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Draft Radar Part 13: Jaden McDaniels

A longer look at the Washington freshman.

NCAA Basketball: Maine at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long and slow ride, but finally, we’ve arrived at the conclusion of the Canis Hoopus Draft Radar series. Unless you’ve heard about the underwhelming draft class and extra-long run-up we’re mired in and chosen (perhaps wisely) to shield yourself until the picks are made, you would know by now that the Timberwolves have spread themselves nicely across the draft, holding the 1st, 17th and 33rd selections.

So far, we’ve looked at 12 prospects. From the highly-touted variety like Anthony Edwards or Deni Avdija, to the less talked about sleepers like Gonzaga big man Killian Tillie. Today, we’re heading further down the mainstream big boards again, with the microscope being placed over University of Washington wildcard Jaden McDaniels.

Profile

Team: Washington Huskies
Draft Age: 20.8
Games: 31
Position: Combo Forward (SF/PF)
Height: 6’10”
Wingspan: 7’0”
Weight: 200 pounds

Statistics

Per Game: 31.1 Minutes, 13.0 Points, 5.8 Rebounds, 2.1 Assists, 0.8 Steals, 1.4 Blocks, 3.2 Turnovers, 40.5% FG (10.8 FGA), 33.9% 3PT (4.1 3PA), 76.3% FT (3.7 FTA)

Advanced: 51.5 TS%, 46.9 EFG%, 25.6% Usage Rate, +0.52 O-PIPM, +1.61 D-PIPM, +2.13 PIPM, 3.20 Wins Added

Overview

After ranking 7th in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI) and partnering with fellow freshman phenom Isaiah Stewart (who was ranked 2nd) in Washington, Jaden McDaniels’ year can only be described as a roller coaster. As it stands now, he is a pretty long way away from the surefire lottery pick that he entered the college scene as, but if mock drafts and big boards are anything to go by, he will still be available between the 20th and 35th picks. If Minnesota is interested, they would have to take a big swing on him at 17 or hope he slips all the way to 33.

Strengths

  • Size and Mobility

The latest from a long line of “the next Kevin Durant” prospects that include Brandon Ingram and Michael Porter Jr., it’s McDaniels’ frame and what he can do with that height and length that immediately jump off the screen. Whilst he would have to smash through his ceiling to get to the level of the two-time Finals MVP, players that can move and shake like him at 6-foot-10 are few and far between.

With limbs that hang off his trunk like never-ending wispy branches — he is unofficially listed as having a 7-foot wingspan, but it looks a lot bigger on the court — it’s easy to find yourself enamored with McDaniels physical gifts, but when you see him getting up and down the court with guard-like ease, seizing on an open lane to the rim in the half court or moving seamlessly throughout a defensive possession, it starts to make more sense why he was so highly touted coming out of high school.

As has been proven time and time again, there is far more to the game than simply anthropometrics, which is where some of the shine begins to wear away with McDaniels, but legitimate big man height and length combined with speed, lateral quickness and bounce is a scary-good baseline to have.

Washington v Arizona Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images
  • Defensive Playmaking

If there is one school that makes defensive evaluation more complicated and hard to read than any other, it’s the University of Washington. Under head coach Mike Hopkins, the Huskies are one of the few teams to defend in a zone in virtually every situation for the entirety of games. According to Barttorvik, they have ranked inside the top 30 nationwide in defensive efficiency the past two seasons, so it certainly works. However, it makes analyzing a player’s individual defensive strengths and weaknesses somewhat tougher than a team who plays the stock standard man-to-man defense.

Last year, now-Philadelphia 76ers wing Matisse Thybulle was crowned Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and claimed his second straight Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award playing as a disruptor at the top of the 2-3 zone, but his stock still fell in the draft (selected with pick 20) because it was hard to truly trust if he could do it in NBA defensive schemes. It turns out he could, but with McDaniels, it’s even more tricky. Unlike Thybulle, the freshman was placed in the corners of the zone, meaning he was consistently playing between two offensive players, but very rarely ever tasked with defending in one-on-one or pick-and-roll situations.

