Preseason overtime? In this economy? What an entertaining game the clash between the Wolves and Nuggets turned out to be. The 1st half was a bit of a rock fight as the teams traded runs and both scored less than 50 points. That gave way to a 2nd half with plenty of fireworks as the Nuggets caught fire and the Wolves clawed back to send it to overtime where Jaylen Nowell sent the Denver fans home sad. Here are some thoughts on preseason game #2…
1. Josh Okogie continues to be the catalyst for the team’s best stretches.
Through 2 preseason games, Josh Okogie has been the best Timberwolves player relative to their expectations. Not the best overall, but certainly has exceeded fans’ expectations more than any other Wolf. He has been the common denominator in the team’s best stretches of play from the 1st 2 games. Offensively JO has been playing in-control and is not attempting moves outside of his capabilities.
In the game against the Nuggets he made all 3 of his 2pt. shots. 2 of them were run-out layups in transition and the other was an offensive rebound putback. That is exactly how a guy like Okogie is going to get his shots. He also narrowly missed his lone 3 attempt on yet another jump shot that looked smooth, quick, and in rhythm. Encouraging to say the least. Josh also continues to have the underrated ability to get to the free throw line. In only 17 minutes Okogie attempted 6 free throws, making 5 of them. One of the weirdest stats is that Josh Okogie has basically the same career free throw rate as Luka Dončić. The guy gets to the line.
Okogie has continued his dogged perimeter defense, and seems to be the Wolves player that is most comfortable in the new scheme overall. He seamlessly oscillates between excellent point-of-attack defense and at-rim help. A healthy Okogie looks like he is back to his world-wrecking ways, now with a bit more offensive control mixed in.
2. Jaden McDaniels is having some trouble getting going on both ends of the court.
Unfortunately for the bigger JMac, it seems he is one of the Timberwolves that is starting very slowly. We all know and love his defensive capabilities, and so far it appears he is correctly executing defensive game plan but his usually staunch man to man defense has not been up to his lofty standards. This was evident as Michael Porter Jr. was able to take McDaniels off the dribble multiple times to score, clearly using his strength to knock JMac off his spot. Granted, MPJ is potentially on his way to a star-making season and could soon be one of the best scorers in the league, but we are just not used to seeing Jaden get beat 1 on 1. He is a young guy learning a new defensive system, so I have no doubt that he will be able to play faster and continue growing into a help-defense monster, but for now it is clear he is not quite there yet overall.
On offense we did not expect a large role for McDaniels, but so far he has provided very little on that end. After a nice cut and feed from Towns for an early bucket, Jaden missed his next 5 shots including 0–4 from the 3pt. line. That included 3 misses from the corner 3 spot. The Wolves are going to need Jaden to be proficient from the corner 3 at the very least, so it is a bit concerning that he is struggling to hit shots at the moment. It’s preseason and we look for Process > Results, but a positive result here and there would be nice!
3. The starters were generally outplayed.
The Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Nikola Jokić battle was the highlight of the night while each teams’ 1st units were on the floor, but the rest of the Wolves starting lineup was not up to par. Towns played encouraging defense on his superstar counterpart holding Jokić to 3–10 shooting and defending him admirably near the rim, but the big man still ended up with a near triple double at 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists in 26 minutes.
The Denver triumvirate of Nikola, Aaron Gordon, and MPJ gave Minnesota fits throughout the 1st half. It was clear that their size and skill was proving to be a bit much for the Wolves, and it lead to all of the Nuggets starters being positive double digits in the +/- category while the Wolves all scored double digits in the negative.
The main problem was certainly not the defense, although they did have a few lapses, but rather the offense was the issue. Minnesota could not buy a 3 pointer in the 1st quarter and it led to an ugly 1st shift. Part of this was due to the fact that Chris Finch is clearly not running what will be his normal offense. They are not playing through Towns in the post or at the top of the arc much, there is no sign of the go-to “Horns” sets, and the Ant/Towns pick & pop has not made much of an appearance. That is all by design in the preseason, so things will improve on that end, but it had to be a bit humbling for the Wolves starters to run up against the size and skill that Denver possesses.
