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Minnesota Timberwolves End of the Season Report Card: Point Guard Edition

Mike Conley, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jordan McLaughlin, and yes, even D’Angelo Russell captained the ship for the 2022-2023 Minnesota. How did each of them fare in the season long grading system?

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2023 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2022-2023 Minnesota Timberwolves season has finally been laid to rest. Beginning with the Rudy Gobert trade in July, this season has been a rollercoaster ride of optimistic highs and pessimistic lows that ultimately left fans feeling a little sick to their stomachs and asking, “was the ride worth it?”

With so much to unpack from this season, the normal articles I write with a starter/bench breakdown of grades would be too dense, so instead, I’ll release final grades by position over the next five weeks. Each section will include a player’s grades through the season and playoffs, talk a bit about their extracurriculars (factors that have nothing to do with a stat sheet), and offer a final big question for each player in regards to next season.

Today I’ll break down the point guard position for the 2022-2023 Timberwolves, looking at Mike Conley, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jordan McLaughlin, and yes, even our old friend D’Angelo Russell.

Let’s get to the grades.

Three important reminders:

1. These grades are roles-based, so the stats I’m looking at for each player are different.

2. There will be three major components of the grades: Regular season (70%), playoffs (25%) and extracurriculars (5%)

3. The extracurricular category is a new one that takes into account things that happened on and off the court that wouldn’t be captured by numbers: Awards, injuries, locker-room problems, trades, punching a teammate, etc… One extra way to quantify things that happened this season that would otherwise be missed.

Mike Conley 2022-2023 Grade: 91% (A-)

Mike Conley is one of the four Timberwolves players to finish in the “A” range from this season-long grading system. There are three main reasons why:

1. Effective shooting

Since the All-Star break, Conley shot 43% from three-point range, 87% from the free throw line, and finished the season at 63.1% during his Timberwolves tenure. While the TS% benchmark above was originally set with D’Angelo Russell in mind, Conley actually topped D’lo’s career year in shooting, albeit with less volume. Basically, he was a lights-out shooter for the Timberwolves.

2. Basketball IQ

It is pretty remarkable to remember that Conley had to learn the offense and his teammates tendencies on the fly. Then after doing that for about ten games, Karl-Anthony Towns returned from injury and the whole team needed to start fresh. While the team’s offensive performance isn’t going to win any awards, much of what ended up working came from Conley’s chemistry with Rudy Gobert, his outside shooting, and his deferral to Anthony Edwards so he could shine in the postseason.

3. Veteran Leadership

Putting Mike Conley’s locker right next to Anthony Edwards was the perfect move. Edwards has always been a sponge when it comes to veteran leaders, dating back to his rookie season with Ricky Rubio. Mike Conley is one of the most respected players in the league by fellow players, coaches, and officials. If Conley’s professionalism in game-plan preparation, on-court interaction, and off-season training can be passed onto Edwards in any way, Conley’s presence on this team will be paying dividends for years to come.

Extracurriculars: Conley gets an “A” in this category for the reasons mentioned above: Leadership and interaction with the officials. While there’s some poison in the well when it comes to every team’s/fan bases’ relationship with the officials, the Timberwolves have often allowed this frustration to snowball into technicals and postgame fines. They need a steadying force like Conley to show them a different way to interact with officials. And who knows, maybe respectful engagement will alter the way a game is called.

The Big Question: As a player that is closer to forty than thirty, how much longer can he reasonably be expected to be a key contributor?

When next season starts, Conley will be thirty-six years old and entering into the final year of his contract, but it’s not out of the question that some kind of contract extension will be on the table. There are not many players who maintain their quality of play this late into their career, but there is one other current point guard that Timberwolves fans could look to as an example: Chris Paul.

If Paul is the “Point God,” Conley is the “Point Demi-God.” Conley’s career won’t reach the same tier as Paul’s when all is said and done, but their longevity and consistent ability to make their teams better is a trait they share. Aging in the NBA does require being more judicious with minutes played, especially on busier weeks or back-to-backs. It often means taking a back seat to the younger and hungrier teammates on your roster and picking and choosing your time to be a focal point on either end of the court. But it does not have to mean that a player loses their on-court effectiveness, especially when it comes to clutch time in big games.

The Timberwolves will eventually need to address the future of the point guard position, but it is hard to imagine a better veteran to hold this position in the meantime. If the end of this season was any indication, this vet may have more left in the tank than any of us realized.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker 2022-2023 Grade: 90% (A-)

Alexander-Walker has… a bright future ahead of him. While his value was a bit more of an unknown when he came over at the trade deadline, he immediately flashed skills that proved he was more than just a throw-in. Pair his postseason performance against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the play-in and the series performance against the Denver Nuggets and Jamal Murray, and NAW made himself some money this offseason. Even more importantly, Alexander-Walker may have played his way into a key role player for this Timberwolves team going forward.

The NBA has plenty of microwave scorers on bench units - players who come in and can put up quick buckets on the right night. Alexander-Walker has proven to be a different kind of commodity - he’ll come ready to defend the other team’s best perimeter players, and due to extensive film study and effort, do everything he can to keep them from having a big night. He’s a bench refrigerator - he’ll bring a chill to the players who are getting hot.

