The former Pac-12 Player of the Year showed offensive promise in year two. How big of a leap can he take under Chris Finch?
The 2020-21 NBA season was a roller coaster for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Injuries, COVID-19, a coaching change, and performance all affected the back end of a Wolves rotation with largely undefined roles, minute allocations and expectations.
That’s what makes this an interesting season to recap when putting each player under a microscope, which is what I’ll be doing from now leading up to the tip of the 2021-22 season at the end of October. I’ll go over each player’s biggest strength and weakness, what parts of his game I would buy stock in, and a projected role for him on next season’s iteration of the Timberwolves. Note that for some players, I may project them to be off the roster by the start of the season.
To kick things off, I’ll be diving into second-year Timberwolf Jaylen Nowell’s performance this season.
Per Game Statistics
- 9.0 points on 42.4 / 33.3 / 81.8 shooting splits on 8.0 / 3.6 / 1.3 attempt splits
- 2.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks and 0.7 turnovers in 18.1 minutes
- 52.8% TS, 0.044 WS/48, -3.0 EPM (-1.4 Off. EPM, -1.6 Def. EPM)
Nowell was affected by the internal tumult — from a basketball perspective — as much as any member of the team, but he showed real promise when he was healthy and got consistent burn.
Over the course of the season, Nowell’s minutes per game fluctuated wildly by month:
- December/January: 15.8 minutes, six games missed with injury, eight DNPs
- February: 16.6 minutes, 0 DNPs
- March: 24.5 minutes, 0 DNPs
- April: 13.0 minutes, seven games missed with injury, five DNPs
- May: 11.5 minutes (11, 3, 25 and 7 minutes in four games), four DNPs,
As I’ve followed college basketball and the NBA more closely, I’ve found that it’s somewhat common for an elite shooter with a huge role in college to struggle with his transition into an NBA role with very inconsistent minutes.
Nowell is no different. In college, he 39.6% from 3 on 227 attempts over two seasons and in the G-League, he shot 43.6% on seven attempts per game over 26 games (181 total attempts). So far in the NBA, he’s shot 30.1% on 176 3-pointers across his 910 career minutes in two seasons.
The start to his career reminds me of how Malik Beasley, one of the NBA’s 10 best shooters, began his career in Denver with the Nuggets.
After Beasley shot 38.7% on 4.2 3s per game at Florida State (142 attempts), he transitioned into a spotty role with the Nuggets. He went to the G-League and shot 37% on 81 3s. Then, when it was clear he was an NBA player, he shot 33.6% on his first 110 3s, playing in an inconsistent role. Beasley has shot 39.7% on 1002 3-pointers since then and is widely viewed as one of the best shooters in the league.
Now I’m not saying Nowell is going to have some heroic turnaround where his career trajectory will follow a similar arc as Beasley, but there’s plenty of reason not to overreact to his first two seasons.
Biggest Strength: Shotmaking
Under Chris Finch, Nowell showed exactly why he has believers as an NBA player. If you look at the games he played after Finch took over in which he was actually healthy (throwing out his last six games), he shot 29/76 (38.2%). To me, that number matches his form and the quality of looks he got as a shooter much more so than the 30.1% mark he’s been at over the course of his NBA career thus far.
Immediately after Finch was hired, Nowell went on a run of 10 double-digit scoring games in his the first 13 games he played for Finch, including a career-high 28 points on 11/13 FG in a 135-105 win over New Orleans on March 11. Arguably the biggest reason why it was his best game was because he received more ball screens in this game than any other by a mile.
(H/T @WolvesClips on Twitter)
I lead with this just to give you a quick glimpse of what he’s capable of against legitimate NBA defense. In this game alone, Nowell made four side-step or step-back 3s going to his left, two pull-up triples, and a nasty mid-range pull over the face of a big in a drop. Pretty high-level stuff.
His footwork, balance, and lift are all incredibly advanced for a 21-year-old who has received limited playing time in the NBA.
Let’s get into a few plays individually.
