Last week, I introduced the grades for the Minnesota Timberwolves starters and described them as a “sequel” team. Unlike the starters that are bringing back the same crew, the bench will have the challenge of integrating some new faces and reinventing familiar faces in different roles.
Will Nickeil Alexander-Walker finish with the most minutes off the bench? Can Naz Reid thrive in a bigger role with a bit brighter spotlight on him following his contract extension? Is Kyle Anderson still the most important part of the bench? Does Shake Milton start the season as your backup point guard or was Thursday night’s season finale more of a test run? Let’s take a look at some of the projected roles for these players and which key stats we’ll be tracking throughout the year.
A few brief reminders about the grading system:
1. These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different.
2. Roles on the team can change as the roster and playing time changes—I will alter or add statistical categories throughout the season as needed. Especially in a preseason article, the expectation is that some of these initial stats will change as we get to know the roles better.
3. The season is divided into four quarters; twenty to twenty-one game increments. There will be mid quarter, quarter, semester and final grades throughout the regular season (and presumably some playoffs). Did you miss last year?
Kyle Anderson Role: The Do-A-Little-Bit-Of-Everything Floor Balancer
The Stats: Assists Per Game, Net Rating, Anderson/Gobert +/-
First, a necessary shout-out to my role-based MVP from last year. Kyle Anderson kept the Timberwolves afloat when Karl-Anthony Towns was injured twenty games into the season. Slow-Mo stepped into the new role of starter and excelled on both ends of the court, and was a key voice in the locker room.
For this season, it seems unlikely that a lot of Anderson’s counting stats will be as high as last year, but that doesn’t mean his impact on winning is going away. For his stats, I’ll be looking at categories that highlight his unique skill in bringing out the best in others.
Most notably of the three, I’m very curious about the Rudy Gobert/Anderson minutes together. Slow-Mo was one of the best players at unlocking the French big man on the offensive end, and now, considering their moment in the regular season finale last year, I’m extra interested t in their continued effectiveness as a combo.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker Role: The Defensive Red Bull
The Stats: Opponent field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, Assist-to-turnover ratio
Objective journalists probably shouldn’t have favorite players. But since Canis Hoopus is a blog, I’ll join that intention with the feelings of a subjective fan and pose this: was the off-season signing of Alexander-Walker the most important non-star player acquisition in Timberwolves history?
Okay, that was a little bit of an overreaction, but I felt like I needed to get that out of my system. NAW came over as seemingly a “throw-in” part of the Mike Conley trade last season and blossomed into a key role player. His defense on his cousin (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) and work on fellow Canadian stand out Jamal Murray in the series against the Denver Nuggets showed his defensive upside as potentially an elite on-ball defender.
If Jaden McDaniels is your starting pitcher (and closer), Alexander-Walker is your bullpen, who will come in and help hold an opposing star at bay while McDaniels either rests or needs to sit due to foul trouble.
So the three stats for NAW are based on his individual defense (opponent FG%), his offensive effectiveness as a fourth or fifth option (3-point FG%) and then his effectiveness as the occasional primary or secondary offense initiator (AST/TO).
Naz Reid Role: The Microwave Scorer
The Stats: Points Per 36, Rebounds Per Game, Personal Fouls Per 36
This season, I project Naz Reid to be the Jamal Crawford of the Timberwolves. His role? Come in, exploit offensive mismatches via size (against smaller PFs and switches) or speed (when he’s defended by a traditional big man). Like a microwave, he should heat up quickly and maintain that heat for his scheduled substitution intervals. He’ll get stints next to both Gobert and Towns, meaning his offensive versatility will need to be on full display.
As for the defensive end, there are two areas where Reid needs to be solid: Moving his feet without fouling to contest and rebounding effectively. If he can hover around an average defender with his offensive output, he will fulfill his role perfectly.
