Timberwolves’ Naz Reid is off to a promising start as a power forward

When Naz Reid arrived in the NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves saw him as a raw, but skilled small-ball center who could develop into the kind of offensively gifted player that fit right in with a plan to run teams out of the arena.

As Reid started to refine and unveil his bag of tricks, the Wolves started to look at more varied ways to get him on the floor. That included starting to play him at power forward as well to take advantage of his ability to shoot it from the outside. Experimenting with him at the 4 gave them a chance to see if he could share the floor with Karl-Anthony Towns, even before Rudy Gobert joined the frontcourt. The early returns were underwhelming.

Coach Chris Finch said he saw Reid remaining stationary on offense while he was playing power forward, neutralizing his quick feet and slick handle. It was fun to watch him cook backup centers from the 5 spot. He did real damage there. But when he moved to the 4, the newness of the position and the different role zapped his aggression.

“He wouldn’t put himself in the actions or roll, get us into next actions quickly, which he does so well at the 5,” Finch said.

Reid would camp out behind the 3-point line and shift into catch-and-shoot mode in an effort not to clog things up for Towns or Anthony Edwards. To hear Reid describe it, it wasn’t that he couldn’t be more active from that spot. It was that he was nervous about making the wrong decision or getting in the way.

“I would say the difference in that was just more so like me not wanting to mess up,” Reid said, a sheepish smile crossing his face. “Just kind of asserting myself in one spot and you can’t take the blame for anything if you’re in one spot.”

The Wolves had an easy answer for that tentativeness. They didn’t give him much of a run there. Only 16 percent of his minutes last season were at power forward, and the Wolves were outscored by 14.9 points per 100 possessions in those lineups, per Cleaning the Glass. But toward the end of the season, they started to see Reid getting more comfortable playing next to Gobert or Towns. It was enough for them to sign him to a three-year, $42 million contract this summer.

Now that Reid is making that kind of money, the Wolves cannot merely stick him on the bench when things aren’t working. He has to play, and so do Towns and Gobert, two max guys. Finch now estimates that Reid will play about 90 percent of his minutes at power forward, so they can get him on the floor at the same time as one of the two starting bigs. It has to work because of all the resources the Wolves are pouring into those three players.

They draw some optimism from a four-game sample size in March after Towns returned from a 52-game absence because of a calf injury. KAT played three of the four games, prompting Finch to deploy Reid in two-big lineups periodically throughout the games. Reid played almost 23 minutes per game, averaging 20.5 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from 3-point range. Most importantly, the Wolves won three of those four games, losing the last one after Reid broke his wrist, which caused him to miss the rest of the season.

That is a minuscule sample size in the grand scheme of an 82-game season, and Finch openly lamented that Reid did not get the experience of playing important minutes in the playoffs during the Denver Nuggets series. The very early returns in training camp and the preseason to this point have the Wolves, and Reid, feeling much better about playing this new position.

“Right before Naz got hurt, I thought he found his groove at the 4, really found out what that looked like,” Finch said. “Now, defensively, he’s got to get better and better there, and we’re going to have to help him with some schemes and stuff like that. I think this is all about trying to get your best players on the floor, and he’s clearly in our top eight players.”

Reid is used to being an undersized 5 with the ability to use his quickness and athleticism to at least be disruptive on the defensive end. Life is much different at the 4, where he is asked to guard sleeker players out in space. His responsibilities also differ if he is paired with Gobert as a rim protector behind him or Towns, a less accomplished defender. The Wolves have taken to toggling their defensive schemes, particularly how they guard the pick-and-roll, depending on whether it’s Gobert at center or Towns.

“It’s a level of comfort, being able to guard guys like Kevin Durant or a stretch 4, someone like that,” Reid said. “To be able to comfortably do that, that’s something that I haven’t done in the past few years. I’ve done it sporadically, but not consistently.”

As Reid knows, there is no comfort that anyone derives from guarding Durant. But he has worked hard each of the last two summers to be more prepared to check power forwards. He saw the writing on the wall after the Gobert trade. It was either figure out a way to be effective at the smaller frontcourt position or collect dust on the bench.