A significant point of intrigue for me with Nowell is that the only player with the versatility he has as a shooter is D’Angelo Russell. Whether it be flying off pin-downs, spotting up, or shooting off hand-off situations, Nowell is comfortable shooting out of all of them.
No, I’m not including Beasley as part of this group, because he is limited off the dribble as a shooter. The fact that Beasley still that good of a shooter without a handle to create his own shots speaks volumes to just how good he is without the ball in his hands.
Here, Anthony Edwards sets a pretty lazy screen that does nothing to help Nowell, but Nowell is still able to create space coming to receive the hand-off because of how he changes pace. When Edwards comes, Nowell is barely moving, making Damion Lee think he won’t be going anywhere. Then, he accelerates quickly, but is able to takes the hand-off under control and get to his set shooting position. Nowell’s footwork is great here, as well. He receives the ball on his lead shooting foot, gets a solid base, squares the rim, and fires off an effortless beauty.
In this next clip, watch the way Nowell catches the ball.
He purposefully waits until the last minute before hopping to his right so that his base is already set when catching the ball and all he has to do is rise up. He doesn’t care that a hand is in his face, either. I love the confidence to let that thing fly.
Another thing Nowell does well in this clip is the way he finishes his cut. Nothing is there, so he sprints to the open space on the floor. He then makes himself available by flashing his hands in the air to get KAT’s attention, and boom. Also take note of the way Josh Okogie cuts. If JO doesn’t cut there, that’s a steal for Bryn Forbes. He keeps Forbes occupied for just long enough for the pass to make it to Nowell.
When Nowell does play next season, I expect him to be used in initiating positions in Finch’s actions because he has a good handle, which will allow Finch to be more creative in the way he creates shots for Nowell either off the dribble or off screens and hand-offs. As a result of this, you’ll see him in these types of horns sets. He can either get a ball screen (more on this coming up), throw a pass followed by a back-screen for the opposite horn and lift above the break, or stay above the break after he makes a pass to set up a hand-off.
In this play, we get a good-ol’-fashioned give-and-go. The context of this play is important. Minnesota had run this set earlier in the game where Nowell, Edwards or Russell would receive a hand-off going to the rim, which is why Gary Trent Jr. goes under the screen here. Nowell does a good job staying tight to Okogie before stepping back out once he sees Trent go under, opening up a wide-open triple. Nowell’s footwork is so good that he’s able to fluidly turn it into a step-back without fading; he lands in the same spot he jumps from. That’s tough to do, especially with a defender charging at your face.
This type of action is going to be a staple of the offense next season, with Edwards likely in Nowell’s spot and a shooter in Okogie’s spot. Notice how Okogie flares over a screen from KAT while Nowell is shooting the ball. If Ant were to be receiving that hand-off, Rodney Hood would have to help, leaving Okogie wide open in the weak-side slot. If a shooter is in that spot, Ant’s vision is advanced enough to make that read.
One of my favorite aspects of Nowell’s game is how well he understands the gravity of his teammates. Here, Nowell sees that Poku is in the paint with his back to the corner because of the threat KAT presents as a roller after setting a screen. So, he immediately flows quickly to a wide open corner and Ricky Rubio hits him with a beautiful skipper over Poku for 3.
Notice again the way Nowell catches this pass. He waits for the ball to get all the way to him, then hops to his left so he can load and fire in one quick motion.
May doubt Nowell or simply dismiss him because of his shooting numbers thus far in his NBA career, but there is just too much there in terms of IQ, mechanics, and confidence at age 21 for me not to strongly believe he will be an impactful shooter, at the very least, in his NBA career. For a Timberwolves team that has been so devoid of shooting and smart off-ball players in recent years, a player like Nowell needs to get consistent burn next season, even if he isn’t a good defender (although I don’t see him as a guy defenses hunt).
Biggest Weakness: Finishing at the Rim
Nowell struggled to adjust to the strength and size of NBA defenses at the rim in his second season. He shot just 51% at the rim, good for the 13th percentile among shooting guards in the NBA.
