Minnesota Timberwolves basketball is back!
Sure, it’s just preseason, but who cares? The Timberwolves kicked off their 2023-24 season with a 111-99 win over the Dallas Mavericks in Abu Dhabi. Anthony Edwards was unfortunately a last-minute scratch due to an ankle injury, but we saw the rest of the expected starting lineup that led the the Wolves into halftime with a 66-49 lead.
After halftime, the starters only played a little into the third quarter, but what they showed in the first half should get fans excited. One of the big concerns with the Timberwolves’ offense last season was the lack of structure and overall consistency. So far, and yes, it’s only one half of a preseason game, those concerns seem to be addressed.
In the first half, Minnesota had some of their best ball movement over the last year. The starters finished with 11 assists on 18 made shots, and the entire team finished with 28 assists on 42 made shots. The Timberwolves seemed to run more set plays than they tended to last year, but the overall structure and flow of the offense was also much better. Even when there wasn’t a specific play being run, players were in very specific spots, moving off one another, and ensuring that the ball rarely stuck in one spot for too long.
The most obvious standout among the starters was Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns finished with 20 points on 50% shooting, just 2-7 from deep, but it was the healthiest, most comfortable, and most versatile he’s looked in Wolves threads in a long time. The three-time All-Star showed he’s still more than capable as an on-ball scorer, but his off-ball scoring looks to have made a meaningful improvement. Towns was his typical threat shooting out of the pick-and-pop, but they also generated similar looks for him by using him more as an off-ball screener as well. Even when he didn’t get the kick out in these situations, he frequently forced a switch, which he proceeded to exploit off the bounce or in the post. Towns was also really active with his cuts from the weak side, something that will serve him well especially when playing alongside Kyle Anderson.
The other major development on offense appears to be how the Timberwolves are using Rudy Gobert on offense.
Last season, Minnesota gave Gobert an annoying amount of pure post-up possessions. That wasn’t the case in this game. Head Coach Chris Finch still kept him regularly involved in the offense and targeted him around the rim, but they set up his shots in a much more favorable fashion. Instead of pure post-ups, the Wolves mostly targeted Gobert out of drives. That improved ball movement we previously talked about also created a lot of opportunities for players like Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to attack closeouts. This is where they were then able to create 2-on-1 situations at the rim, and the slashers were consistently looking for the dump offs to Gobert out of the drive.
Even when the Timberwolves targeted Gobert in the post, they used a set play to create the look. They didn’t just have him stand on the block and post up, but instead used him as a screener to force the switch and then drag the smaller defender down to the rim. In these situations, Gobert can create a more effective seal in the post, catch the ball cleaner, and can essentially just turn around and shoot over the smaller defender.
On the defensive end, it looks evident that Alexander-Walker’s impact from last season wasn’t a fluke. The pairing of him and McDaniels is going to be a nightmare for opponents on the perimeter, and we still have yet to see what that really looks like with Edwards as well. Alexander-Walker was an ideal role player in this game as he defended at a high level, rebounded well, made a couple of threes, and racked up five assists, too.
Aside from the starters, though, it looks like the Timberwolves have some fascinating depth and versatility throughout the roster. The third quarter became the Naz Reid show as he became the offensive hub. They targeted him as a play finisher around the rim and fed him in every area of the floor to create his own shot, en route to the beloved big man scoring 10 of his 16 points in the frame.
While we know the impact that Reid can/will have on this team, there was a bit more of a question mark around the newcomers of Shake Milton and Troy Brown Jr. As rotation players off the bench, boy did they look good. The initial impression is how much size Finch can put on the court when starting point guard Mike Conley subs out. Having the smallest player be 6-foot-5” gives the team so much versatility on both ends of the floor.
Milton got the backup point guard minutes in this game, and it would be surprising if that doesn’t keep throughout the season. The former Philadelphia 76ers guard showed his offensive versatility with 12 points on 5-6 shooting. He knocked down a few spot-up triples, had a few blow-by drives, and got to his spots in the mid-range. Milton’s size also allowed him to switch on defense and grab four rebounds.
it's Shake's turn.— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) October 5, 2023
Brown also looks like he is going to seamlessly fill the Taurean Prince role from the last few seasons. Brown finished with six points on 2-6 shooting (2-5 from three), but he also grabbed seven rebounds. He’s a veteran who knows how to defend and knock down shots off the catch.
The common theme with both Milton and Brown, though, is how much rebounding they offered. The Timberwolves somehow finished 23rd in the league in rebounds per game last season, and a big reason for that was the lack of rebounding they got from their guards and wings. If the Wolves can continue to get a similar effort on the boards from them, they’ll be in a much better position to consistently end possessions. By the time the final buzzer sounded, Minnesota won the rebounding battle as a whole 56-42, and turned 11 offensive rebounds into 21 points — all impressive marks.
It’s just one preseason game, but it’s ok to be optimistic about this Timberwolves season. They played a really strong game that feels replicable on both ends of the floor. Hopefully we get to see Edwards rejoin the mix on Saturday to see how things gel, but why not get excited?