Anytime a star player goes down with an injury, you learn a lot about the rest of the roster as they’re given more responsibility. That’s true for any team, but it’s especially true for a team that hopes to contend and make a deep playoff run, that also contains awkward fitting players. You get a glimpse of how different styles of play impact different players, as well as a better idea of what exactly your reserves are capable of.
That’s been the case for the Minnesota Timberwolves since Karl-Anthony Towns went down in late November with a calf strain. They’ve learned a lot in just that month. Some of it’s been good, some of it’s been bad, and some of it’s in the eye of the beholder. Let’s go through all of it, starting with the one thing that should’ve been obvious before any of this transpired anyways.
This should’ve always been obvious
Stop trying to trade Karl-Anthony Towns
After KAT got hurt, the Wolves won three of their first four games, including an awesome, gritty win against the Memphis Grizzlies. Predictably, the (small, but obnoxiously loud) contingent of Wolves fans who think this franchise would be better off without Towns saw an opportunity to puff their chests.
Well, the Wolves are 3-7 in the 10 games following that mini-spurt. The only teams with a worse record than them over that time period are the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, and Toronto Raptors. So much for the “better without KAT” stuff, I guess.
It was always silly to suggest this team would be better off without their best, most consistent player, but what has become painfully obvious is how much important he is to the team offense. Anthony Edwards has learned to handle double teams better over this stretch (we’ll get to Ant), but you know what even makes it possible to double Ant? Without Towns, the Wolves just don’t have another offensive piece that teams really fear. D’Angelo Russell has very high peaks as a shooter, but opponents know that a 6-for-6 quarter or half is oftentimes followed by an 0-for-8 one. That’s just how he is. Ant appears to have leveled up, now let’s imagine that version of Ant on offense without navigating double teams on a regular basis.
Aside from that, I want to make it very clear that it seems like it is a possibility that, eventually, trading Towns will be on the table. If the partnership with Rudy Gobert doesn’t work, Towns is the player that holds the most trade value (wonder why?) that wouldn’t entirely dig the franchise into a deeper hole. Make no mistake, though, if the Gobert trade ends with a Towns trade, this entire thing was a massive failure from the start.
Anthony Edwards taking a mini-leap
The beginning to Anthony Edwards’ third NBA season was frustrating. He didn’t look like he was having fun, and he didn’t have the same burst that we’d grown accustomed to seeing in his first two seasons. Particularly, he seemed so unhappy that a pre-game get together with his college coach Tom Crean became headline news in the Twin Cities.
the moment that saved the Timberwolves season pic.twitter.com/hyJZBR0uaW— mike o’hagan (@mikleohagan) November 17, 2022
Anyways, he looks like Ant again. He’s dunking on everyone, he’s hitting his threes, he’s hitting ... basically everything in general. He’s at 24.9/6.3/5.5 with a .572 TS% since Towns went down. The biggest development is that he looks capable of handling additional playmaking duties. The 5.5 assists per game he’s averaged without Towns is where Ant needs to be.
It’s premature at this point to say he’s made “the leap” that we all obsess over, but he’s a better player now than he was a year ago. There’s improvement in several area, and his rebounding and passing are the two things that need to continue on this path even once the team is fully healthy. A 25/6/5 version of Ant might not look markedly different than 25/4/4, but it makes a huge difference for this team on both ends of the floor.
He still doesn’t make perfect reads all the time, but the point is, we’ve seen him tasked with doing more, and he’s mostly been up to the challenge. Exactly how high his ceiling is is up for debate, but the improved playmaking makes me believe more in the upper bounds than I previously did.
Jaden McDaniels, good at basketball
The other positive development, which has kind of just been a continuation of his whole season, is that Jaden McDaniels is just a good basketball player. It’s no longer as much of a theoretical, he’s just good. Since Towns went down, Jaden has posted a true-shooting percentage of .618 as he’s made his way to roughly 12 points a night plus a steal and a block per game. Those raw numbers don’t jump off the page, but he’s creating more of his own offense, along with playing his usual outstanding defense. In case you’re living under a rock in the NBA-world, this is not the norm for Luka Doncic these days.