To his credit, Nowell adjusted to his struggles and began pulling up more from the mid-range, where he is much more proficient. But if he wants to take the next step forward as a player that can truly be an offensive engine off the bench, he will need to shore up his finishing at the rim.
He has pretty decent touch, but hasn’t consistently gotten to the rim enough to know where on the floor he wants to get to and how he wants to replicate his shot from that spot. For example, we’ve seen Chris Paul get to the block, lean into a defender and fadeaway over and over in these playoffs, while Devin Booker prefers to get downhill quickly, put on the brakes, elevate and hang over passing defenders and use the glass on the drive.
However, Nowell’s lack of finishing consistency and creativity is perhaps most evident in transition.
Here, it appears Nowell couldn’t decide on how he wanted to go at Cedi Osman. Instead of jumping into Osman, he jump stops before jumping and flailing his legs awkwardly, unable to get a clean look at the rim or get the ball up off the glass solidly. He doesn’t attempt to go into Osman’s chest and, as a result, is shooting at a weird angle that effectively is the same as having his back to Osman when trying to attempt the layup.
Because his footwork and overall body control are so advanced on the perimeter, it would be encouraging to see Nowell add more ball fakes, euro-step finishes and floaters, as well as those Booker-style hanging jumpers as he attacks the rim. He may not have the touch to consistently utilize the latter two yet, but it’s worth a shot at developing them given where he’s at as a finisher right now.
In this play, the lack of a consistent/confident cadence when attacking the rim hinders him. He has a wide open lane to gain steam, which, for a guy has good athleticism and can get above the rim easily, usually results in a dunk, or at the very least a foul.
Instead, Nowell attacks the bucket with a mindset of getting fouled, rather than scoring. When going against one of the game’s elite defenders in Robert Covington, that usually doesn’t work. This is where that euro-step package could be very useful. Nowell is very good at changing pace, which works well with euros. If he threw a head fake at RoCO on the first step of a euro and then got to the middle of the lane for left-handed finish or a slight fading teardrop/floater with his right hand, he’d have an easier time scoring, especially with the middle of the paint clear of defenders who can help and block his shot.
I’ll preface this next one with saying not every NBA defensive big is as mobile as or has the defensive awareness level of Nicolas Claxton and is going to block this shot.
However, this is an excellent case of Nowell again trying to do a little too much when he’s matched up against a bigger wing. He does a good job of trying to get into Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot’s body, but then hangs back a bit, which allows Claxton to make the block.
For Nowell, I think having this mindset of getting into guys’ bodies is good, but he just has to get used to the contact, and creating it while staying downhill rather than needing a gather to allow help defenders to catch up.
I think Jimmy Butler is a great example of a player to watch on the drive and how he uses his strength and downhill mindset to his advantage, no matter how big the defender is.
Here, he takes long strides to maintain a strong base that allows him to elevate or absorb a hit from a defender while staying on-balance so he can finish no matter how the defender reacts. He goes right into Bojan Bogdanovic’s chest and stays square to the hoop, allowing him to have a clean look at the rim.
Sure, Butler has four inches and a good 30 pounds on Nowell, but this type of attack will work if Nowell gets into a defender’s chest with a strong head of steam.
Alternatively, he could learn from the way Butler uses supreme body control, and head and ball fakes to get defenders in the air. In this play, Butler changes speeds nicely to make Onyeka Okongwu think he’s going to go straight to the rim. Instead, he gathers, ball fakes, takes the hit, and finishes through it.
Because Nowell has such good body control on the perimeter, it is feasible to think he could develop it on the drive. However, he is a ways off and needs to add 10-15 pounds of muscle if he wants to effectively score at the third level, keep defenders guessing, and make his pull-up shooting a more deadly weapon on straight-line drives.
Buy Stock: On-Ball PnR/Hand-off Shot Creation and Playmaking
Dating back to his high school days, Nowell has always been a combo guard that is comfortable with or without the ball in his hands. However, his on-ball skills are what gives him immense offensive potential if he continues to expand his bag and shoot it with more consistency.
