Spencer Levy, for most of an hour-long conversation, scribbles words on an electronic tablet as he describes the ups and downs of the season he is trying to help Jaylen Nowell navigate.
Levy, who played basketball at Occidental College in Los Angeles, is a skills coach and trainer Nowell has worked with since he entered the NBA draft process. But when Nowell assumed a larger role this season with the Timberwolves, Levy's role also increased — so much that he has been Nowell's house guest for a lot of the season.
It's a good thing the two enjoy each other's company.
"He's part therapist, coach, big brother – everything," Nowell said.
There is no reason to the words Levy jots down; it seems more a nervous reflex. He writes things like "physical," "mental" and "environment" as he details how he and Nowell addressed a recent slump by changing Nowell's shooting muscle groups.
Levy says, with a good measure of confidence: "They'll start going in, I think starting today."
(Nowell then shot 42% from three-point range over his next nine games.)
That tablet also isn't the only one Levy brought with him to a coffee shop inside the Minneapolis Four Seasons. As he explains how he and Nowell break down film, he pulls out two more, plus a film projector.
"All this equipment will travel with me everywhere we go," Levy said.
The relationship between Nowell and Levy — and how they use that equipment — is a window into how Nowell has attacked this season, the most important of his career before he enters free agency.
Their dynamic is also a peek into how the 6-4 shooting guard lives basketball, how much time he spends thinking about it — sometimes, he admits, too much. The season hasn't always gone well, but it's a season that illustrates the triumphs and tribulations of a young player trying to carve his path in the NBA without being a top pick.
"Coming in as a second-rounder, people would tell me not a lot of second guys make it to their second contract," Nowell said. "But I always knew deep down this is meant for me. This is what I'm supposed to do. I'm going to make sure this happens."
Figuring it out
Levy, 29, is a fount of information for Nowell. Those around Nowell joke he's a "basketball whisperer."
Earlier in the season, the pair would spend hours on the phone breaking down film and matchups, with Nowell trying to learn every nuance about his opponents: Was someone weaker defending to his right or left? How was a defender when he went over screens? What are the tendencies of a given player on offense? Levy collects reams of information about each of Nowell's possessions and he has any kind of spreadsheet at his fingertips.
Nowell, a 23-year-old former Pac-12 player of the year at Washington, recoils at the sight of a spreadsheet, and he doesn't want Levy to overburden him with numbers. He may ask for some of his shooting percentages, but that's it.
"Other than that, I'm like, bro, don't show me no numbers," Nowell said.
Levy and Nowell would figure out how Nowell could best operate with that information. There are certain spots on the floor Nowell tries to catch the ball in advantageous positions, like coming downhill beyond the three-point line as opposed to catching close to it, motionless. Then Nowell tried to work to his most comfortable shooting spots or will pass off the ball, depending on the defense.
He would then try to cram as much information as he could before a game.
"We have three, four different meetings," Nowell said. "So by that time, it's just in there."
But Nowell, averaging 10.9 points and 19.5 minutes in his third NBA season, said he might overthink. As the season went on, he wasn't producing at the level he wanted, and after one shootaround on Jan. 13, Nowell answered a question about how his season was going very matter-of-factly.
"Not going well," he said without adding further explanation.
Despite posting a career high in points per game, Nowell was inconsistent. His three-point shooting was down and so was his efficiency. He felt it, and he knew fans felt it. He hears the criticism he sometimes receives for shooting too much.
"I see the negative side where it's like, 'Oh, he just doesn't pass the ball,' " Nowell said. "That's something that carried through my whole career. As soon as I picked up a ball … I used to really just shoot everything. I was born like that."
Nowell's late father, Michael, would tell him often to "slow down, pass the ball."
"My mind was always hard-wired to score and get a bucket. Never in a selfish way," Nowell said. "It was just more like, I'm just a very aggressive scorer."
The relationship with his father and mother, Lanie, instilled Jaylen's love of basketball while he grew up in Seattle.
Michael, the person who showed him clips of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, and who always took Jaylen along to his semipro basketball games, died of cancer when Nowell was a teenager.