Not only did Reid have to gain a better understanding of where he fits and how he could remain aggressive on the offensive end, but he also had to get a grasp of how he would be attacked on defense as a 4. He averaged a career-high 4.9 rebounds per game last season, but the Wolves need more physicality on the glass from him this season. Finch has said they are going to put more emphasis on attacking the glass and less on getting back in transition to leverage their size advantages on offense.

The first three games of the preseason have been encouraging. Reid scored 22 points in 18 minutes, 34 seconds of a win against the New York Knicks on Saturday, hitting 5-of-8 3-pointers. In two games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, against the Dallas Mavericks, he put up 16 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes and then scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in 16 minutes in Game 2. The ability to go coast-to-coast and to knock down open 3s was a given for Reid. He’s shown that for at least two seasons now … if not more.

What the Timberwolves liked most was the synergy he displayed with Gobert and Towns on both ends. His ability to take even smaller opponents off the dribble and create is unique for a man his size, and drop-off passes like the one he found Gobert with in the opener provide a blueprint for what two-big success looks like for them.

In some ways, the acclimation to Gobert’s game has been smoother for Reid than when he shares the floor with Towns, who has been a teammate for four seasons. Reid has known Towns since their days in AAU ball in New Jersey, but their games are similar. He is less familiar with Gobert, but their skill sets are more complementary.

“When you have guys like Rudy or KAT, you’ve just got to learn to play around those unique guys,” Reid said. “Obviously, they’re special in their tendencies, as well. So it’s kind of like just playing around them, figuring out how they play and what’s their go-tos and things like that.”

Towns is a much better shooter than Reid, but both shoot it well enough to have it be a steady part of their offensive approach. Both like to pump fake on the perimeter and drive to the basket. Both like to pass it. Reid said the key for him is recognizing where KAT is on the floor and then basically doing the opposite to avoid the offense getting bogged down. If Towns is behind the 3-point line, Reid will get to the post. If Towns is on the block or at the elbow, Reid will float out to the perimeter to give him room to work.

“Something that’s very unique about my game is that I can play beside either one, if not at the same time,” Reid said. “Being able to play, piggyback off how they’re playing.”

The Wolves were starting to see that toward the end of last season, on that West Coast trip that everyone in town references when looking for hope. After Towns returned from his calf injury, Reid remained a big part of the team’s offense. Even when he shared the floor with one of the two bigs, he stopped standing around. There was no tentativeness, just aggression and quick decisions, two Reid calling cards.

“I thought last year, he had figured it out by the time (KAT came back), and now he looks even more comfortable with it,” Finch said.

Reid broke his wrist on that same road trip, ending his season just when the Wolves looked to be putting things together. They sorely missed his offense against Denver in the playoffs, particularly his ability to punish smaller backup bigs, which the Nuggets consistently threw out there.

Despite the abundance of big men on Minnesota’s roster, there should be an opportunity for Reid to leave his mark. When he comes into a game, the tempo picks up, the ball generally moves a little bit quicker and his ability to grab a rebound and push in transition can help a team that is more slow-footed across the board. If he can guard 4s and maintain his scoring punch, he could be in the NBA Sixth Man of the Year conversation by the end of the season.

“He’s just a nightmare for opposing traditional 5s and even 4s because I feel like he’s bigger than most 4s and 5s are too slow to deal with him,” new teammate Shake Milton said. “That doesn’t matter who he sees in front of him. He can get to a spot and get to where he wants to get.”

At this time last season, Reid’s place on the team was anything but certain. He was stuck behind two All-NBA big men in the final season of a contract that paid him less than $2 million and drew six DNPs in the first month of the season. Now he has an ironclad role, a better feel for playing the 4 and a much bigger paycheck.

The Timberwolves hope that all adds up to Reid’s best season yet.

(Photo of Reid: Ibrahim Kabakibi / NBAE via Getty Images)

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