The part of Nowell’s game that is talked about the least is his ability to create his own offense out of the pick-and-roll game and his handle.
He makes smart decisions with the ball, as evidenced by his impressive 7% turnover percentage (89th percentile) relative to his 13% assist percentage (50th percentile) and 21.4 usage percentage last season.
His handle is pretty good, and he’s confident in it, as you’ll see with the way he sets up ball screens in the following actions.
Here, Nowell does a good job of navigating a high screen from Karl-Anthony Towns; he realizes that Steven Adams is playing seven feet off KAT, so once Nickeil Alexander-Walker swims around the screen, Nowell waits and gets him on his back. Why? Because it opens a passing lane to KAT if he chooses to stay high for a wide-open 3. From here, Nowell can either attack Adams off the bounce, or kick it out to KAT. He sees that KAT doesn’t flare far enough out to make it difficult for Alexander-Walker to get back to him, so he takes advantage of his mismatch, gets to a spot on the floor he likes, and makes a tough shot.
Nowell’s mid-range game is the most consistently effective part of his game at this point in his career. He shot 49% on mid-range jumpers this past season, good for 90th percentile among shooting guards, per Dunks and Threes. This is another reason why Finch is going to use Nowell as a ball-handler more next season; he can kill drop defenses both with his shot and with passes out of his shot to bigs inside, which he did a ton of at Washington.
In a similar possession, Nowell understands that because he has both Kira Lewis Jr. and Adams on him, that KAT has wide open. So he takes an extra dribble to his right to take both defenders even further away from KAT, before spinning and firing off a nice pass to Towns for an easy bucket. When he finds a rhythm, his shot-making gravity enables him to make easy reads and open things up for his teammates.
One of the biggest things you need as to create shots for yourself and others out of PnR is confidence, and Nowell has a ton of it. He has no fear pulling up from deep when given a high ball screen.
As he showed at Washington, when he’s able to knock one or two of these down, it stretches the defense out. This allows him to hit rollers and cutters for easy buckets, because both the ball-handler defender (3-point shooting) and the big defender (mid-range shooting) are forced to play further away from the basket.
Again, if we remove the last six games of Nowell’s season, he was incredibly productive on pull-up jumpers, especially under Chris Finch when he had the ball in his hands more often.
Note that in this sample, 36% of his 2-pointers were pull-ups and 26.5% of his 3s were pull-ups. He’s very comfortable shooting these shots and he’s wildly efficient in doing so. With the way Chris Finch’s offense is set up with tons of high ball screens, ball-handlers will have every opportunity to shoot pull-ups, especially when Towns is on the floor and bigs get switched onto guards.
The great thing about Nowell is that nearly every single time a defender goes under a screen on him, he’s going to let it fly if he’s got the space to do it. That level of confidence and lack of hesitation is going to fast-track his comfortability level and overall shooting rhythm next season. If he handles it as much as he did under Finch, I’d be very surprised if he didn’t shoot north of 37% from 3.
Just look at how calm and easy this release is. Zero hesitation.
What about defenders who go over but are out of position? He’ll make them pay for that, too.
Nowell uses the high leg here to make Lewis think he’s gearing up to blow by him. This forces him to take a couple steps back, perfectly setting up the Towns screen and allowing Towns to make good, legal contact with Lewis to give Nowell a step on him. Nowell sees that Lewis is off-balance and on the verge of falling over trying to get back into the play, so he takes a step towards him and then jolts three or four feet to his left before rising with nearly perfect balance, footwork and verticality to knock down a sweet J.
It’s incredible not only how easy Nowell makes such a difficult shot look, but also how advanced both he is at setting up a screen and his on-ball IQ is in terms of realizing the position his defender is in and given that, how quickly he reacts.
