The Minnesota Timberwolves are entering into this upcoming season with some new faces at the guard spots, along with some guys from last year’s team that were acquired at the trade deadline. With the new acquisitions from free agency and now getting a full off-season for the other guys that were thrown into the team at the trade deadline, how much improved is the guard rotation for this upcoming year?
When the Wolves began last season, the guards on the roster were D’Angelo Russell, Austin Rivers, Jaylen Nowell, Wendell Moore Jr., Jordan McLaughlin, Bryn Forbes and Anthony Edwards. This was a guard rotation that had some good upside and pretty solid potential on paper. Russell always had the capability to shoot the lights out and play make, while Jaylen Nowell made early noise as a Sixth Man of the Year contender, and McLaughlin put up decent stats against the Memphis Grizzlies in the Wolves’ first-round exit in 2022 playing in place of a benched D’Lo, which provided a glimpse of hope for this last season.
I’ve said it before I’ll say it again, Jaylen Nowell is this year’s 6th man of the year.— Johnny (@heresjohnnyjpg) October 5, 2022
And trust me, when Jaylen nowell wins 6th man of the year you’ll hear about it. I’ve got a list ✍— Phil A. Bellagio (@BellagioPhil) October 5, 2022
A large majority of these things did not happen, and they were extremely detrimental to the team. Nowell took a huge regression in his offensive efficiency. He went from shooting 47.5% overall and 39.4% from distance in 2021-2022 to 44.8% percent overall and an abysmal 28.9% from deep in 2022-2023. He also was a poor defender and had a lot of issues with knowing who to guard.
Jokic catches it at the elbow and stares at the corner. Ish is screening the help. Eventually both Wolves move towards the corner, layup for Ish. pic.twitter.com/gGhW3nKRXv— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) February 8, 2023
like this was the play *after* Minnesota called timeout. pic.twitter.com/bEguLrU9s5— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) February 8, 2023
The first clip is just a basic misunderstanding of defense. He allows Ish Smith to get to the rim to by instead staying closer to a player who is a skip pass away. The man in the corner doesn’t need to be defended as closely as he believes because it’s on the opposite end of the court of where the initial ball action begins.
The second clip isn’t all his fault, but there appears to be zero communication between him and Taurean Prince on who is guarding who in transition, leading to easy alley-oop. Couple below average defense with abysmal shooting splits and you have the perfect concoction of a player that doesn’t contribute to winning; it’s why he’s had issues finding a home this season until the Sacramento Kings brought him in for training camp.
Forbes was poised to be productive for the Wolves as a shooter and floor spacer after posting 41% from beyond the arc in 35 games played for the Denver Nuggets. That also took a major regression as he posted 30.4 percent from three for the Wolves (after a red hot preseason) and had a quiet departure from the team as he waived on February 9th to make room for the trade that netted Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
Moore Jr. just wasn’t good enough in Head Coach Chris Finch’s eyes to play consistently as he averaged only five minutes per game, playing in 29 games, with a lot of those minutes coming in garbage time.
McLaughlin wasn’t also that serviceable in his time on the floor while shooting 30 percent from three, and not doing anything else particularly well on the floor when he did play. In his defense, he did miss significant time last season with a calf injury, which limited his speed and acceleration — two key elements of his game.
Rivers went on a decent little heater from December 16th through the 21st, and found himself playing consistent minutes, partly due to Prince’s injury. After a lengthy stint in the rotation, he then dropped out of it for the final four games.
Russell had a decent season shooting 46.5% overall and a near 40% from three, but the biggest issue was the locker room presence he carried all season with Rudy Gobert. D’Lo was frustrated with Gobert and his lack of offensive touch around the rim and ability to catch the ball. The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski brought up the open and verbal distaste Russell had playing alongside Gobert on the Dan Barreiro show that was posted on February 9th. I understand how upsetting it can be for a team when the center you traded for is not performing up to expectations, but publicly airing those grievances is not a good thing, and having an unhealthy locker room does not bode well for teams that want to be champions.
Looking forward, the Wolves will have Mike Conley as the primary and starting point guard, with Alexander-Walker and newly acquired free agents Shake Milton and Troy Brown Jr. filling in behind.
Conley is going to continue to unlock Gobert significantly more than Russell ever did, which is inherently going to bolster the offense, led by former All-NBA center Karl-Anthony Towns and first-time All-Star Anthony Edwards. Giving Conley a full offseason to get accustomed to playing with this roster and in Finch’s system is going to be a positive thing, especially if he keeps up the production he did last year for the Wolves. In the 24 regular season games he played, he shot a blistering 42% from three. If he continues to be a deadly outside threat, it only opens so many opportunities for everyone else.
NAW has taken his game to another level. In the short time he played for the Wolves, he was the defensive guy after Jaden McDaniels went down with his broken (self-inflicted) hand after punching a wall in their 113-109 win over the Pelicans on April 9th. Alexander-Walker became the primary defender against Shai-Gilegous Alexander in which he held the first team All-NBA guard to 5-19 shooting in the second play in game in the Wolves 120-95 win on April 15th. He was also the primary defender against Jamal Murray in the first round playoff exit. Murray was in an inferno all playoffs averaging 26.1 points a game, but NAW made him work and showed his relentless pursuit of the ball. NAW has also made a huge jump in his offensive game during this most recent FIBA run. He has been a formidable shooter from outside, which is something the Wolves lacked from all other guards outside of D’Lo and Conley. If he can hit at that rate with the defense he plays, that is a scary sight when paired alongside Edwards, McDaniels, and Gobert on defense.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker has made 19 of his 45 (42.2%) 3-point attempts in 7 World Cup games. Both encouraging on hit rate and volume.— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) September 8, 2023
Catch and shoots have been even better — 14/31 (45.2%).
Brown Jr. shot 38% from downtown last season on almost 4 attempts per game. Milton shot 36% from three. By simply adding some guys who are actually threats from outside it opens up so much more for the offense. In the first two preseason games in Abu Dhabi against the Dallas Mavericks, Brown went 2-7 and Milton went 2-3 from downtown to combine for 40% shooting. Giving these minutes to guys who will play defense, move the ball and knock down outside shots is going to the biggest addition to the roster this season, simply because players who were worse last season do not need to fill these voids.
The rotation has improved a ton, and it was by simply finding guys who can shoot better than their counterparts that were on the roster last year. If McLaughlin can improve his efficiency, and Moore Jr. makes a decent jump in his second year, along with Conley, NAW, and Brown Jr. and Milton playing at their expected levels, all while having a healthy locker room, the Wolves are poised for a season filled with success at the guard position.