentile in CraftedNBA’s Creation Turnover Percentage stat, which measures turnovers per 100 possessions while taking into account the offensive load a player carries. That indicates his productive game is scalable and he won’t start throwing the ball away willy-nilly with more responsibility.

Nowell is a bit harder to fit into the rotation than Beasley because he needs the ball in his hands to be at his best, a difficult prospect given Minnesota’s offensive talent. But building bench units around his scoring ability and empowering him to control the ball will pay dividends for the Wolves.

What Nowell Can Improve

Nowell doesn’t leave much wanting as a scoring guard, especially with the opportunity he has gotten, but there are areas he can elevate in order to become a true menace.

First, he could improve his free throw rate (FTA/FGA); according to CraftedNBA, his 22.3% mark ranked in the 46th percentile last season. Learning tricks such as when to raise your arms and how to get leverage on the defender in order to draw shooting fouls will cause Nowell’s floor and ceiling as a scorer to skyrocket.

Nowell would also do well to observe Beasley’s movement shooting and start adding that element to his game. Beasley took the third-most FGA off screens in the NBA last season at 150, whereas Nowell only took 22.

This isn’t something Nowell is going to implement overnight. It’s more of a goal for the future that will make him more valuable on his next contract. He did average 1.00 PPP on the play type and his mechanics are pristine, so there’s reason for optimism.

To get a feel for Nowell’s potential as an offensive player, let’s take a peek at his comparisons chart from CraftedNBA. The score on the right indicates how similar Nowell is to each player, where 100 is most similar and 0 is least similar.

Every player is at worst a major threat off the bench and at best a multiple-time All-Star. Nowell shouldn’t be expected to reach the top end of that group; he probably has lower expectations than any of the 10. But he has the archetype of a real difference-maker on that end, and nothing we’ve actually seen indicates he’s unworthy of being trusted with a bigger role.

Nowell clearly has the talent to be a force off the bench. Now, it’s about proving that he can stay productive and efficient with more responsibility — and more attention from the defense. If he can do that, he’ll put his very own stamp on a rising team.

All clips from @WolvesClips on Twitter