A few possessions later, he’s able to pull off the exact same move while also taking Adams with him. Adams goes with him because two minutes earlier, Nowell attacked into the mid-range and hit a jumper in his face. Pause the video when Nowell is at his apex and look at how wide open KAT is. Nowell very easily could’ve passed out of this for an easy assist, but the gravity he has is real when he gets going.
The repeatability is impressive, too. Often you’ll see young players unable to take advantage of a mismatch or repeat a move two times in a row with the same form and success; Nowell is able to not once, but twice in a row, even when the defense plays it differently.
This time, he’s got Alexander-Walker on him again.
Given the clock situation, he dances with it from side-to-side to start to make Alexander-Walker think he’s got a clear out. Instead, KAT comes and sets a screen and Alexander-Walker reaches. Nowell gets so much space from the screen that Adams has switches it. Nowell then hits him with a signature Steph Curry heat check move for his third straight 3, all off of the same action/move.
The final boss version of heat check Jaylen Nowell came in late in this game.
Nowell is coming to receive a hand-off from Juancho Hernangomez. He first gets his defender leaning with faking a back cut before coming to receive the ball. Whatever you’re thinking he’s going to do next, it isn’t that.
Because he’s already leaning and a step behind, Alexander-Walker overcommits to the hand-off. Nowell is quick enough to realize this and perfectly set Alexander-Walker up to fly in between him and Hernangomez, where Hernangomez then perfectly seals the defender off to give Nowell a mismatch on Nicolo Melli.
If you guessed that Nowell would end up shooting another step-back 3 to his left, you get partial credit.
Nowell finished this game with 28 points on 11/13 shooting and 6/7 from deep to go along with six assists and just two turnovers in 28 minutes. He thrived in a significant chunk of minutes sharing the floor with Towns, which is obviously important when evaluating his play in the context of how he fits into the team as a whole. Like I said earlier, he received more ball screens in this game than any other game. This is significant because it unlocks a massively underrated part of his game, which also serves as the key to unlocking the peak of his potential as a player. Chris Finch has the blueprint; it’s just a matter of whether or he throws Nowell out there to follow it.
Projected Role Next Season
Nowell’s role depends on a few things next season.
Chief among them is whether or not Beasley is on the roster. By some miracle, if the Wolves are able to land Ben Simmons, Beasley won’t be on the roster. If it’s in a sign-and-trade or an aggregated deal sending out Beasley and Rubio, no matter how you slice it, Beasley wouldn’t be here. If Beasley is gone, I’d expect Nowell to receive 20-25 minutes per game, similarly to how he did in March. If Ricky Rubio is still here, I’d expect him to play more off the ball than on the ball, while receiving those minutes.
If both Rubio and Beasley are gone, Nowell should get some run at backup point guard. He’s got the playmaking chops to do it and if he was tasked with running the show at Summer League (even if Leandro Bolmaro is there) that would further accelerate his comfortability and growth in a Finch-style offense. I’m not in charge, but if I were, I’d give Nowell the keys to the Summer League Wolves.
If we assume Beasley and Rubio are both back, it will be tough to nail down a role for Nowell. He and Beasley are similarly sized, which would mean one of them (likely Beasley) would be an undersized 3 on the wing in a bench lineup of Rubio, Nowell, Beasley, Okogie/Hernangomez and Naz Reid. That could very well be a terrible defensive lineup, but it should succeed offensively given the mismatches that Nowell, Beasley and Reid can present if they are used correctly.
In order to optimize Nowell, he’d need to get at least 15 minutes per game, which is definitely possible, especially if the Wolves make an upgrade that sends out Beasley and/or Rubio. Nowell is just too talented offensively to leave on the bench, especially when the Wolves’ bench went dormant far too often last season.
If he’s able to play on the ball for a good chunk of his minutes early on in the season, I expect him to have a bounce back year that finds him firmly in the Wolves’ long-term plans given he is owed just $1.8 million this year and $1.9 million next year (team option). With his talent level, it won’t be hard for him to outproduce his contract and make a sizable offensive impact after a full offseason, Summer League, training camp and preseason in a Chris Finch system.