What it did allow, however, was McDaniels to play as a free safety, particularly when it came to extinguishing shots at the rim. This is where McDaniels’ aforementioned length and movement capabilities really come into play, and why he ranked 7th in the loaded PAC-12 Conference in block percentage despite spending a lot of time playing as a wing.

Here, you can see him manning the space rather than a single player, granting him the freedom to guard the potential cutter from the top of the arc before recovering to Arizona’s Josh Green in the dunker’s spot and obliterating his close-range attempt.

In a body-on-body contest, McDaniels’ slight frame is going to present issues, and that problem is only going to be exacerbated when he is lined up alongside some of the most physically imposing athletes in the world at the NBA level, but when the 20-year-old is given leeway to stalk would-be scorers as a rotation defender, he can be a devastating deterrent.

There is simply no way he would be able to contain the 6-foot-6, 225 pound steam train that is USC’s Daniel Utomi in a regular rim joust, especially in a broken play setting where the defensive shell has completely disbanded. But, with his teammate fighting (and losing) the initial duel, McDaniels uses that wingspan and impeccable timing to mop up the mess from the weakside.

The shot-blocking expertise carries over to transition possessions, too. Where most rim-protectors are sluggish getting up the court in fast break scenarios, McDaniels thrives in a back-and-forth fast-paced game style. When opposition players are streaking up the court, McDaniels is extremely adept at hunting them with LeBron James-esque chase down swats.

Of course, plays like this aren’t useful to define if a player is a overall plus defender or not, but it’s hard to keep that smile off your face when you see a player slap the air out of the ball in the same way McDaniels does in the instances below.

The final — and perhaps most important and intriguing — aspect of McDaniels’ defensive playmaking is the way he can quickly break up a play on one end and be the man who initiates or finishes the play at the other end. Again, most shot-blockers seem glued to the paint, meaning they will certainly block their fair share of shots, but they will let the guards and wings do the running and gunning in the other direction.

In McDaniels, you potentially have a player who can excel at both. Here, he dips in and gets a long-armed fingertip block on fellow draft prospect Zeke Nnaji, before claiming the outlet pass, putting the ball on the deck, and finishing a tough drive over an outstretched defender. The problem for him is finishing through contact, which we’ll get to in a minute, but plays like this certainly pique the interest.

Rotation rim-protection, covering ground quickly throughout a defensive set and the ability to singlehandedly turn a defensive stop into a positive offensive outcome is something that appeals to every coach, and it’s something McDaniels should be able to provide immediately. Whether he can hang with the big boys in isolation or pick-and-roll coverage might be the key to him getting consistent minutes from day dot, but having one translatable skill will give him a chance to a become generally positive defender moving forward.

  • Off-Catch Shooting

Making an impact defensively and hitting the 3-ball on the other end, that’s the golden ticket to becoming a reliable NBA role player these days, right? Well if so, McDaniels — despite the warts and shortcomings in-between — has laid a blossoming foundation for himself.

The intrigue with the former Husky’s potential is centered around the ability to do more than just hit catch-and-shoot triples, and it remains to be seen whether he will be able to piece all of that together, but right now hitting the deep ball off the catch and doing it reliably is one of the most promising parts of his game. Importantly, he has flashed the ability to hit jumpers coming from a standstill start or off-movement running around screens, as well as in transition.

With a quick trigger, smooth mechanics and size that renders his jumper virtually unblockable, McDaniels has all the tools to become a very handy shooter as he progresses through the NBA ranks. Just over a quarter of the freshman’s field goal attempts came in the form of catch-and-shoot jumpers, and his 1.18 points per possession (PPP) and 39.4 percent shooting clip ranked him in the 82nd percentile among all shooters in the country. More encouraging still, he pumped that up to 1.37 PPP (85th percentile) and 45.8 percent from the field when Synergy Sports classified the shot as an unguarded attempt.

Jaden McDaniels Shooting
Synergy Sports

The key to McDaniels’ success as a shooter seems to be a direct correlation to his footwork and balance. When he is creating for himself off the dribble, things can get a bit wonky and misaligned, but when he is able to shoot straight off a catch, he seems to shoot with a much better balance and smoothness to his overall body mechanics.