Shake Milton Role: The Wildcard
The stats: True Shooting Percentage, Net Rating and Assist to Turnover Ratio
Milton is the newest cast member expected to get some good screen time. But his exact role is hardest to narrow in on. He started in place of Mike Conley in the preseason finale, so is he the backup point guard? Is he the Jaylen Nowell replacement as a sixth man scoring guard?
Regardless of his exact role, it is clear that Head Coach Chris Finch is a big fan of Milton’s game and his versatility. Whether he’s hunting shot attempts, being a secondary offense initiator, or taking over as the point guard role on night’s where Conley gets to rest, Shake Milton can do a little bit of everything thanks to his skillset, veteran awareness, and basketball IQ.
Until we know more about his specifics as a player, I expect him to be an effective scorer (true shooting percentage), affect winning (net rating) and be a capable offensive primary and secondary initiator (AST to TO).
Troy Brown Jr. Role: The 10th Man
The Stats: 3-Point Percentage, Rebounds Per Game
As another new-comer to the cast, this isn’t an easy role to project yet, but here’s my guess: Troy Brown Jr. will not be a regular part of the rotation to start the season, but will be the first one up off the bench should foul trouble, minor injury, or rest days arise.
He fulfills a shooting need and is a solid rebounder for his position, but currently stands as the first player on the outside looking in for consistent minutes.
Jordan McLaughlin Role: The On-Call Guard
The Stats: Assist to Turnover Ratio, 3-Point Percentage
It is possible that I have his and TBJ’s roles switched. During Thursday night’s preseason finale, both he and Troy Brown Jr. made their respective cases for why they deserve minutes. McLaughlin pushed the tempo, was aggressive and affective with his outside shot, and looked the part of a fringe rotation player making a bid for why he should see some time on the floor.
To start the season, it seems like J-Mac is going to be just outside of the regular rotation. However, the 82-game regular season is a gauntlet and with the team’s starting point guard being thirty-six years old, smart money will be on McLaughlin getting a chance to play and make an impact this season.
Luka Garza Role: The On-Call Big
The Stats: Shot attempts per 36, Fouls Per 36
Luka Garza is a bucket just like Reid. In fact, they have a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses, both have done some astounding offseason work to alter their bodies, and both attempted to go from fringe roster spot to rotation guy.
This doesn’t seem like the year for Garza to make a case for consistent minutes, but should anything open up in the rotation, he is a young and hungry prospect ready to prove his worth as an NBA player.
The Role: The Iowa Guys
The Players: Wendell Moore Jr. (true shooting percentage), Josh Minott (stocks per 36), Leonard Miller (rebounds per 36), and Daishen Nix (assist to turnover ratio)
For each of these young players, the start of the season is going to be about development down in Iowa. The possibility of any of them getting called up for minutes will (most likely) depend on what element the main rotation is missing.
Continued struggles to rebound? Call up Leonard Miller and give him a chance.
Missing time for McDaniels? Hi Josh Minott, want to take on some defensive assignments?
Running out of options at backup guard? Try out Wendell Moore Jr. or Daishen Nix and see if their development in Iowa has raised their game to NBA caliber.
*Important to note, that should any of these players’ roles increase, there will be categories added for stats to track*
And with that, I’ll be back after the first ten games of the season to offer a mid quarter update, potentially have an update on roles or stats and will absolutely be giving some overreactions to a small sample size.
In the meanwhile, check out the Dunks After Dusk podcast. We’ll be talking about the stats I’m tracking throughout the season, along with all kinds of different Timberwolves talk from two long-time fans. Our most recent episode was a two-part mega 2023-2024 Timberwolves season preview with hard hitting questions like:
- How many shots of whiskey would it take before I vote for Naz Reid as defensive player of the year?
- Will KAT or Ant be the team’s leading scorer?
- Is Jimmy Butler scared of Minnesota?
These questions and so much more. Join us for lots of laughing, overreactions, and presumably some necessary friendship therapy as the season goes on.