Late in Wednesday's Timberwolves win over the Spurs, Jaylen Nowell took off for a dunk over San Antonio center Jakob Poeltl. Nowell wasn't sure when he began his jump that he'd make it.
"I was about to lay it up, but I realized I jumped forward," Nowell said. "I was closer to the rim than I thought, so I just went to the side. I didn't think I was gonna finish over him, so I had to move it to the side a little bit, and you know, I got there. It was dope."
Soon after, fans in Target Center were chanting "Jay-len, Jay-len" as Nowell scored 23 points.
There were moments in his career when Nowell wasn't sure he'd make it to this point. A second-round pick in 2019, Nowell toiled in the G-League, rode the bench and got inconsistent playing time.
Now, after the Wolves traded for Rudy Gobert and sent away a lot of their depth, the team is giving Nowell a chance to seize a larger role — to be the primary scorer off the bench. Nowell has and run with it.
"A lot of dark times," Nowell said. "Long, dark hallway. Sometimes you don't see the light, but you stick with it, and just keep playing, stay confident in yourself, and good things happen."
The role Nowell is playing is seemingly the one left by Malik Beasley, who went to Utah as part of the package for Gobert. They're similar in that neither is shy about putting up shots. But Nowell, averaging 14.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, is different in that he can create more opportunities for himself off the dribble. Anthony Edwards said Nowell was "the best scorer on the team by far."
Coach Chris Finch said the team told Nowell there was a larger role there for him after the trade but that he still had to earn it. From that moment, Finch noticed a change in Nowell's summer workouts.
"He was way more in tune with the team and his teammates," Finch said. "He's a very bright kid, and he can be a bit of an introvert at times. But this year, he was super engaged all summer.
"We told him coming in, 'The spot is yours, but you still got to win it.' He came in with that mentality."
Nowell is now averaging 21.5 minutes per game, a career high. Edwards was asked if he noticed a change in Nowell over the summer. He responded that he didn't see Nowell all summer and said that was a good thing.
"You know someone is working when you don't see them," Edwards said. "I didn't see him at all. I knew what it was, man. His training camp was great. Preseason games was great. We knew what he was capable of last year when he wasn't playing that much. We knew his time would come and he's always ready."
Nowell spent extra time working on his defense, because that has kept him off the floor in previous seasons. Specifically, the Wolves wanted him to reduce his foul rate. Two seasons ago, Nowell was in the 23rd percentile among guards when it came to fouls per play, according to the website Cleaning the Glass. He improved that to 44th last season and this season is up to 60th.
Nowell is from Seattle, as is Jaden McDaniels, the Wolves' third-year forward. McDaniels said the two have known each other since they were kids.
"This ain't nothing new to me," McDaniels said. "I've seen him do this his whole life."
McDaniels has seen a difference in how Nowell defends. Teams aren't able to capitalize on mismatches with Nowell as often, he said. "He gets out, he's guarding everyone," McDaniels said.
Nowell is headed toward the light at the end of his "dark hallway."
"[There was] doubt, frustration, irritation," Nowell said. "All type of things. But when you stick with it, and you just continue to work, good things will happen to those who work and continue to stay positive-minded."
Nowell is in the final year of his deal, and a person with knowledge of his plans confirmed reports he'd like to explore unrestricted free agency despite the Wolves' interest in offering him an extension. Nowell said before the season he was trying not to focus on that.
"I definitely just try to keep that to the side," Nowell said. "Because for me, I think if I'm focusing on that, I'm not doing my part as a teammate."
Instead, the focus is on his game, and the Wolves and Nowell are seeing dividends off that investment.
"This whole offseason I've been just working, working, working knowing that my opportunity was going to come," Nowell said. "And here we are."