Extracurriculars: An “A” here as well for Alexander-Walker due to his big game performances and off-court maturity (not to mention a desire to be in MN). Mike Conley’s words about NAW’s off-court mentality ended up being prophetic for the playoff series against the Denver Nuggets: “He’s a hard-working kid who wants to do right, wants to do perfect, and I think that’s probably his only flaw is he wants perfection, and it doesn’t happen. But he’s going to work every day, he’s going to be pushing other guys, and when his moment (comes), when he gets his opportunities, he’s going to make the most of it.”

The Big Question: What is a fair contract for Alexander-Walker in the off-season?

As a restricted free agent, the Timberwolves will get to match any offer that a team makes this offseason, should one come along. The question of an offer from another team is an interesting one; go back one month to when Alexander-Walker wasn’t playing and who knows if there would have been any offers waiting for him.

But after his strong finish in the postseason, it’s probable that he’s piqued the interest of some GMs around the league. The Timberwolves will likely Alexander-Walker a one-year, seven million dollar qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent, but if the franchise sees him as a piece of the younger core of this team (in the Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels window), they will offer him a longer-term deal, too.

If you use the qualifying offer as a benchmark, a deal in the three-year, $20 million range would put him alongside names like Patty Mills, Joe Ingles and Lonnie Walker IV in terms of contract value. TBD on that franchise decision, but if it were up to me, I’d make a long-term bet on the upside of this hard-working refrigerator.

Jordan McLaughlin 2022-2023 Grade: 69% (D+)

Looking at the grades above made my feelings on McLaughlin a bit more complicated than I thought they would be. I have two competing lines of thought:

1. McLaughlin was unplayable the last month of the season and into the playoffs

2. McLaughlin’s season wasn’t statistically that different from last season as he once again finished the season as the best player on the team in plus/minus

Much like D’Angelo Russell in the playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, it is going to be hard to shake the images of him getting easily blocked, missing open threes, and overall just looking a step slow and indecisive. His best stretch of the year came in the first twenty games of the season, something that feels like a lifetime ago from a basketball perspective.

Extracurriculars: A “C” here for McLaughlin due to missing a large chunk of the season with a calf injury and his postseason performance.

The Big Question: Do you bring him back next season (on a two million dollar contract that is currently unguaranteed) as a backup point guard option or try to find a veteran minimum replacement?

It is possible to both pursue a backup point guard with the limited funds available to the team (using the mid-level), and bring back McLaughlin with the hope that he can have a return-to-form season. With a thirty-six year old point guard at the top of the pecking order, there are worse things than having McLaughlin as option number three.

Unfortunately for him, there is a huge chasm between how fans perceive him this year versus last year. Fan perception doesn’t always equate to front office decision-making, so it’s possible he’ll get one last run with the team. If he does get another shot, he’ll have an uphill battle to prove that he belongs not only on this team, but in the league.

D’Angelo Russell 2022-2023 Grade: 80% (B-)

While it does seem like it was another lifetime, D’Angelo Russell actually played as many minutes for the Timberwolves as the rest of the players on this list combined. For the majority of the season, he was the team’s identity at point guard, and even as he developed more of an off-ball role, he was really good for this team on the offensive end. He had a career-year shooting the ball, and was arguably the best he’s been since his All-Star season with the Brooklyn Nets.

Even with all of that, the Timberwolves front office decided to trade him rather than pay him in the offseason. And you know what? I don’t think the front office or the majority of Timberwolves fans are having any kind of seller’s remorse after seeing Mike Conley lead the team for the final two months of the season (not to mention Alexander-Walker and three second round picks).

Extracurriculars: Stories about locker room issues with Rudy Gobert (certainly doesn’t seem like Russell was the only one), and ultimately being traded leave this at a “D” level. Add in something like his most recent comments about being “held back in Minnesota” and the disconnect between Russell’s perception of himself and the totality of his on-court performance leaves an elephant into the room. Irrational confidence can make a career for a player, but if it isn’t tempered with enough self-awareness, it can derail a career pretty quickly too.

D’Lo can have great games on the offensive end where he will flash like he’s one of the best players in the league. But, just as often, he’ll have an off-shooting night where his defensive liabilities leave you asking if the team would just be better off without him. When a team has to hide you on defense, you aren’t being held back as a player, you are holding the team back.

The Big Question: What will Russell sign for this offseason?

This off-season, the money will talk for D’Lo. He views himself as an upper-echelon player in the league and it’s possible (though not likely IMO) a team will feel that way too and offer him another large contract. The longstanding question about Russel’s time in Minnesota always came back to whether or not his incendiary shooting stretches could off-set the other holes in his game. If he is a player on a large contract, does he do enough to justify the salary slot?

The Timberwolves answered those questions with a no and decided to move on. D’Lo has a chance to prove them wrong. We’ll see what offers come his way this summer.

Check back next week for the final report cards of the shooting guard position for the 2022-2023 Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards, Austin Rivers, Jaylen Nowell and Wendell Moore Jr.