Jordan McLaughlin returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ lineup and received a warm welcome Sunday vs. the Denver Nuggets. The 30 games McLaughlin missed with a calf injury shined a light on the value he can provide the Wolves, and fans showed how glad they were to have him back.
Jordan McLaughlin ovation pic.twitter.com/4u35vZPlbK— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) February 6, 2023
McLaughlin didn’t put up crazy numbers in his first game back: He went for two points, three assists and one turnover in 12 minutes. But he did showcase a little of that magic as well as the positive, subtle influence he has on Minnesota’s play style.
Jordan McLaughlin acrobatic transition layup pic.twitter.com/oduthXjghv— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) February 6, 2023
As things stand, Minnesota sits in seventh place in the Western Conference, just two games back of the 3-seeded Kings and three games ahead of the 13th-seeded Lakers. Everything is ahead of them, good and bad, with 26 games left to play. They need as many edges as they can get in the sprint to the finish, and McLaughlin can absolutely be one of them. Here are three ways his return can help Minnesota for the stretch run of the season:
1) Another ball handler to lighten the load on Anthony Edwards (and D’Angelo Russell)
The absence of McLaughlin and KAT has forced Edwards and Russell to take an outsized share of the team’s offensive creation. Edwards, especially, has taken on a big role with a career-high 29.3 usage percentage per Basketball-Reference.
McLaughlin ranks third on the team this year and was fourth last year in average seconds per touch per NBA.com. Both seasons, Edwards and Russell have been ahead of him. He also led the team in average dribbles per touch last season and is doing so again this year.
This is a guy who can step in and run offense when the other two need to hit the bench or take a few possessions off as the primary creator. Edwards’ cratering 3-point efficiency (4-for-23, 17.4% over the last three games) is the best indicator that carrying such a heavy load and playing every game is taking a toll on his legs. Having another option is crucial to preventing him and Russell from burning out.
It also helps that McLaughlin is one of the most reliable players in the league with the ball in his hands, leading the Wolves in assist-to-turnover ratio both this season and last season with a combined mark of 4.68-to-1 over that stretch.
2) Unlocking Jaylen Nowell’s best ball
Nowell and McLaughlin played great together throughout last season. They have synergy and complementary skill sets; McLaughlin is the table-setter, while Nowell is the microwave bucket-getter.
McLaughlin and Nowell had a net rating of +8.0 when they shared the floor last season (91st percentile). Wolves net rating for the season was +3.2— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) February 6, 2023
Nowell is especially better as a 3-point shooter next to McLaughlin. Over the last two seasons, his 3-point rate rises from 35.9 without McLaughlin to 42.5 with him, and his 3-point percentage takes an accompanying jump from 30.3% to 39%.
Because McLaughlin is there to take a larger role in setting up the offense and get him good looks, Nowell sees upticks of 4.22 points per 100 possessions and 5% in his true shooting percentage with McLaughlin on the floor as opposed to without.
Nowell has been a bit disappointing this year, but he’s still capable of being an X factor for the Wolves. The more McLaughlin can do to unlock that, the better. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Nowell played his best game in weeks (16-4-4, 6-10 FG) in McLaughlin’s return.
3) Elevating the ball movement when he is on the floor
Some guys are contagious passers, meaning the whole team moves the ball better when this one player is on the floor. No one’s going to mistake McLaughlin for Magic Johnson or Larry Bird in this regard, but the numbers say Minnesota is much more productive as a passing unit when McLaughlin is out there.
Not only does Minnesota average almost three more assists per 100 possessions with McLaughlin, they also generate 7.77 more assist points per 100 possessions with him.
For a team that can get stuck in the mud with one-on-one hero ball on occasion, it’s crucial to get guys out there who get the rock moving.
Of course, McLaughlin’s own passing talent plays a role in this — he has ranked second on the team in adjusted assist-to-pass percentage, which takes free throw and secondary assists into account, in both 2021-22 and 2022-23. Still, he undeniably brings a positive energy to the court that encourages ball movement.