In the examples below, you can see that total frame alignment. Most importantly, he is stepping into each shot with a one-two step that allows him to catch a rhythm and really square himself to shoot. Some players prefer straight catch-and-shoot mechanics where their feet stay planted the entire time and some prefer McDaniels’ technique, the key is being able to replicate it and produce it on each and every shot. From the naked eye, McDaniels seems to have his left-right two-step technique down pat.

When he reaches the NBA and he needs to find a way to get in where he fits in, having the ability to space the floor in every area and shoot off the catch in a variety of different ways might be the single most important trait that McDaniels possesses. He isn’t going to be the high-volume, high-usage guy he was in high school or at Washington, especially while he is still getting his feet wet, but young players need to find ways to contribute efficiently and immediately, especially ones with question marks about their strength and NBA readiness like McDaniels. The shooting off the catch, if it translates, is where he can make that happen.

Swing Skill

  • Off-The-Dribble Shooting

If McDaniels can harness his shooting off the catch and make wow plays consistently, there is likely a role for him in the NBA — especially considering his size and athletic capabilities. However, if he becomes more than that, that’s when he’ll start to eclipse role player status. With so much emphasis placed on difficult shot-making in the modern game, the logical place for the Washington native’s game to evolve is through the ability to make shots off the dribble.

We know that Synergy numbers aren’t always the best indicator of a player’s talent, and McDaniels’ non-catch-and-shoot numbers are muddier waters than most. As an isolation scorer, he ranked in the 30th percentile (0.64 PPP), shooting just 25 percent on an admittedly low 36-possession sample size. He did rank in the 77th percentile (0.86 PPP) as a pick-and-roll scorer, shooting 44.1 percent through 51 possessions, but those are obviously made up of some drives to the rim as well. All in all, Synergy had him taking 117 shots off the dribble, grading out in the 54th percentile nationwide and registering a very middle-of-the-pack 0.77 PPP.

The most fascinating aspect of his pull-up shooting is whether he will be able to frequently punish pick-and-roll coverage. McDaniels inherently has had an advantage over many defenders, be it small forwards with his size or power forwards with his speed and ball-handling, and while that will change some against bigger, faster and stronger athletes as he takes the NBA leap, crafting a successful pull-up game dribbling around a ball screen will still allow him to be a go-to type scorer.

Specifically, attempts like these raise his ceiling considerably. He is too big to be able to stop him getting off the one-dribble pull-ups after coming off the pick, and if he can tighten and lower his handle and start to put together those quick-hitter dribble moves before rising up and burying a jumper, he is going to start raising serious questions that defenders might not have an answer to.

The other shooting area that McDaniels will need to exploit right away to garner more attention as a true scoring threat is his ability to escape dribble defenders who are closing out and hit pull-up jumpers. On most occasions, you would prefer a player who has the speed, burst and leaping ability of a McDaniels to attack the rim on closeouts, and that’s a problem for him, but there are times where attempting the one-dribble pull-up while his man tries to recover can work well — especially when you have a big constantly clogging the lane like his teammate Isaiah Stewart did.

The problem for McDaniels with a lot of his off-the-dribble shooting is that he doesn’t remain balanced as he does with his catch-and-shoot jumpers. I’m not a shot doctor, but that would be my guess as to why the numbers diverge so much. Even here, where he executes the aforementioned escape dribble and rise-up attempt well and ends up making the shot, he doesn’t square his body or get good alignment through his legs. Sure, he will make some, but without that balance, it’s never going to be consistent enough to be a true weapon.

You look around the league at players like Jayson Tatum, Kawhi Leonard and Brandon Ingram and they all have the ability to consistently burn teams with their size and ability to make shots off the dribble. It’s a tough ask for McDaniels to get to that level, and he’ll need a steady diet of coaching and a long leash to play through his mistakes, but becoming a player who has a good pull-up game goes a long way to giving him a chance to sniff stardom. However, there is one big roadblock standing in the way of that right now ...

Weaknesses

  • Shot Selection and Creation

Coming around a ball screen and into a pocket of space, McDaniels looks the part of a multi-level pull-up shooter. It’s when he is tasked with creating those pockets for himself that things start to go awry.

