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Game Preview #22: Wolves at Pelicans

The Timberwolves could see key players Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels return from injury as they take on Zion Williamson and a healthy Pelicans squad in New Orleans.

Minnesota Timberwolves v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Winners of 16 of their last 18 games, the Minnesota Timberwolves kick off a tough, season-defining stretch of basketball by taking on the New Orleans Pelicans for the third time, but the first with Zion Williamson, CJ McCollum, Trey Murphy III and Jose Alvarado all in the lineup.


Game Info

  • Who: Minnesota Timberwolves (17-4) at New Orleans Pelicans (12-11)
  • When: 7:00 PM CT
  • Where: Smoothie King Center
  • TV: Bally Sports North (Michael Grady, Jim Petersen and Lea B. Olsen)
  • Radio: KFAN 100.3 FM, Wolves Radio App
  • Line: Wolves +4 | Total: 222.5 (courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)

Injury Report

(Updated as of 6:30 PM CT on Monday, courtesy of our friend and voice of the Timberwolves Alan Horton)

Minnesota

AVAILABLE

  • Jordan McLaughlin (right MCL sprain)
  • Jaden McDaniels (right ankle sprain)

OUT:

  • Jaylen Clark (right achilles tendon rupture rehab)
  • Anthony Edwards (right hip pointer)
  • Leonard Miller (G League assignment)

New Orleans

AVAILABLE:

  • Cody Zeller (face)

OUT:

  • Larry Nance Jr. (right rib fracture)
  • Matt Ryan (right elbow strain)

What To Watch For

Minnesota Timberwolves v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Zion vs. The Timberwolves’ Interior Defense

Simply put, the Pelicans are a completely different beast to slay when Zion Williamson is healthy and on the floor. Zion and the aforementioned group of McCollum, Murphy III and Alvarado haven’t played against the Wolves yet this season, and the Timberwolves are 2-0 against the Pelicans primarily as a result of that fact.

While it is easy to forget as a result of his persistent injury issues, Williamson is one of the most physically dominant players of this era. His combination of strength, aggressive downhill nature, explosiveness, vertical leaping ability on the first, second and third jumps, and speed mixed with a unique touch around the basket present all sorts of problems for a defense — even for the Wolves top-ranked unit.

However, Zion hasn’t been quite as sharp this season as he was the past couple seasons. His effective field goal percentage (57.9% | 55th percentile per Cleaning the Glass) is a career-low, as is his 2-point percentage (also 57.9%), the rate at which he’s getting to the rim (67% of total shots | 73rd percentile), and the amount of non-shooting fouls he’s drawing (fouled on 1.6% of team plays when he’s on the floor | 47th percentile). Williamson is shooting a career-high 31% of his shots form the short mid-range area (4-14 feet), but is connecting on just 37% of those shots so far this season (30th percentile). If Zion continues to stop short in the mid-range, expect Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns to make a huge impact as shot contesters.

Keep in mind, though, that Zion has been much better since Thanksgiving in terms of his efficiency; he has scored a team-high 22.7 points on 64.0% shooting with 53 assists to 2.6 turnovers over the last 10 games. Not to mention he scored a career-high 43 points on the Wolves last December. That night, Williamson not only got to the line 19 times, but also scored all 14 points of the Pelicans’ points in the final 2:44 of the fourth quarter to win a crazy back-and-forth game 119-118.

But what often gets left out when discussing Williamson’s impact on the offensive end of the floor is the rate at which he creates high-quality looks for his teammates.

This season, Zion’s 10.8 potential assists (assists + plays that would’ve been an assist if the shot went in) ranks seventh among true NBA forwards, but he makes the least amount of passes per game among that group. So, when we adjust for how many passes made, the rate at which Zion generates a potential assist (27.2% of his passes) is second, trailing only Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan.

Now that elite catch-and-shoot players in McCollum (41.3% on C&S 3s last season) and Murphy III (40.7%) are back flanking him — not to mention Ingram (41.7%)! — expect his assists per game number to steadily climb, and for New Orleans to take better advantage of Williamson collapsing the interior of the defense.

