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Minnesota Timberwolves Starters: 2023 First Quarter Grades

Twenty-one games into the season, how have Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards and the rest of the Timberwolves starters fared in the roles-based grading system?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

At halftime of last Friday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Minnesota Timberwolves officially crossed the quarter mark of their 2023-2024 NBA season.

Since the preseason, I’ve been looking at this team through the lens of a movie sequel. Ownership brought most of the main cast back despite a lackluster first film.

Everyone associated with the film (even the fans) have a lingering awareness that even if this movie is a huge success, there is almost no financial reality that they could roll it back for a three-quel.

This left two main directions for the season to go:

  1. The sequel is of a similar quality to the first film; some memorable moments but ultimately a film stuck in the same mediocrity of its predecessor. A middling team that would probably need to have a reboot around the trade deadline.
  2. The sequel clicks in a way that it brings to life the vision of the wayward first film; the cast thrives in their roles, clarifying the 2022-2023 season as a stepping stone into something more.

We are 1/4th of the way through this movie, and you know what? It freaking rocks.

A former DPOY thought by some to be over-the-hill, resurging as one of the most impactful players to winning in the league.

A young, up-and-coming superstar taking all the right next steps to develop the less flashy aspects of his game to become a consistent winner.

The elder “face of the franchise” sacrificing his numbers on both ends and beginning to thrive in a new role.

The aging veteran floor leader, looking around at this roster and current situation, knowing that this may be his last best chance to win an NBA title.

And of course, a Naz Reid doing all the things expected of a Naz Reid.

These storylines don’t even touch on Jaden McDaniels, Kyle Anderson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and the rest of the roster. It is a cast, when fully healthy, that fits together as well as any other team in the league. The movie is far from over, but guess what? Twenty-one games in, this sequel is beginning to get some Oscar buzz.

Let’s get to the grades.

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.

3. The below stats are updated through 12-8, the 127-103 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. The 2nd quarter of the season started Monday, 12-11. All the stats get a refresh and will be tracked independently over the proceeding twenty games.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Conley: 93% (A)

Minnesota Mike™ has been as impactful on both ends of the court as some of the league’s best players. He has been orchestrating the team with the best clutch win percentage in the league, is second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio when sorted by playing time (old friend Tyus Jones being number one), and continues to be the perfect veteran leader for a team that is positioning itself for a deep playoff run.

I’m going to borrow from Chris Finch for help in summarizing Mike Conley’s importance to the team:

Someday when I’m bouncing my grandkids on my knee and telling them about the tale of how the 2023-2024 Timberwolves clicked in ways that the 22-23 Wolves didn’t, that story will begin with Michael Alex Conley Jr.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Edwards: 88% (B+)

Despite missing time and playing injured over the last four games, Anthony Edwards is still the Timberwolves leader in plus/minus, scoring, minutes per game, and net rating (when filtered for playing time). He’s comfortably the team’s best offensive player by estimated plus/minus (in the 92nd percentile for the league), and an 80th percentile league defender by the defensive metrics.

It may be helpful to pull back the curtain a little on what an “A”, “B”, and “C” range season would look like with his expected role being the team’s superstar ceiling raiser.

“A” Season: Edwards stakes his claim as one of the fifteen best players in the league and his play leads to an All-NBA award

“B” Season: Ant makes some notable improvements on his 2022-2023 campaign, is a shoe-in All-Star and potentially a starter.

“C” Season: A near repeat of 2022-2023, an up-and-down season that once again has him on the fringe of the All-Star conversation.

It has been a really good season for Edwards thus far, and three more quarters of this type of play would be enough to lead the Timberwolves to multiple home playoff series. But superstar players have superstar expectations and, at least from what these numbers tell me, there’s still some meat left on the bone here for Edwards.

Increased consistency in defensive intensity, a hot scoring/shooting stretch, and being the best player on the court against the bevy of superstars coming up is the perfect opportunity for a healthy Anthony Edwards to move the needle on his season back into the “A” range.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Golden State Warriors John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Jaden McDaniels: 84% (B)

McDaniels played in just one game since the mid-quarter update, so there isn’t a lot new to add. When he’s on the floor, he defends at an elite level, has been one of the team’s most consistent outside shooters (whose offensive game continues to expand), but still has the notable struggle of fouling too much.

Jaden McDaniels is your starting pitcher when it comes to locking up a team’s best offensive player and Nickeil Alexander-Walker is your reliever. NAW has been fantastic in relief, but the ceiling of this team is so much higher when McDaniels can go seven innings versus five.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Karl-Anthony Towns: 90% (A-)

Back to the Estimated Plus/Minus numbers for just a moment to make this statement; Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the best two-way players in the league this season. He ranks in the 88th percentile of the league for both offense and defense, which puts him in some elite company. Here’s the full list of the ten other players that have accomplished that feat at the quarter mark of the year:

  1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  2. Anthony Davis
  3. Joel Embiid
  4. Lebron James
  5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  6. Kawhi Leonard
  7. Chet Holmgren
  8. Scottie Barnes
  9. Derrick White
  10. Mikal Bridges

Like Jaden McDaniels’ fouling issue, there is a fly in the ointment for KAT’s game this season: his turnover propensity. Of the fifty-four players that have a usage rate of 25% or more, Towns ranks 50th with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.05. Take out the assist aspect, and he’d rank 4th in the league with an overall turnover ratio of 12.8 turnovers per 100 possessions. The highlight passes to Rudy Gobert are awesome, but there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to committing offensive fouls and trying to squeeze in some passes that just aren’t there.

KAT’s incredibly efficient shooting and defensive prowess deserve a grade in the “A” range for the first quarter, but if he can take a touch of that shooting efficiency and bring it the rest of his offensive game (specifically passing and screen setting), then we are looking at a player that should not just get some All-Star game love, but could potentially re-enter the conversation as an All-NBA type of big.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Rudy Gobert: 98% (A)

Slight spoiler for the bench grades, but Rudy Gobert wraps up the first quarter of the season with the highest grade on the team, and gets to wear the “Roles-based MVP” belt at least until the halfway point.

The Frenchman’s role for this season was all about being dominant in the paint and anchoring this defense. He’s having a career best year in offensive rebounding, his third best season in blocking shots, and is the league leader in defensive win shares twenty-one games in.

It seems like once a game, he causes an opposing offensive player to question all their life choices mid-drive as they see his 7 ‘1’ frame protecting the basket. While Anthony Edwards is the face of the franchise and the player that is going to get most of the love from national pundits, Rudy Gobert has been the most important player for this team’s 17-4 start. His defensive focus and attention to detail has raised the defensive prowess of all the players around him.

Take a bow, this first quarter truly was magnifique.

Check back in a few days for part two - the first quarter bench grades.

In the meantime, if you are looking for some more Timberwolves content, check out the Dunks After Dusk podcast on both Apple and Spotify, including a newly minted Threads account where we’ll post game awards.

On Monday’s post-game episode, after handing out the game awards my co-host gave some pushpack on the Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns grades which led to a good discussion about the categories, roles and potential tweaks to the system. Conversation starts at the 33:45 mark!