Searching for the Ceiling: Naz Reid
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 compared to 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. The first installment in the series was about Jaylen Nowell. Next up we have 2nd year center Naz Reid.
Nazreon Hilton Reid (a.k.a. “Big Jelly) is a 21 year old center in his 2nd season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He quickly became a fan favorite playing with the Wolves Summer League team by nearly leading them to a Summer League title after going undrafted in 2019. Sensing an opportunity, the Wolves’ front office signed him to a 4 year non-guaranteed contract worth around $6 million total, which is one of the least expensive contracts a player can sign for multiple years. They bet on him to progress from a raw but talented teenager to a legitimate NBA center. What the team did not count on was Naz becoming a starter on the NBA squad later in his rookie season and for a significant chunk of his 2nd season because of injuries. Being pressed into duty may have been a blessing in disguise for the 21 year old big man. The team has certainly struggled during his time here, but the repetitions Naz has received as a starter will serve him well in his development in the future. While Reid is likely not quite qualified to be a starting center just yet, he has certainly played too well to relegate him to a low-minute backup center role behind one of the best centers in the league in Karl-Anthony Towns. With his progression and potential shown throughout his season and a half of NBA basketball, fans are left wondering what his future looks like. So, we will analyze his offensive and defensive comparisons in an attempt to find his ceiling.
Offensive Ceiling: Kelly Olynyk
During his 7+ year career in the NBA, Kelly Olynyk has made a living out of being an offensively skilled and versatile big man. He can easily play alongside another big man as a floor spacer, punish mismatches by finishing efficiently in the post, and flashes good feel as a passer when he gets an opportunity in the high post. Kelly does not have to be pigeonholed into one specific type of offense or personnel group. He can be a threat in multiple areas on offense with or without the ball. For his career, Olynyk is averaging nearly 10 points/gm and shooting 36% from the 3pt line and 56% on 2pt field goals. He has done all of this in under 22 mins/gm. That certainly is not superstar material, but that type of shooting efficiency from a 6’11” big man is going to keep you in an NBA rotation for a long time. Teams all over the league would love to have that type of production on offense from their starting center, let alone off the bench where Olynyk has done most of his damage throughout his career.
So why is Naz Reid, a 6’9″ 260lb cinderblock of a man being compared to a stretch 5? One of the skills that Naz has displayed early in his Wolves tenure is the ability to stretch the floor from the 3pt line. Although he is not a high volume 3pt shooter at only 2.4 attempts per game, Naz has shown the consistency and confidence to hit on over 36% of his 3’s in his 2nd season. That type of marksmanship brings immediate value to an offense when a center can space the floor for his teammates and draw the opposing center out to the perimeter. This is the reason that a big man like Kelly Olynyk gets paid in the NBA and will have a job for a long time. Fortunately for Naz, his shooting volume and percentages stack up favorably against a good player like Olynyk from his 2nd season. Check out their Per Game and Per 100 Possessions comparisons below:
Across the board, the two players’ field goal attempts, 3pt attempts, and free throw attempts are very comparable, and Naz has a leg up in efficiency in all of the major shooting categories. This does not mean that Naz will undoubtedly become a better shooter than Olynyk, but it does portend good things for his offensive impact in the future.
Anyone who has watched the Timberwolves this season knows that Naz is not just a floor spacing big man. What truly sets him apart is the skill and finesse he shows when handling the ball. Once again, Naz is a large human, but he has shown the perimeter ball handling skills to snake through the lane with a few dribbles to finish with touch at the rim. Another reason that Kelly Olynyk is an apt comparison and target for Reid is because of their ability to finish in the paint without elite explosion. Olynyk is a relatively ground bound center who needs to use superior footwork, ball handling, and finesse to get to his spots around the rim and score. Naz is in the same situation, as he lacks the pure explosion needed to score in the same way as a player like Clint Capela and the size to reach over defenders like Rudy Gobert. Because of the athletic limitations, Reid has developed solid footwork and touch on his layups in traffic to sneak the ball past rim protecting defenders. He is learning the “tricks of the trade” that Olynyk has mastered, and those will be necessary for Naz to continue to positively impact the offense when he is on the court.
Kelly Olynyk is still an objectively more valuable center on offense than Naz Reid right now, but at just 21 years old the Wolves 2nd year big man has some time to catch up. Establishing a consistent 3pt shot will be a great way to stick in the league, but rounding out the rest of his game with improved finishing around the rim and passing from the high post will make him a lot of money in the NBA. As Naz starts to earn more minutes playing alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, it will be important to show that he can function well as a 2nd big man. That type of versatility at his size would make him a valuable commodity around the league. Luckily for the Wolves, they have his contract locked up for 2 more years after this one. Naz’s progression towards a Kelly Olynyk type of career will pay huge dividends for Minnesota if he keeps it up.
