The Minnesota Timberwolves opened their season tonight at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder. After a busy offseason that was highlighted by the acquisition of All-Star center Rudy Gobert, the Wolves enter this season with higher expectations than ever.
Naturally, with changes to the roster comes a learning curve – finding out which players mesh, which players are playing well enough to be in the rotation, and adjusting to the strengths of new personnel. Even punctuating that further, the Timberwolves admittedly did not get any real work with their starting five until the fifth and final preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets, and we know how that turned out.
Luckily, the Wolves have a favorable schedule to open their season, starting with games against the Oklahoma City Thunder (W 115-108), the Utah Jazz, back with the Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs in back-to-back games, the LA Lakers, and finally, the Timberwolves face the Spurs once more in their first seven games. This stretch of games could prove crucial for the Wolves to develop their chemistry without significant detriment to their record.
As the Wolves work to integrate their new-look team on opening night, here are 5 things to watch for:
1. Karl-Anthony Towns’ minutes
According to The Athletic, Karl-Anthony Towns is still recovering from an infection that hospitalized him a few weeks ago. It is worth noting how much court time he ends up getting tonight as he works his way back to full health.
Surprisingly, the team allowed Towns to remain on the basketball court for 36 minutes, despite signs that he was clearly not having one of his better games. That seemed like a lot of time for him to play. Will he put up as many minutes in the next one?
2. Who will play center when Rudy Gobert is off the floor?
The center rotation will definitely be something to watch on opening night. The idea of having at least one of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert on the floor at all times is certainly positive, but if the Wolves have changed their defensive scheme to fit Gobert, does Towns make sense as the backup center?
There really is no other obvious backup center on this roster right now. In the opener, when Gobert was off the floor, Towns moved to the five and either Tarean Prince or Kyle Anderson stepped in to take over at the power forward position.
Despite Naz Reid showing flashes of greatness in the preseason, the coaches decided to sit him in this one. Perhaps that was because his rebounding and defensive consistency are always in question, which makes it hard to play him as a standalone center.
In the opener, both Kyle Anderson and Taurean Prince were part of the front-court rotation, and that may end up being the way Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch manages the rotation until he is convinced that both Towns and Gobert are comfortable in their new roles.
The backup center position may prove to be one of the most important components of this team’s success, and will certainly be worth monitoring early in the season.
3. Jaylen Nowell’s role
Chris Finch has publicly acknowledged that he wants Jaylen Nowell to have a bigger role. While there will be no shortage of backcourt competition for minutes, this is the start of Jaylen Nowell’s contract year.
Perhaps that is why Nowell dropped so many jaws with his first three minutes of play in this one, while he scorched the Thunder for eight points. That is one heckuva way to debut, particularly as he vies for a new contract. Nowell led the Timberwolves bench in scoring by putting up 13 points.
4. Will the rookies get any minutes?
Rookie wing Wendell Moore Jr. and forward Josh Minott are the two rookies on the Minnesota Timberwolves roster, and both will face significant competition for minutes at their respective positions. While it’s traditional to ease rookies into their first season with limited playing time, it will be interesting to see if these two can crack the rotation at all.
Quite simply, the Wolves are a deep team. However, perimeter defense in an area where this team certainly has some question marks. If WMJ or Minott show that they can contribute defensively on the perimeter, that may be their quickest route to earning minutes in this deep rotation.
Either player taking the court may take some time, as the Timberwolves clearly need to polish up their 10-man rotation quite a bit before working other players into the mix. But both are very intriguing players, and I will be excited to see how they perform this season.
5. Winning the Game
Perhaps the most important thing to watch – is who will win the game. The Timberwolves entered this game as 10.5-point home favorites. The opener was a good test, as the Thunder proved to have enough young talent to test the Timberwolves all the way to the final buzzer.
Thankfully, the home team was able to avoid an early season upset. Though it’s only one game, it’s the first of many tough challenges this team must overcome in building familiarity throughout the season if they ever hope to be one of the top teams in the Western Conference.