Reflecting on the last few Minnesota Timberwolves’ seasons, it seems like forever ago that they could play 10 or 11 guys on any given night. Or, to be more specific, try to maintain a 10 or 11-man rotation because there was just that many players that could contribute. Maybe it’s because the team has been good this year, but it feels like this is truly the deepest team the Wolves have had in a while.
This season is the first in 10+ years that the Wolves have had at least seven guys play 25+ minutes per game in at least 55 games.
Clearly, this year’s team has depth that previous teams have not. In past years, the rotation consisted of players that played heavy minutes, but many played just 10-30 games. While a few of those players were injured, some were traded. Simply put, the ‘21-’22 rotation has been much more consistent and familiar than past seasons. That’s due to both good fortune with injury (long-term injuries, at least) and increased talent level.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have 6 players who have started 20+ games this year (Ant, KAT, Vando, D’Lo, PatBev, Jaden).— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) February 23, 2022
Beyond those 6 core guys, the Wolves have 6 role players with > 400 MP.
If you were Coach Finch, which role players would you choose to fill out the rotation? pic.twitter.com/8LzKzsP4DO
Two players that have emerged and forced Chris Finch to keep them in the rotation are Jordan McLaughlin and Jaylen Nowell.
JMac slipped into the third point guard role near the beginning of the season, as Patrick Beverley and D’Angelo Russell manned the floor general minutes. In short, McLaughlin fought his way back into the rotation after playing well during his limited minutes (whether that be due to injuries, health and safety protocols, or Finch’s love for McLaughlin as a player).
Chris Finch on Jordan McLaughlin: "He’s been one of our best players, period."— jace frederick (@JaceFrederick) April 4, 2022
Since Feb. 1:
McLaughlin's off. rating: 121.3, trails only Malik Beasley & KAT among Wolves' rotation players
McLaughlin's def. rating: 109.0, trails only Naz Reid among Wolves' rotation players
McLaughlin’s game is a refreshing change of pace from Russell or Beverley’s. Not better than those two, just a different skillset.
There have been many times this year where the Wolves needed an infusion of facilitation. Russell and Beverley are both adequate, but McLaughlin’s quickness and incredible care with the ball make for a unique influx of guard play.
Similar to the Wolves’ intermittent need for facilitation, there have been times where they need someone to put their head down and get a bucket. Nowell has excelled in that role this year, as he’s averaged a crafty 8.4 PPG this year while shooting 38.7% from three.
He’s slowly worked his way into a consistent role off the bench, because of his ability to both get to the cup and space the floor.
He’s got a knack for finishing, utilizing feathery touch from the midrange and just outside the restricted area. His ability to finish against contact makes him that much more dangerous. Throughout his time in Minnesota he’s flashed the ability to pass, too. If he can continue to score in Lou Williams-like fashion, and orchestrate the offense in a pinch, he’ll be a valuable asset for years to come.
McLaughlin and Nowell were both on the outside-looking-in to start the year, but proved that they belong on the court.
Naz Reid and Taurean Prince were both expected to be essential parts of the second unit entering the year, and even though they’ve both struggled with consistency at times, they’ve been staples of that unit.
Reid’s capabilities and limitations are pretty clear at this point. He provides a jolt of athleticism, nice footwork to score in the post and decent outside shooting.
It’s been hard for him to keep up with opposing centers, as he’s just 6’9”. His lack of size, and also his age, is reflected in his defense and rebounding skills. He’d be a great fit for a team that needs a bit of offense off the bench and had capable defense and rebounding around him. He’s relatively mobile for his size, so allowing him to move up to the four and guard bigger forwards might make it easier on him.
On the bright side, he’s been able to give the Wolves an offensive punch for the majority of this season with averages of 8.2 PPG and 34% shooting from three. Although a bit inconsistent, his offensive skill remains valuable. His skillset provides the Wolves with consistent offensive input with or without Karl-Anthony Towns, which allows the team to keep some level of consistency with their offense no matter who’s manning down the five spot.
It may not actually be the case, but it feels like the Wolves have been missing a Prince-like player for years. A guy that can come off the bench and provide a little bit of everything. A Jae Crowder-type guy, one that can be a veteran voice, make open shots, give the team a bit of edge/add a bit of grit, etc.
Fans were a bit on-edge after he was acquired in a deal that sent Ricky Rubio to Cleveland, but after taking a couple months to get his feet under him he’s become a vital part of the Wolves’ second unit, averaging 10.5 PPG after the all-star break.
Prince, Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt make up a nasty trio of swiss-army-like forwards for the Wolves. Each has their own specialty, with Prince excelling in spot-up shooting, McDaniels with versatile defense and some offense and Vanderbilt with tenacious on-ball defense and rebounding.
After some Wolves fans called for him to be traded after struggling to begin the year, Beasley was resurrected from the dead, returning to his hot-shooting self as the season went on.
Post all-star break, Beasley is shooting 45.6% from three on nearly eight attempts. He’s doing what the Wolves need him to do, it’s that simple. If he’s hitting threes and pulling defenders out to guard him, it opens up the offense for the Wolves. They’ll need that as they enter the play-in and potentially a playoff series.
McDaniels is the basketball version of the utility infielder in baseball (there’s a reason I write about basketball and not baseball, so take it easy on my baseball analogies).
To start the year, McDaniels was on-and-off from behind the arc, but since the break he’s averaging 10.8 PTS on 40.8% shooting from three. In combination with his tremendous defensive ability, his shooting truly vaults him into a special category of player. A glorified three-and-D player who’s just 21-years-old and has the potential to keep improving on offense.
Without a dire need for offensive input from McDaniels, he can continue to develop and come into his own on that side of the ball, even though he’s more than capable already.
How it will transfer to the postseason
It’ll be interesting to see how Finch will divvy up minutes in the play-in/postseason, as rotations are typically shortened and starters play more minutes. I’d guess that Nowell and McLaughlin will be on the outside-looking-in, with McLaughlin’s minutes being split up between Beverley and Russell and Nowell’s going to any combination of Beasley, McDaniels and Prince. Of course, injuries could change things, but a nine-man rotation is pretty likely come Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Wolves’ depth has been historically unique this season, and it’s been an absolutely essential part of their success in ‘21-’22. It’s not a perfect crew, but it’s better than many other ones across the league.
Although there have been nights where the second unit has failed to show up, there have also been games won by the bench. Getting sparks from the likes of Nowell, McLaughlin, Prince, and Co. has kept this team in games. Star player off nights used to be much more detrimental to this franchise, and even though star players win games, the bench can give you a fighting chance.