Jaden McDaniels sent Luka Doncic straight to jail. Just made basketball an absolutely miserable experience for him pic.twitter.com/zuxfr2Dtwt— Key Sang (@Phantele_) December 20, 2022
In the eye of the beholder
Naz Reid, also really good at basketball
To be clear, the fact that Naz Reid is a really good basketball player is a fantastic development for a number of reasons. For one, Naz has worked his ass off since entering the league as an undrafted free agent. He has gotten better every season, and now is genuinely one of the best backup big men in the NBA. In Towns’ absence, Reid is averaging 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 22.5 minutes a night. His eFG% during that time frame is 63.9%. Beyond that, he’s playing the best team defense of his career. He’s simply been outstanding.
Aside from the cool story in general, Naz is about to cash in on his improvement, as he’s headed for free agency this summer. After playing out his rookie deal, Reid is about to get PAID this offseason, albeit likely by a different team.
The only reason why this is in the eye of the beholder is that Minnesota spent the majority of their valuable assets on a second center this offseason, while they had Reid on the roster. From a roster construction standpoint, it just looks like a disaster. They spent a boatload on a trade that makes it near impossible to find him 20 mpg when the team is fully healthy.
Rudy Gobert’s complicated offense
In a nutshell, all of the things Gobert was good at on offense in Utah have transferred, as have his deficiencies. Minnesota sold themselves on the idea that they could “unlock” more out of Rudy’s offensive game, and to this point, that just hasn’t happened.
Gobert is still good at the rim and as a roller, and he still struggles to catch tough passes or punish a switch.
That’s not a huge deal in and of itself, but it will make it harder to envision a seamless fit on offense with Karl-Anthony Towns and the rest of the team, once healthy. The way to get more efficient offense out of Gobert is to increase the frequency that the Wolves run pick-and-roll. That’s fine, but accommodating Gobert’s limited offensive arsenal will have negative side effects on both Towns and Ant.
The risk you run for Towns in that scenario is making him too much of a spot-up shooter. The Wolves can’t revert back to using Towns in the super-Derrick Favors role that he was playing before his injury, but I also understand the hesitancy to just make him a spot-up shooter. Towns is a great driver and an effective post player, aside from also being a great pick-and-pop option in his own right. If the team is spamming Rudy PnR, they run the risk of making Towns too much of a secondary player on offense when he should be the focal point.
While Ant could certainly benefit from coming off of Gobert screens, he has also been a good spot-up shooter and driver attacking a close-out. Taking that part of his game away would be detrimental to his overall development. Aside from that, Ant is just not a natural lob passer, which is the easiest type of pass for Rudy to catch. Ant can get better at it with time, but there could be some serious growing pains in that respect if that becomes a high-frequency play in the offense.
Jaylen Nowell’s unreliability
This was a golden opportunity for Jaylen Nowell to establish himself not only as a rotation focal point, but as a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Unfortunately, it has not gone that way for Nowell. Since Towns’ departure from the lineup, Nowell’s eFG% sits at 47.9%, and he’s taken a green light to the fullest possible extent. There are stints where it feels like Nowell just shoots every time he touches the ball, offensive flow be damned. When you add in his regular poor defense, it’s been a disappointing showing for a player that the Wolves were banking on this year when they traded away Malik Beasley.
Nowell runs hot and cold like all players do, but his highs have rarely been enough to make up for his shot-happy style of play. He’s remained in the rotation for now because of all the injuries, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Austin Rivers supplant Nowell in a fully healthy rotation.
We’ve learned a lot about this team while KAT’s been on the shelf. Now, we need them to get healthy again so that Chris Finch and Tim Connelly can take what we’ve learned and adjust.