When the Minnesota Timberwolves sent four of its major minute-getters to the Utah Jazz in the Rudy Gobert trade, the implication became a formality that there would need to be players that had to step up that previously were in and out of the rotation on the 46-win 2021-22 squad.
Jaylen Nowell headlined that group.
“The internal development of Ant, Jaden, Jaylen, will be the single biggest driver of how far we can go next year”, Wolves bench boss Chris Finch said after Gobert’s introductory press conference.
“We saw in short stints what he was able to do”, he went on. “He’s an x-factor, he’s a game-changer”.
It’s clear 61 games into the season that Finch’s stated goal with Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels have been accomplished, with both taking sizable leaps in their roles this year.
Nowell? Maybe not as much, but that story is a little more nuanced. Also, I’ll try not to mention the Gobert trade any more, I promise.
Where Some of the Issues Stem From
It’s no coincidence that Nowell has a reputation of being a bucket, and the merch you can get represents that. I personally think he’s the most underrated scorer on the Wolves, as oftentimes he gets lost in the shuffle of Anthony Edwards, Gobert, what was D’Angelo Russell and so on. Furthermore, he’s been rated pretty lowly by the general public this season, which plays into that.
However, you can’t mention that without also mentioning him coming up big on a multitude of occasions this season, including his 23.5 points, 4 assists on 59% from the field and 43% from three-point range in his two starts this season.
But he’s been an up-and-down shooter and scorer, has been underwhelming on defense for how explosive he is, and can tend to get lost off the ball when rebounds are needed. His playmaking has been lackluster, something that was seen as potentially his biggest improvement. While his turnovers aren’t as frequent as Russell’s were, they can be similar to what D-Lo’s downfall in a Wolves uniform was; preventable giveaways in important spots.
As a scorer, Nowell has notoriously made his hay on the inside and from the mid-range. This season, he’s second to last on the team in field goal percentage inside of 5 feet, shooting 59%. It’s not terrible, and the margin of separation on the Wolves is not vast, but it’s something the Washington Huskies legend must improve on given how athletic he is and how fast he can get downhill.
He’s also around his career average in close mid-range shots (5-9 feet) shooting 46%. For a little more context, Russell was shooting 48% before the trade from that distance.
It’s clear Nowell is a rhythm player. He needs to find more consistent offense and see a couple go down in order to reach his full level of effectiveness. This season, it’s been hard to find that rhythm for him off the catch it seems. Sometimes, it just isn’t working and the outcome can be horrendous. Thursday night against the Washington Wizards was a painful example. Tasked with being a leader off the bench with Naz Reid, things fell apart quickly, and shots looked haphazard in a time where they couldn’t be.
While he’s been objectively excellent in two of the last four games shooting the ball (more on that later), he shoots just 29.3% on wide open three-pointers, and 29.1% on catch and shoot three-pointers. There’s also the first part of that sentence; two of the last four games. Consistency matters.
I think even as someone who finds themselves frustrated by Nowell more than a lot of people, it’s hard to deny what he brings to the Wolves when he’s humming at even an average-or-above pace.
Outside of Anthony Edwards, he’s really the only guy on the team that can get to the rim and effectively collapse a defense due to his athleticism and speed. Kyle Anderson can get to the rim, but defenses don’t have to be super cognizant of his first step. Austin Rivers can get there when his shot is falling, but that’s a pretty rare occurrence, and doesn’t have a comfort zone near the basket like Jaylen has that can be automatic. If Rivers goes off his first step, defenses can guess pretty surely that he’s going directly to the basket.
Nowell has an ability to finish at the hoop, or stop on a dime that keeps defenses honest.
His floater and close-range game can be so good. It’s the consistency piece that just needs to be there. When that piece gets put in place, the catching and shooting that the offense can so desperately need from him starts to show visibility.
Personnel will surely also be a positive impact. In 3-man lineups that Nowell is a part of that have played at least 80 minutes together, there are two players that the top seven combos have in common; Jaden McDaniels and Jordan McLaughin. McLaughlin, along with Edwards, make up the top trio, with a net rating of 36.4.
Conversely, D’Angelo Russell was a member of two of the worst five trios, also pointing out that Austin Rivers is as well. While Rivers may be another story, it can be easy to see why two shoot-first guards that had a hard time on defense (one more than the other) can be an issue in point differential, and can struggle to get each other going.
What impact will Mike Conley, a point guard with a vastly different style to Russell, have next to Jaylen? What will Jordan McLaughlin without a minutes restriction after the All-Star break do to better the consistency that became the expectation before the season?
Whatever ends up happening, Nowell has an opportunity to right the course the rest of the season and help drive a bench that goes with the tides. He’s set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and previous reports have indicated he may not be coming back. Frankly, there’s a lot of work to be done to play himself into a sizable contract, and the next 21 games will be the most important ones in trying to do so; whether it’s putting himself in position to leave for another team and make it so the Wolves can’t keep him, or being forced to a short-term, team-friendly deal to put together a sales pitch for the league next season.
Only time will tell.