Boston Celtics v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Will Edwards, McDaniels Make Their Returns?

Edwards missed one week with a right hip pointer suffered on Nov. 28 vs the Oklahoma City Thunder, then played without re-aggravating the injury on Wednesday on ESPN against the San Antonio Spurs. But the former No. 1 overall pick re-injured the hip by landing awkwardly just three minutes and change into Friday’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies. With two days off since then, the hope is that Edwards can go; but with two more days rest in between Monday’s game and the team’s next contest (and the fact that the Wolves are 2-0 against the Pelicans already), you could make a good argument that not playing tonight against dynamic scorers in McCollum, Williamson and Ingram would be a prudent choice.

If Jaden McDaniels returns from a right ankle sprain that has sidelined him for the team’s last eight games, it will be imperative for the Timberwolves to stay home on shooters. That way, Gobert can stay inside on Jonas Valančiūnas and make it tougher for Zion to either finish at the basket or throw kick-out passes to the corners. The more Minnesota can force him into taking short mid-rangers or tough contested shots at the rim, the better off they’ll be.

In the event McDaniels does not return tonight, the Wolves may just have to throw as many bodies at Williamson as they can. Last season (ranked in order of how many possessions they guarded him for), Minnesota put McDaniels, Anthony Edwards, Naz Reid, and Nathan Knight on Zion for at least five possessions each. Tonight, Towns, Gobert, Kyle Anderson, Gobert, Troy Brown Jr. and even Shake Milton or Nickeil Alexander-Walker could all get time on him. Either way, it wouldn’t surprise me if Minnesota played their very active and effective 2-3 zone to force more jump shooting and less interior attacks.

The defensive matchups will be fascinating to follow, with or without the young star duo. Some key questions to answer:

  • Can Mike Conley hold his own against CJ McCollum?
  • If one of Edwards or McDaniels can go, would Kyle Anderson start over Nickeil Alexander-Walker to give Minnesota some size against a big Pelicans starting unit?
  • Will the Wolves deploy the “Spy Rudy” coverage they used against the Denver Nuggets last season by having Towns guard Valančiūnas and Gobert play off of Herb Jones (a career 33.7% 3-point shooter)?
  • Does playing a zone — regardless of who plays — make the most sense against a Pelicans team shooting 33% from 3 over the last 10 games (27th in NBA)?

We’ll find out soon enough. With one, both or neither of Edwards and McDaniels, this should still be a great test of Minnesota’s ability to rely on their depth to remain competitive during and overcome key absences.

Minnesota Timberwolves v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Can Karl-Anthony Towns Continue His Strong Play vs New Orleans?

There aren’t many teams in the NBA that KAT has enjoyed putting up video game numbers on more than the Pelicans.

Over the last three seasons, Towns is averaging 27.6 points on 55.3/41.2/80.0 shooting splits, 7.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists to 2.7 turnovers, 1.6 blocks and 0.9 steals across 34.7 minutes per game in seven contests against New Orleans. That 27.6 PPG mark is the third-most against any opponent over that span.

Most of that has been a result of Towns drawing a matchup with Valančiūnas, and making the big man’s life difficult guarding in space. But with KAT playing beside Gobert this season, New Orleans has assigned different defenders to check Towns.

In the first matchup, with Jones sidelined, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl mostly guarded Towns, and it did not go well. KAT scored a very easy 23 points on 5/7 shooting from inside the arc and 4/5 from beyond it in just 28 minutes of play.

Then in the second meeting, Jones and Naji Marshall covered Towns for the majority of the three-time All-Star’s minutes. Towns scored 13 of his 29 points on those two, connecting on all four of his shot attempts and shooting 4/4 from the free throw line, while also dishing out six assists and zero turnovers. He did all of that en route to a massive 29-point performance on 10/11 shooting to go along with nine dimes, zero turnovers, and the game-winner.

Towns in the fourth quarter alone scored 12 points on 3/3 FG (5/5 FT), dished out five assists and created 24 of the team’s 36 points in the frame.

Regardless of who plays, the Wolves getting another strong outing from Towns would go a long way in their effort to pull off an upset win over a fully healthy Pelicans squad.