He's the rookie no one expected to matter, and it's easy to overlook him with better-known first-year players like Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams and a force like Kevin Love on the court.
Malcolm Lee may have just six career points after seeing 43 minutes in six games, but in the Timberwolves' past three contests, he's been a necessary component. Just a glance at the starting lineups in Wednesday's 88-83 win over Charlotte and he's overlooked, forgotten in favor of Williams's 8.8 points per game and Walker's 12. Lee isn't one of these highly touted first-round picks, and he may never rise to that level of play. But after missing the first 40 games of the season after knee surgery, Lee couldn't have recovered at a better time.After playing no more than five minutes in his first three games, Lee saw 14 minutes of action in the Timberwolves' 117-100 win over Denver on Sunday. It wasn't really that he earned the minutes, though he says he's in good shape after two stints in the D-League and thousands of minutes logged rehabbing. Rather, Lee has been seeing more significant time because the team has just one other point guard, Luke Ridnour, on its current road trip. J.J. Barea remains in Minneapolis with a thigh contusion, and the team hopes to have him back on Friday.Lee was recalled for the second time from the Sioux Falls Skyforce on March 9, and though he averaged 10.5 points and 5.8 assists in his second D-League stint, he still has a long way to go before he's operating at his full potential. Wednesday's game and the two before it prove that it may be a slow process for him to integrate back into the game, and in Charlotte Lee was more about insurance than impact. That will likely be the case for the rest of the season, but with so many injuries, his presence on the bench and development have become ever more important."He's worked hard, and anytime you haven't really played all year and then you get this far in the season and start getting minutes, you have to ease your way in," Ridnour said.Even so, Lee's presence has been a welcome reprieve for Ridnour, who's averaging 36.3 minutes in March and 41.3 over the team's past four games. The banged-up, tired team did more work than coach Rick Adelman had planned in Monday's practice in order to get Lee better situated within its system, knowing full well that the rookie would have to plan on the two-game trip to Memphis and Charlotte. And with his speed and defense, Lee can be an asset to the Timberwolves if the injuries at point guard persist.Lee said that his in-game conditioning in the D-League has helped to speed his transition into the NBA, and after watching the team for three months, he knows the sets and the system. And the knee? He says it's at 100 percent."It feels good," Lee said. "The more I play out there, the more comfortable I get. So it's just getting reps."But at this point in his development, Lee is still a last resort, and on Wednesday the Timberwolves were in control to the point that they only needed Lee for five minutes. Even so, he had his most effective performance yet, finishing with four points, a field goal and dunk on back-to-back possessions. And though the game was close at times, the Timberwolves maintained control by the fourth quarter, and Ridnour was able to stay in the game for 43 minutes. That's a performance he can't repeat every night, and with Barea's injuries, knowing Lee is there to take some of the slack must be a comfort."Coach Adelman is a great coach, and the system he runs is pretty good for point guards," Ridnour said. "So it's fun to play that way. We obviously miss J.J. a lot. We miss Ricky a lot. We're just trying to maintain."All that, Ridnour's 15 points and the fact that three starters Love, Ridnour and Martell Webster played more than 40 minutes, was overshadowed by yet another notable performance from Love. The power forward finished with 40 points and 19 rebounds, which against the NBA-worst Bobcats was enough to carry the team. He's now averaging 40.4 points per game in March, and 30-point nights have ceased to be notable for the power forward."Guys are just setting me up," Love said. "I'm in good with them right now. I put in a lot of work this offseason. When you get in a rhythm and get things going, it's hard to be stopped." That's not always going to be the case, as Tuesday night's game against Memphis showed. Love can't always be enough, as the team's 25-27 record proves, and starters can't always log minutes to the extent they did on Wednesday. In Charlotte, the team capitalized upon its star power, but that can't and won't always be the case. That's why the injuries to Nikola Pekovic, Michael Beasley and Barea hurt so badly they're not the guys who carry the team, but it's often impossible to win without them. That's why players like Wayne Ellington and Anthony Tolliver, who have both been strong in recent games, stand out, and perhaps Lee will slowly fall into that role with them.Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.