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The Numbers Game: Three Telling Timberwolves Statistics This Season

Minnesota is passing the eye test so far in 2023. Which stats bring extra insight to the positives and the negatives on the floor?

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

It’s extremely important for Minnesota Timberwolves fans to cherish their successful month of January after a disappointing first half of the season. Boosted by monster weekend wins over the juiced Memphis Grizzlies and upstart Sacramento Kings, I spent my days off delving into lineup numbers, advanced individual stats, net ratings and much more to tell small stories of an assortment of Timberwolves players this season. Let’s find out if our very pleasant stretch of recent eye testing matches up with the calculator.

SloMo in the Clutch

One of the best parts of the Wolves’ winning ways as of late has been the continued affirmation of the Kyle Anderson signing as one of the NBA’s best offseason moves. His maturity and poise on the court (Houston Rockets game notwithstanding) has clearly boosted those same attributes of teammates around him.

KA has had a number of hot starts to games over the last month, but pressure situations with the game in the balance are his specialty at the moment.

In SloMo’s 41 on-court minutes that PBP Stats defines as high-leverage or very high-leverage this season, the Timberwolves have a +28.59 net rating per 100 possessions. In the 22 high-leverage or very high-leverage minutes Anderson is off the floor, the Wolves have a -11.11 net rating.

Forget the absurd three-point shooting KA has provided this season (44.8% on 1.4 attempts, the best clip of his career by nearly nine percentage points), as most of that production has come early in games. The offensive initiation and strategic, efficient drives to the hoop down the stretch are making the biggest difference: Anderson is shooting 48.6% on shots between three and 10 feet, per Basketball Reference.

Continuing to give the 29-year-old point forward primary ball-handling duties throughout the course of a game makes a lot of sense for Minnesota. He’s shooting 44.7% on spot-up three-pointers, which gives him value in a backseat role during those explosive Anthony Edwards-led third quarters. As D’Angelo Russell continues to thrive off the ball (more on that later), there seems to be enough balance of offensive creation for Anderson to be Chris Finch’s perfect “get us back under control and find a quality shot” commander in the clutch. The numbers bear it out.

Sacramento Kings v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Limit Nowell’s Ls

Everyone wants to see the high-peak, low-valley players get the chance to prove themselves on a game-by-game basis. When you find yourself in as many valleys as Jaylen Nowell has over the last 25 games, it’s probably time to cut your losses. The resident bench scorer has shot 24% from downtown on 3.3 attempts since December 14.

The main issue remains that Jaylen is still in the midst of a monster shooting slump, so pairing him up with his teammates for on/off statistics will often not bode well. When you dig up his smaller lineup combinations, though, something does stand out from PBP Stats:

Nowell being on the floor while Naz Reid and Rudy Gobert are on the bench somehow yields a +23.87 net rating in 99 minutes this season.

Pretty far from what we feel like we’re seeing most nights, right? Furthermore, when Luka Garza is the big man paired with Nowell, the duo has a +15.88 net rating in 83 minutes.

Those sample sizes are small compared to the rest of Nowell’s two and three-man combos, but the difference is jarring. Clearly, Garza’s lower-maintenance style and diverse offensive game mesh with Nowell’s monster usage rate (career-high 25.1%). Reid has similar ball skills to Garza and is much more athletic, but Naz’s stellar drive-and-kick creation isn’t paying off as Nowell can’t knock down a long bomb on any consistent basis right now. Gobert takes much more precision and care to feed in the dunker spot, and Jaylen’s distribution skills are inaccurate and spotty at best, especially on a full head of steam to the rim.

Garza is buried on the big man depth chart again with Gobert healthy and Nathan Knight playing well. Jordan McLaughlin’s impending return will definitely be the deciding factor on Nowell’s minutes moving forward; even until then, I’d like to see him placed in more strategic lineups.

Sacramento Kings v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

A True Combo Guard

Arguably the most pleasant surprise in Minnesota’s 11-4 start to 2023 has been the newfound malleability of D’Angelo Russell within the Timberwolves' offense.

Instead of freewheeling into errant passes and failed attempts to draw fouls on soft drives to the paint without swinging the rock around, Russell has commanded gravity as a straight-up sniper since the beginning of December. D’Lo is shooting 39.3% on catch-and-shoot treys, good for 33rd among 91 NBA players appearing in 40 or more games and hoisting three or more attempts per contest, per NBA Stats. He’s in the 86th percentile this season on spot-up points per possession.

Russell’s deferment of bringing the ball up the floor allows the aforementioned Kyle Anderson or Anthony Edwards to get things moving, and for D’Lo’s defender to lose him in the flow of action as the play develops. I particularly like seeing Russell in the off-ball “shake” spot during high ball screens as illustrated in red below — Rudy Gobert and Naz Reid both draw great attention as rollers (1.27 and 1.15 points per possession as roll men, respectively), and if you stick Russell behind the roll, his defender has to decide whether to tag the rolling rim threat or stay attached on the perimeter. That often leaves D’Lo open and ready to let it fly above the break.

Edwards and SloMo have combined to assist on 49 Russell triples this season, and 43 of those have come on non-corner makes.

Will this hot streak keep up? I tend to believe that D’Lo’s life as a Timberwolf is what he makes it. Continuing to let things come naturally and really lean into what’s working for him will only empower the other ball-handlers on the team to continue creating advantages for him beyond the three-point line. It also opens up Russell’s patented midrange game, much easier to come by when his outside shot has to be greatly respected.

Turns out it’s way more fun to find things the Timberwolves can improve on when they’re already playing pretty well. Small tweaks can lead to big differences!