The first seconds Jordan McLaughlin played in 31 games were almost too fitting given the type of player he is.
On his first defensive possession, the Timberwolves guard drew an offensive foul chasing his man around a screen. It was a play that doesn't happen without McLaughlin's brand of hustle, a brand that endeared him to teammates and fans, who gave him a standing ovation as he took the floor Sunday in a 128-98 victory over Denver.
Then he sparked an 11-2 run that gave the Wolves an 11-point lead at the end of the first quarter. His lone basket, a difficult layup in the final seconds, capped that run.
"He just brings a pace to the game," coach Chris Finch said. "Gets off it early. Makes all the right plays. Competes his butt off on defense. It was good to see him back out there. We've certainly missed him, but guys have done a great job in his absence as well."
But there's no doubting the Wolves would have been better if McLaughlin was available for the 30 games prior to Sunday. It was a long road back to the floor for McLaughlin from his left calf injury. It was an injury that had stops and starts on the road to recovery.
"It took a toll on me," McLaughlin said. "That was probably the longest I've been out ever in my career in season. … For me to miss 30 games or whatever it was, it was a tough route. But I just persevered, continued to work on my rehab and get back to where I'm trying to get to."
At first, it seemed like McLaughlin would have just a short absence, and he missed five games because of it in late November and early December. But then he came back and by his third game back, he was back out of the lineup indefinitely. McLaughlin was asked if he came back too early from the injury initially, and he responded with, "it could have been that."
"But my numbers in what I was testing for rehabbing and stuff was pretty much at my normal numbers," McLaughlin said. "You never know. Calf injuries, anything with the lower extremities, you never know. It may feel good, but it may not be good. It could've been that, but you never know."
One of the things the Wolves are curious to see is the effect McLaughlin has on teammates he will have on the floor with him for a significant amount of minutes. In particular, McLaughlin might be able to help rejuvenate the minutes for Jaylen Nowell. When the two have played together this season, the Wolves have a net rating of 15.9. McLaughlin's presence might allow Nowell to play more off the ball instead of handling some of the backup point guard duties.
"He's a scorer, a natural scorer," McLaughlin said. "You just got to give him the ball in the right spots. He knows I'm looking to pass it to him and he's just ready to play off the catch, ready to catch and shoot. He knows I'm looking for him, same with everybody on this team. They know I'm out there trying to make plays and get them going."
That's what McLaughlin has done in his four seasons with the Wolves. He facilitates ball movement and it's no wonder teammates enjoy playing with him. McLaughlin doesn't shoot a lot, so that means more shots for everyone else.
The Wolves' offensive rating when McLaughlin is on the floor is 115, which is good enough to be eighth in the league if expanded over the span of an entire game. McLaughlin accumulated that number during a point in the season when the Wolves' offense looked like it was stuck in quicksand at times. The Wolves had the No. 1 offense in the league from January onward last season, and McLaughlin was a big part of that. The Wolves are hoping a similar leap happens going forward now that McLaughlin is back in the fold.
"We all know how valuable J-Mac is for us," Finch said. "It's nice to have another guy out there who can control the game with the ball in his hands."