I recently wrote about players
benefiting from opportunities due to health and safety
protocols and COVID absences in the NBA, and Nowell deserves his
own breakdown in entirety, as he's perhaps beneftted from this
opportunity more than perhaps any other player. He's soared in an
expanded and certain role, cementing himself as a key cog of the
Wolves for the foreseeable future; Minnesota fully guaranteed his deal for
the remainder of the year earlier this month.
Nowell has crushed his role in Minnesota's offense since
grabbing the reins (21 minutes per game since Dec. 17th), averaging
12.7 points and 3.0 assists on 61.8% True Shooting while canning
38.8% of his threes (3.5 per game). A quick glance over might
project Jaylen as a formidable 3-and-D player, but that misses the
mark in understanding his game and play style.
Minnesota as a team strongly lacks downhill juice among their
ball-handlers outside of Anthony Edwards, who is still learning to
balance out his game in the half-court, often opting into pull-up
jumpers despite one of the best first steps in basketball. D'Angelo
Russell is one of the better pure passers in the league, but his
lack of ability to get to the rim or paint can inhibit his ability
to shift the defense with his scoring threat.
Nowell has served as a sort of changeup off the bench, blending
powerful driving with deft touch inside the free-throw line, and a
cocktail of pull-up jumpers and high-level reads as a playmaker to
capitalize in the pick-and-roll.
Nowell is second in drives per 75 possessions on the Wolves
according to Basketball Index, only behind Anthony Edwards in
frequency. He's not the bounciest finisher, but his timing is
incredible. He excels at using angles and the fullest reach
possible on finishes to make the most out of his physical
57% of his shots come from 0-to-14 feet (rim to free-throw
line), the highest mark on the team by a wide margin (Edwards takes
49% of his shots here); Nowell shoots 57.6% on those, including 77%
at the rim!
Despite relatively poor shooting off-the-catch at just below 33%
on those looks, Nowell is a fantastic secondary creator off the
weak side, and flows well off of movement into ball-screens to
attack a bent defense and continue advantages.
As noted with his timing, he's fantastic at collapsing the
defense to his full capability at the rim before punishing the
defense with quick drop-offs once the defense is committed.
What I've found most impressive about Nowell is his patience.
Many of the prolific drivers in basketball can have wreckless
tendencies, with an all-or-nothing mentality at the rim leading to
some wild misses, and many, a blocked shot.
Jaylen has a stellar awareness of his own abilities, how the
defense is accounting for them and what his teammates are capable
of doing with the space provided to them at any given time.
Nowell's pacing in the half-court and ability to maintain
composure in spite of defensive pressure just pops. I don't have
any fancy way to break it down; you just watch and think "Wow, that
guy's been breaking down NBA defenses for years."
His footwork is killer, and he's terrific at forcing defenders
to overplay their coverage, extending themselves a touch too far.
And then, either Naz Reid or Jarred Vanderbilt is getting hit with
a pocket pass for a quick rim-run that can't be stopped.
He's a master, as well, at hitting the far corner (sometimes too
much) out of pick-and-roll.
He has his reads down in a computer-like fashion, but his craft
and timing prevent his game from appearing mechanical. The second
the low-man tagger commits to the drive, the ball is whipped on a
string to corner outlets.
One of my few qualms with him is his tendency to kill drives
early. He still makes quality decisions and quickly passes when he
decides to cut his drive off, but there are runways he leaves open
that are ripe for the taking.
The Wolves' poor screening certainly plays a part in this
however. Minnesota is pretty focused on its screeners slipping to
the rim or popping to three; that can still draw switches, but it
pretty regularly results in minimal separation created for the
player running the ball-screen. I've particularly enjoyed when
Nowell and Reid get to play together, as the big man can both
screen for separation and roll effectively. Nowell really excelled
with Greg Monroe as well when he played on a 10-day contract,
showing the blueprint for getting the most out of Nowell's on-ball
Nowell has largely impressed in every facet out of the
pick-and-roll. He's shooting 51.6% on pull-up twos (very good),
54.5% on pull-up threes on one per game — which is unsustainable —
but defenses have been burnt going under on ball-screens many a
time by his jumper.
Second Spectrum data can be imperfect or lack context, but
Nowell ranks in the 85th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler
among those who have played at least 20 games and run at least one
of those plays per game. His 0.98 points-per-possession average is
the most efficient on the Wolves.
Nowell's emergence has been a blessing for Minnesota, as I'd
posit that he's been one of the four or five most important
offensive players for them this season. Especially for a team that
has struggled to create in the half-court (24th in half-court
efficiency per Cleaning the Glass), Nowell's creation has been a
Yet, Nowell's emergence over the last month has also brought up
legitimate questions about the roster build and how to better round
out the team prior to the playoffs (one in which the Wolves need to
Nowell's on/off splits, while not entirely indicative, back up
many of my on-court observations; the Wolves outscore opposition by
10.5 points per 100 possessions with Nowell at point guard, but are
outscored by 4.0 points per 100 possessions when he's at the 2,
with the difference almost entirely coming from how many points are
allowed by the defense rather than points the Wolves don't
Jaylen is a pretty underwhelming defender, as noted by both himself and Chris
Finch, but he's much better playing out atop the key,
pressuring opposing guards rather than rotating backline and
closing out, a huge part of Minnesota's defense. When playing the
point, he's asked to do more of what he's good at, and often has
another rangy defender on the court with him rather than being
asked to rotate off-ball, where his poor tendencies as a
ball-watcher can get the best of him.
This Wolves roster is full of useful players, but they're useful
players who struggle to impact the game on both ends in a positive
way. The farther you get down the roster, the more this stands out;
it's a natural problem, but one that stands out tremendously for a
team hoping to make noise in the playoffs.
Nowell is solidifying himself as one of the players who can
impact the game at a high enough level for the Timberwolves to
overlook his drawbacks. Regardless of what Minnesota does to shore
up its roster ahead of the looming Feb. 10 trade deadline, Nowell
has deservingly played himself into the rotation and appears primed
to parlay his consistent stretch into a new contract (the Wolves
have a team option this off-season, but I wouldn't be shocked if
they look to sign Nowell to a new deal instead).
There are few things more rewarding than witnessing someone make
the most of their opportunity and thriving, and Jaylen Nowell
continues to do just that.