Defensive Ceiling: Daniel Theis
The former Celtic and current Bulls center has been chosen as the ceiling primarily for his physical profile and how he is able to positively impact defense throughout his 4 year career even without great athleticism and size. At just 6’8″ and 240lbs, “Vanilla Theis” is on the smaller side for an NBA big man, but was still able to anchor good defenses from the center position while playing in Boston. How has he managed to pull this off? Defense in the NBA is often about knowing where to be, communicating, and nonstop energy and effort. Theis’s defense will not often show up on highlight reels, but he is consistently in the right place to defend his own matchup as well as help his teammates. For a player without elite physical traits, that is all a coach can ask.
The defensive side of the ball is very difficult to project for young players. Especially those who do not necessarily show elite physical or athletic traits. In the NBA at the center position there are a handful of great and impactful defenders, a chunk of very poor defenders, and a lot of guys in between. Without elite size and length, Naz Reid likely projects to fall into the category of a mediocre defensive center but with room to sway towards positively impacting that side of the ball if he can reach the level of a player like Daniel Theis. In looking at their Per 36 Minutes numbers below, Reid averages essentially the same amount of steals and blocks per game as Theis. His rebounding is not far behind as well.
The Advanced numbers below continue to show similar numbers in steal and block percentage, but they also highlight where he still has room to grow. Defensive numbers are hard to trust, but the defensive win shares (DWS) and defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) show the work that Naz still has to do to reach Theis’s level.
Those numbers tend to capture a bit of the intangibles that make a player’s defense stand out such as communication and help defense, and highlight the real impact a player can have on their team’s defense. These are areas where Naz needs to continue improving to progress from a negative defender to a mediocre to good defender. In lineups where Naz is the only big man, the rim protection and rebounding is a clear negative. Some of that is his teammates’ lack of ability to stop dribble penetration, but Reid is clearly not enough of a deterrent to keep ball handlers from trying to score inside. His lack of athleticism also hinders his ability to be good rebounder, and this has contributed to the Wolves being one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the league. Opposing teams know this, and go hard at the offensive glass when Naz is playing the center position. Like other areas of basketball, rebounding can be improved with better technique and positioning. Daniel Theis is a prime example of an adequate rebounder (9.8 rebounds/36 mins) without having impressive physical traits. Whether it takes film study or extra effort, rebounding is one of the quickest ways for Naz to improve his impact on defense.
One way that players like Reid and Theis are able to use their lack of ideal size to their advantage is by being versatile and switchable defenders. In Boston, Theis was often asked to switch out to a perimeter player and was able to hold his own in isolation situations. Opposing guards love to pull a big man out to the perimeter, but with quicker bigs like Theis and Reid, the advantage can actually sway to the defense. Under the Wolves new head coach, Chris Finch, the big men are being asked to defend more on the perimeter instead of dropping into the paint for the entire game. This is a philosophy switch that will benefit Naz Reid. He is a unique athlete in that he has smooth footwork for a 6’9″ 260lb man. When a perimeter player isolates against him, it is not the mismatch that it may seem. Naz’s ability to switch and be serviceable against perimeter players can “gum up” the offense, and therefore should positively impact defense. Even more importantly, it allows players like Reid and Theis to play alongside extremely talented centers like Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Vucevic. When they play power forward, suddenly their size disadvantage is not so great, and their versatility is more impactful on defense.
If Naz Reid is going to succeed on the Wolves long term, he will need to be able to capably defend as a rim protector in the paint and as a switchable big man on the perimeter because the team has a generational talent at center. Players like Naz and Theis make themselves invaluable for their versatility and malleability to accomplish different jobs on defense depending on matchups and the personnel alongside them. Reid has a long way to go to become a positive defender, but a player like Theis shows that it is possible. Oh yeah, Naz is only 21 years old and is receiving valuable repetitions defensively, and the team’s defensive philosophy shift should only help him show off more of his skills. Daniel Theis blossomed under a good coach, and hopefully Naz can do the same.
So what does it look like if Naz Reid does reach his ceiling? Offensively he would become a versatile piece that could fit in with any personnel grouping at the center position, and on defense he could be used in multiple types of schemes alongside other big men or as the primary center. He is not likely to be the centerpiece of a great offense or defense in his career, as many players never reach those heights, but he can absolutely become a viable starter-level big man in the NBA with continued improvement on both ends of the court.
For the Timberwolves, Naz’s development into a good player would be a boon for their roster even if it takes him 3–4 more years to really blossom. Undrafted players simply do not contribute that type of production, and the Wolves would be in a great spot long term if Naz can continue his trajectory. As a fan favorite, Wolves supporters will be rooting for him the whole way.