For years there has been one obvious position that the Minnesota Timberwolves have been looking to upgrade: power forward. The best power forward that Karl-Anthony Towns has played alongside during his six seasons in the NBA is a 32-year-old Taj Gibson. But with one trade this offseason, the focus quickly switched from power forward to point guard. The Wolves traded Ricky Rubio to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Taurean Prince, a future second-round pick, and cash, opening a huge hole on the roster behind D’Angelo Russell.
With Rubio gone and a qualifying offer to restricted free agent Jordan McLaughlin on the table, Russell is currently the only true point guard on Minnesota’s roster. It’s a tough spot to be in. Outside of the Rubio trade, the Wolves have been eerily quiet in free agency. They missed out on the bargain of a lifetime when the Boston Celtics scooped up Dennis Schröder for one-year, $5.9 million earlier this week. The point guard market is all but dried up when the biggest remaining names include Dante Exum, Frank Ntilikina, and Jeff Teague. Given those slim pickings, Minnesota will likely look elsewhere for their backup point guard.
McKinley Wright, the rookie point guard from the University of Colorado, signed a two-way contract and is showing promise in the Las Vegas Summer League. However, the undrafted rookie who starred at Champlin Park High School isn’t ready to play significant NBA minutes yet. Minnesota could make another trade. The Wolves are $8 million under the luxury tax and still have the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception at their disposal as the roster stands.
With more than two months until the season starts, there is still plenty of time to address the roster, but the Wolves already employ a player who could fill in if need be.
Jaylen Nowell has a unique set of skills that could allow him to transition from shooting guard into a backup point guard role. Through high school and two years of college at the University of Washington, Nowell came up as more of a combo guard than a pure shooting guard. According to Basketball-Reference, he’s even run the offense about a quarter of the time on the floor in his two seasons in the NBA. Nowell has a tight handle and is a good decision maker with a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.8. That’s the same ratio as newly-minted NBA champion and gold medal winner Jrue Holiday this season.
The good thing is that Nowell likely wouldn’t be asked to take on all of the duties a normal point guard would under Chris Finch. During his first 41 games as the head coach of the Timberwolves, Finch experimented with his ball handlers, even allowing Towns to bring the ball up more often than we’ve ever seen. Nowell won’t have to go it alone, and Finch is the right coach to get spot minutes from a non-traditional point guard.
When he does have to bring the ball up, Nowell is already a master at running the pick-and-roll. Last season the Wolves scored 1.04 points per possession, with Nowell as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. That puts Nowell in the 86th percentile and tops Russell’s mark of 0.88 points per possession (albeit on five fewer possessions per game). Nowell also isn’t too shabby at handoffs, scoring 1.05 points per possession. He proved he could handle coming off the bench as a primary ball-handler in short spurts, which leads to the main issue with moving Nowell to the point: playing time.
Russell is one of the better starting point guards in the NBA — according to some Wolves fans at least — but he’s not the most durable. In his first six seasons in the NBA, DLo averaged just 29 minutes per game. That number dipped to just 28.5 last season, in which he only played 42 of a possible 72 games. He’s never played a full 82 game season and appeared in 65 or more games just twice. Having Nowell take the reins for 10-15 minutes per game could work, but if and when Russell goes down for an extended period of time, things could get dire quickly.
Who knows? Russell finds his niche perhaps in Finch’s system and stays on a pace for a career-high in both games and minutes. But if history tells us anything, Minnesota will need a second option for at least 15 games.
The Wolves may yet address the hole at point guard in free agency, re-sign McLaughlin, or give Wright a shot out of summer league. But it’s nice to know that Nowell is a solid stopgap who can answer the call if the Wolves are desperate for a lead guard. The third-year guard is still improving rapidly every season, and becoming a combo guard at the next level might be his latest evolution into an NBA difference-maker.