Searching for the Ceiling: Jaylen Nowell
The “Searching for the Ceiling” series will examine Timberwolves young players one at a time analyzing what their best case outcome could be as they continue to develop in the league. Each player’s “ceiling” will be a current veteran in the league, and if they reach the level of that current player they will have reached what I believe to be their best case outcome. Each Timberwolves player will have “ceiling” comparison on offense and on defense. First up in the series is bench spark plug and microwave scorer, Jaylen Nowell.
Jaylen Nowell is a 21 year old 2nd year guard out of the University of Washington. So far in his NBA career he has spent considerable time in the G League, and until earlier this season was a deep bench option for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Because of injuries, suspension, and ineffectiveness by players in front of him in the rotation the under-appreciated guard has received his opportunity to play consistently and has not disappointed. Long thought of as a shooter to help space the floor for the Wolves’ ball handlers, Nowell has proven that he is much more than a guy who stands in the corner and waits for a pass on offense. He is a natural scorer from anywhere on the court, and he can be a game changer when he gets hot. Coming from the University of Washington where zone defense is primarily played, it was unknown if Nowell would be able to defend in the NBA, which likely caused the Pac 12’s player of the year to slip in the draft where the Timberwolves got him with the 43rd pick in 2019. Jaylen has proven to be an adequate defender against guards, and is starting to grasp the help defense principles that can make him more than just a passable defender in the NBA. Jaylen Nowell’s success so far in his 2nd season has left Wolves fans wondering what he can be in this league, so we will measure his offense and defense against two comparable players currently in the league.
Offensive Ceiling: Jordan Clarkson
While he is not a household name, Jordan Clarkson is currently the front runner for the 6th Man of the Year award on one of the NBA’s best teams. He is averaging 18 points per game in only 26 minutes per game, and is having one of his most efficient shooting season of his career. A flame thrower off the bench is incredibly valuable to swing games for a team, and Clarkson has been all of that and more for Utah. He is able to create all of his own offense if needed, and be a three-level scorer with the ball in his hands. Inside Utah’s “drive and kick” offense Clarkson is a perfect fit as a floor spacer complementing their star players when he gets to share the floor with the starters. On Jaylen Nowell’s best days, he has proven these same qualities that Clarkson has made a staple of his game.
Along with some statistical similarities that we will get in to, Clarkson and Nowell resemble one another in size and positional characteristics. Each player measures 6’4″ and weighs right around 200lbs. Neither guy is considered scrawny, but no one would confuse them with a body builder either. They have also played the same shooting guard position, however they are not traditional off-ball shooting guards. Each player is most effective and comfortable handling the ball and probing for their own shot, but often still plays alongside a point guard. Jordan Clarkson in particular has been unlocked this season when playing with starting point guard Mike Conley and the rest of Utah’s bench. Conley is a veteran who is very comfortable playing off the ball while Clarkson handles, and is a solid defender making it possible for Clarkson to hide defensively guarding weaker opposing guards. Injuries to the Wolves guards have forced Nowell into more point guard duty, but in the long term Nowell may be best suited to be deployed with a veteran point guard off the bench.
Finally, there are some statistical metrics that match the eye test for each of these players when comparing each of their 2nd seasons in the league. Instead of normal counting stats, we need to use their Per 36 minutes and Advanced Stats as Clarkson started all 79 of the games he played in that season for the Lakers while Nowell has not started a game and has only appeared in 25 so far (as of 3/16/21).
The first noticeable difference is in the 3pt. attempts and percentage. Nowell has fared much better so far, but the NBA was a far different league even as recent as the 2015–16 season. Clarkson took many more shots from the midrange and floater areas of the court, while Nowell distributes his shots primarily between the rim and 3pt. attempts. The other statistics show great similarities. Their 2pt. %, free throw %, rebounding, and assists all show a striking resemblance.
An even further dive into the advanced stats for each of Nowell and Clarkson’s 2nd season reveals more. Jaylen’s True Shooting percentage is far above Clarkson’s (because of the 3pt. frequency and percentage) making him an objectively more efficient scorer, but other metrics show extremely similar players. Even their usage percentage in the offense is nearly identical. What makes this all even more interesting is that both players have done this on bad teams in disjointed seasons. Nowell’s Timberwolves’ struggles have been well-documented this season, and Clarkson had to navigate Kobe Bryant’s last season on a bad Lakers team in just his 2nd year.
It has been 5 seasons since Jordan Clarkson’s 2nd year in the league, and he is now blossoming into a 6th Man of the Year frontrunner and the type of efficient bench scorer that any team would be lucky to have. If Jaylen Nowell can reach those heights on offense, will it take him 5 years? His development arc says it may not. His 2nd season comes when he is 21 years old, whereas Clarkson was already 22 years old when he came in to the league. It would be an unequivocal win for the Wolves if Nowell can reach anywhere near Jordan Clarkson’s level on offense, especially if it happens in the next couple of years. The Wolves have Jaylen locked in to a team-friendly contract paying him less than $2 million per year that runs through his 4th season in the NBA. If he can find that ceiling, he will be an incredible asset for the Wolves.
Defensive Ceiling: Early Career Ricky Rubio
Finding a defensive ceiling for a guard that will not likely ever be considered a great defender is a difficult task. In the NBA, there are a small group of great defenders, a small group of terrible defenders, and an enormous set of average defenders. Nowell will probably fall into that last group for most of his career, so a good comparison for him is a player who used effort and instincts more than physical traits to become a “positive” on the defensive side of the ball. In his first stint in Minnesota, Ricky Rubio endeared himself to fans by being a pest as an on-ball defender and a sneaky off-ball defender. He had a knack for playing the passing lanes and intercepting cross-court passes to create a fast break. Rubio has always dealt with physical limitations such as his lack of explosive lift and sub-par strength, but he makes up for those weaknesses with a deep understanding of what the offense wants to do, and an ability to be one step ahead of the pass. Now in his 30’s, Rubio does not grade out to being nearly as much of a positive on defense as he used too, but his early career defensive playmaking would be a good target for Jaylen Nowell to strive for.
Although they measure nearly the same height and weight, Nowell has better athletic traits than Rubio has ever had. He possesses much more lift off the ground to contest shots, and has shown decent strength despite a fairly slight frame. Where he can begin to match Rubio is through film study and a greater understanding of the game. Nowell’s instincts and active hands in help defense have already been a positive asset for the team, but his on-ball defense is where he can improve. Bigger perimeter players have been able to bully Nowell to get into the lane. While this is difficult to overcome, a smart and active on-ball defender can use their hands to get strips and solid positioning to draw charging fouls. Earlier in his career, Ricky Rubio was able to masterfully draw charges because of his ability to predict where his opponent wanted to go and beat them there. Jaylen Nowell seems to have a “Rubio-esque” dedication to the game of basketball, and hopefully he will be able to pick up some of those tricks through repetition and film study. Even though this will not likely make him an All-NBA defender, it would be a great mix with his burgeoning offensive game to form an high-impact player on a team that needs it.
So many factors influence whether or not a player reaches their perceived ceiling. Sometimes the players and coaches around them help them develop certain skills to grow their game. Other times the skills are all there, but the player just needs an opportunity to show it consistently. I tend to believe the latter is true for Jaylen Nowell. He carries himself like a true professional on and off the court, and it seems like he knows exactly what his capabilities are already. He just needs the consistent opportunity to show them, and as he has earned more minutes during this difficult Wolves season he has only increased his production and impact on winning. At only 21 years old, there is certainly plenty of development left for the young wolf, and if he continues on this career trajectory he just may find his ceiling.