The Minnesota Timberwolves are off to a blazing 2-0 start in the preseason despite the absence of superstar forward Karl-Anthony Towns, who is recovering from an illness that sidelined him during the first week of training camp.
While you can point to availability factors, such as the Miami Heat sitting Jimmy Butler on Tuesday, or LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook on the bench in their Las Vegas best on Thursday night, better indicators of their preseason success are their rather staggering depth and incredible proclivity for pushing the pace in transition.
Head coach Chris Finch’s group won the fast break battle 30-5 over the Heat in their first preseason outing before turning in 25 transition points to the Los Angeles Lakers’ 13. Minnesota was one of three teams to score at least 30 points on the break in multiple games last season, and is well-positioned to do that once again in 2022-23.
Now, let’s take a look at which players are making the most of their preseason and those who are looking for better results in the team’s final three exhibition matchups.
Stock Up: Anthony Edwards
The Atlanta native wasted no time picking up where he left off in a historic 2022 NBA postseason, where he became the highest scoring 20-year-old in a single playoff run in NBA history.
Edwards told reporters last week that he spent time this offseason focusing on strengthening his knees (and legs as a whole) in aim of rendering the fatigue and knee issues he experienced last season a thing of the past. That renewed explosiveness and agility popped with the ball in his hands, and the former No. 1 pick made advanced takes to the rim look effortless.
Following the end of last season, Edwards said he wanted to improve his mid-range game so he could be more of a weapon coming off screens. There’s no doubt that the Wolves will look to get him going downhill in high-leverage moments; Edwards has made sure fans know he put in the effort on his middy game this offseason.
He combined those two elements of his game, plus his smooth 3-point release, to score 24 points on 9/15 shooting in just 23 minutes against the Heat, then followed that up by once again playing 23 minutes, and connecting on 5/12 fires for 13 points against the Lakers.
Stock Down: Naz Reid
Now that the Wolves employ both Gobert and Towns, Reid figures to only enter the center rotation if one of his All-NBA teammates are in foul trouble. We know what Reid is at this point as a center; he’s undersized and struggles with bigger 5s, has the quickness to get by them on the drive, and often finds himself picking up quick fouls that send him back to the bench.
Reid put many of these concerns on display in the first preseason game against the Heat when he started at the 5 in place of Gobert. The officials whistled him for two fouls in the first three minutes of the game before Reid picked up his third foul at the 4:22 mark of the first quarter. Fouls prevented him from finding a rhythm, as he finished with nine points, four rebounds, five fouls and two turnovers across 18 minutes, in which Reid registered a team-worst -8.
He has worked this offseason to improve his skills as a 4 given the context of how minutes will be dolled out, so Finch and Co. started Reid on Thursday in place of Towns with the other four projected opening night starters on.
It did not go well.
While the fourth-year big man from LSU made some strong defensive plays, he had a tendency to over-help, come up out of his stance, and it resulted in getting beat for buckets, teammates having to foul, or the Wolves lucking out on some missed buckets.
Naz certainly has the ability to defend at a high level in stretches, as he has proven he can throughout his first three seasons in Minnesota. However, he must become more consistent both as a 4 and a 5 if he wants to find regular minutes in Finch’s rotation.
Stock Up: Bryn Forbes
The second of the Wolves’ Denver Nuggets imports has come out firing and raised some eyebrows in the process. Forbes scored 22 points on 7/13 shooting across 31 minutes in the team’s first two preseason contests, in which he is a combined +19.
The former Michigan State star joined forces with DeMarcus Cousins in the Mile High City last year to create a formidable offensive punch off the bunch, and is looking the part alongside Rudy Gobert so far.
Gobert has stated he prefers to play in three shorter first-half stints rather than two, which means he figures to play out there with Forbes a good amount when the sharpshooter is on the floor. Forbes is excellent coming off screens and can get downhill coming around dribble hand-offs (DHOs) before elevating in the mid-range for a jumper or floater.
While Forbes isn’t likely to push or overtake Jaylen Nowell for the backup 2-guard spot, he is the most obvious candidate to fill the shooting specialist role Malik Beasley played while Beasley was a Timberwolf — and will be paid ~15% of what Minnesota paid Beasley last season.
Stock Down: Austin Rivers
Coming into training camp, the Timberwolves expected Rivers, President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly’s other back-court addition from Denver, to push the incumbent Nowell for that backup 2-guard spot, but it hasn’t materialized so far in the preseason.
Rivers struggled to find the bottom of the net in Minnesota’s first exhibition game, shooting 0/6 in 21 minutes, before getting a couple shots to go down in a five-point performance against the Lakers.
While his offense hasn’t been there, Rivers hasn’t let it impact his defense, which is nice to see. The 10-year veteran has spoken throughout training camp about how the team realizes its potential, but can’t unlock it unless everyone buys into their role and is rooting for their teammates to succeed, regardless of what that means for their minutes.
The former Duke star is committed to being a positive veteran presence on the court and in the locker room, something this team needs with Patrick Beverley now in Utah. Rivers has also profusely praised Finch throughout camp; that means something coming from a vet on his seventh team who not only played for several different head coaches in his first 10 years, but also grew up living with one. Although Rivers’ preseason play is not his best, I would be surprised to see Finch invest too much into a slow start from a guy with a years-long track record of success as a role player.
Stock Up: Jaylen Nowell
Nobody other than D’Angelo Russell has more riding on his performance this season than Nowell. And to his credit, Nowell looked excellent in his first two opportunities to showcase the strides he made this offseason.
Against the Heat, Nowell started in place of Russell and put together a sharp performance. The former Pac-12 Player of the Year scored 14 points on an efficient 6/11 shooting night (4/6 2-point, 2/5 3-point) over 23 minutes, in which he registered a solid +11. He followed that up on Thursday with a 13-point outing across 15 minutes in a victorious rout.
Wolves fans are well-accustomed to Nowell’s three-level scoring prowess, but as our Aidan Berg wrote about yesterday, the microwave scorer needs to get to the free throw line more if he wants to maximize his scoring potential. Nowell did so against the Lakers, getting to the line five times.
Nowell —who has only recorded one assist in the preseason — will need to add more playmaking to his game this season, especially on nights when he isn’t scoring at rate he is capable of. However, I wouldn’t say he has missed many playmaking reads so far. As you can see in the clips above, Nowell’s confidence shines through when he receives a ball screen or can get downhill off a DHO. While he certainly possesses a score-first mentality, Nowell is a willing passer and as defenses progress to take away his scoring in the mid-range I’d expect him to grow as a passer.
Next up for the Wolves is a date with the Los Angeles Clippers on the West Coast, which calls for a 9:30 PM CT tip. Fans can watch the game on Bally Sports North — new play-by-play voice Michael Grady’s debut alongside longtime analyst Jim Petersen.