"He's the reason I play basketball and the reason I still play," Nowell said. "... The game was much deeper than just a game for me."
"Just being honest, I've been through so much tougher stuff than missing shots. Not that it's easy, but I tend to look at it in the grand scheme."
It was family that also helped Nowell alter his outlook this season. Shortly after Nowell gave his succinct answer at shootaround, he had a talk with Levy and with other members of his family to discuss how things were going. They had some advice.
"You got to get back to 'High School Jaylen,' " said Nowell, who played at Seattle's Garfield High. "I'm overanalyzing things too much. … It's remembering who I really am, instead of what was going on, the scenario and kind of like just falling victim to the situation. I just had to get back to the way I play, which is with the heart and not really the head."
So Nowell and Levy, who met through Nowell's agent, made adjustments. Enter all the screens.
Nowell often watches multiple games at once and so they devised a way to break down film based off that.
Levy will cut up the film and make it stop at certain points. It will be like an interactive quiz, with Nowell having to type in his answers to certain questions, like, "What should your read be against this coverage?"
"He has to be really active when he watches film," Levy said.
The idea is to simulate all the stimuli Nowell might face in a game, with all the crowd noise, talk from opposing players and stadium noise coming at you. All this information also has to be processed with how it will affect Nowell and the team as a whole.
"It can't just be without it, because then it hurts both [the team and Nowell]," Levy said.
Levy will sometimes show Nowell the same clips with the same prompts and compare his answers at different sessions.
"If his answers are a little bit longer, he's more open to learning," Levy said. "If his answers are shorter, he wants to tune out more. If the answers are so completely opposite of what it is, usually that's an indicator to me it's more of a confidence thing."
There's a fundamental difference now between how Nowell and Levy dissect film. Now, information can filter out of Nowell's head without him trying to keep it in there. Then he enters a game with whatever knowledge stuck. It has allowed him to play freer.
"It's my job is to make sure I'm only giving him the information he needs," Levy said. "Sometimes I give him too much and he'll tell me, 'Spence, what the hell are we doing?' "
Flying through turbulence
This season has seen Nowell have some career highlights, like a recent 30-point game in a win over the Jazz after he and Levy addressed his shooting slump. Then there are still difficult days, and days where Nowell said he doesn't feel much like talking to people. He'll go awhile without talking to family and friends, and those around him know he doesn't mean anything by it when he shuts down for a bit.
"I have people around me that understand that. They don't take that personal," Nowell said. "... I got so many people around me that understand the way I move. They make life easier and they honestly help me."
One of the few people who may talk to Nowell in those moments is Levy; after all, the NBA schedule doesn't stop. For all the basketball they talk, the two said their conversations revolve around different things going on in their lives more than hoops.
"He's hard on himself," Levy said. "We'll talk about everything from A to Z. ... When you start clearing out the things that bother you, it gives you more availability to intake knowledge."
These chats help Nowell focus on what he needs to do on the court and not be distracted by whatever is bothering him off it.
"People don't realize this, but we're humans too," Nowell said. "You can go into a game, and be having something you're thinking about. You got into a fight with a family member or something. We talk about just life things. Things that are going on, to get it all out and so I can just go on the court, and that's all I'm focused on is playing the game."
Nowell can take flak from fans when he's having a bad night, but one of the curious things about his season is that his team-wide metrics have been positive.
For instance, the Wolves have a better net rating with him on the floor than they do with him off it, and coach Chris Finch said the team was determining why Nowell still has a positive output on the team even when he might be having an off night shooting.
When he does have an off night, no one is more critical on Nowell than himself, Levy said.
"He's honest. If he doesn't think it's going well, he'll say it," Levy said. "However what people don't see is we'll come back, he's in the film room, we'll be on the court training and he'll do whatever self care he has to do and we repeat."
Then Nowell fills up his mind with as much information as he can and whatever stays in there, stays in there. Then around tipoff it's time to unclutter his mind — or at least as much as he possibly can — and just play.