4. While the starters struggled, the bench absolutely did not.
When most of the bench unit checked in for the 1st time with about 4:30 left in the opening quarter the Timberwolves were down 21–7. It had been a little lifeless up until that point, but over the next 4+ minutes they were revived. The unit consisting of Patrick Beverley, Malik Beasley, Josh Okogie, Taurean Prince, and Naz Reid cut a 14 point deficit in half by quarter’s end with a heavy dose of unrelenting perimeter defense and a lightning quick transition attack. Okogie and Beverley guarding on the perimeter is especially scary for opposing offenses.
While the 1st unit looked a bit disjointed on both ends of the court, this 2nd unit proved that they are going to be able to defend as a cohesive and energetic unit. Early in the 2nd quarter, Jordan McLaughlin (small JMac) checked in and continued the bench flurry. Good things seem to happen when JMac checks in. He immediately provided the scoring and rim pressure that the 2nd unit will need and added a little juice from beyond the arc hitting both of his 3pt. attempts.
While the starters were all major negatives in the +/- category, it was the inverse with the 2nd unit. Going forward I would worry about the half-court offense of a Beverley, Beasley, Okogie, Prince, and Naz lineup, but if McLaughlin or one of the starters can appear with some of those guys on a regular basis it seems the Wolves may have a bench that is consistently positive.
5. Bones Hyland, so hot right now.
During last year’s college basketball season I remember hearing about this player at VCU, Nah’shon “Bones” Hyland, who was lighting it up from beyond the arc. He had not reached Steph Curry levels of folklore, but it was clear that this guy was going to be able to score in the NBA. He had that type of confidence reserved for the best shooters in the world. When the 2021 draft came around and the Wolves went without a pick I remember being very jealous of Denver coming away with Hyland at pick 26. Well, preseason game #2 reaffirmed my jealously. That guy can and will score in this league. He went 6–12 on his 3’s and hit a near dagger at the end of regulation to put Denver back up 2 points. He nailed 5 of his 6 3’s in the 3rd quarter alone. It was certainly a flamethrowing performance for the rookie.
Bones is not without faults. He is only 6'2" and 170lbs, which is very thin for an NBA player. He also had 6 turnovers, and made a “bone”-headed (sorry for the pun) defensive mistake in regulation letting Jaylen Nowell waltz by him for an easy dunk to send it into overtime. He admitted after the game he thought they were up 3. Not great, Bones! Still one can easily see a season or two of development in a great system in Denver for the young guard where he turns into a high-level rotation player within a couple of years. I will certainly be jealous then!
6. Leandrooooooo Bolmaroooooo
I love that Bolmaro’s first 2 preaseason games have been nail-biters that have come down to the final possession and he has been able to be a part of both of the wins. “Welcome to the NBA, Leandro. Don’t lose us the game!”
Well so far he has not made any losing plays, and it is easy to see how he will make winning plays. Check out his lone bucket of the game. How smart is that cut? The lack of hesitation on the floater is a great sign as well. As was his confidence in stroking 2 free throws with 2 minutes left in overtime. I know it is preseason, but I promise it does not feel like that to Bolmaro as he gets his first taste of the league. These are important minutes, and being on the court in crunch time as the team squeaks out exhibition wins is a confidence boost for the young Argentinian.
Despite the clutch offensive plays, the defense is where he will make his money. All of the rugged and persistent perimeter defense that made him such a quality role player in Europe seems to have translated. He picks up the ball handler full court whenever possible and makes them work to get it up the floor. It appears he will have the quickness to defend guards making his size and length an enormous asset on the defensive end. On the game’s final possession Bolmaro ended up on an island guarding the shifty scorer, Markus Howard, and Bolmaro played aggressive yet disciplined defense to force a tough fading 3 that missed the mark. His teammates mobbed him after that final stop, knowing how difficult it is to play defense on an island like that.
Will Leandro be a star in the league? WAY too early to tell. But the abilities he was supposed to have are translating smoothly. Now it will be interesting to watch his other skills develop as he inevitably works his way into this team’s rotation in the next year or two.