The ability to create looks and the selection of which shots to take go hand-in-hand for the 20-year-old, and often it looks sloppy and unappealing. It’s super-obvious as soon as you look at him, but this is the first area of his game where McDaniels’ lack of strength really rears its ugly head. While his handle is certainly impressive for a guy of his size, it’s not good enough to break down opponents consistently, and is easily shut down when defenders get in his way.

This kind of play became a common theme throughout his freshman year. When faced with a defender who had done enough to hang with the size and speed, McDaniels would struggle to create space for himself for a jumper or use his body to dislodge defenders in a legal way. Instead, it ended up being a clumsy, bulldozing shoulder charge as he stumbled toward the rim.

This directly contributed to a major issue with offensive fouls and getting into foul trouble in general, and his struggles in getting to the free throw line himself; some of the very worst aspects of McDaniels’ game. Getting to the line just 3.7 times a night for someone with his size and straight-line speed is a worry, but not nearly as much as racking up an average of 3.3 fouls in just 31.1 minutes a game — a lot of which were offensive fouls caused by the very same out-of-control creation attempts that you just saw.

Even when he isn’t barreling through defenders, McDaniels has trouble distinguishing good shots from bad ones. As a freshman who had a fairly sizeable chunk of the offense heaped on him, it’s not surprising or particularly discouraging, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on moving forward.

He knows he can get his shot off in almost any situation, and that leads to some boneheaded field goal attempts. Here, there absolutely were better options than the falling mid-range jumper, be it another move to try and open up space for a drive or shot, or a pass back out to recycle the possession into something more efficient.

And here, it’s indecisiveness that’s the killer. He can hit the catch-and-shoot jumper in transition, but he hesitates and settles for a crossover into pull-up long-two that must have had coach Hopkins ready to pull what little hair he has left out.

McDaniels isn’t the first young 5-star recruit to struggle with shot creation and selection when he took the step up to better competition levels, and he won’t be the last. Unfortunately, now he has to do it again, and this time to the highest level of competition in the world.

His role will likely be reduced heavily when he gets to his new basketball home, which should theoretically minimize the opportunities he has to get tunnel vision and make strange decisions with the ball, but if he wants to optimize himself as a potential offensive hub, McDaniels will need to learn quickly how to play under control and take good shots.

  • Rim Finishing

With the size and fluidity that McDaniels possesses comes great expectations to be a dominant force getting to the rim. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth as he enters his first year as a pro.

Instead of using the physical gifts he has, namely his size, length and bounce, McDaniels lets his physical flaws define his at-rim game, consistently succumbing to the pressures of trying to finish through, around and over guys who are just too strong for him. We’ve already discussed how his lack of creation and top-tier ball-handling forbid him from getting to the rim frequently in the half court, but the strength issues are more prominent in transition.

Earlier, his ability to rip-and-run from a rebound or a blocked shot was noted in one of his strengths, and it’s still a skill set that very few players can do routinely, but McDaniels needs to become stronger as a finisher. Take a look at the examples below and you will find a consistent pattern; getting knocked off his spot when driving or avoiding the contact completely, leading to some wildly inaccurate finishes.

With a few seasons in an NBA strength and conditioning program under his belt, there is reason to believe that the touch and skill he possesses might start to outshine the huge strength deficiencies, but it’s still risky business putting faith in a kid who ranked in the 28th percentile in transition (0.87 PPP), despite such plays encompassing 20.1 percent of his overall shooting possessions.

If the strength doesn’t come, he will need to tighten up his handle to at least give him more of a chance to break guys down defensively. Either way, big improvements need to be made if McDaniels is going to get to the rim and into the most efficient scoring zone on the court.

  • Attitude and Body Language

The first two areas of weakness were tangible. They have tried and tested ways of improving said weaknesses, and plenty of scouts and coaching staffs out there who would believe they can be the ones to instill good habits or a stronger body into McDaniels. This area, the way he can act on the court and the body language vibes he gives out when things aren’t going his way, would raise a lot brighter red flags in the eyes of scouts. In all likelihood, it’s the main reason he will fall so low on draft night, despite having oodles of potential and being situated in what is widely regarded as a weak class.

To be blunt, McDaniels has moments of madness and sulkiness, which is something you can’t do when you get to the big leagues. On one side of the coin, it’s easy to see how a 20-year-old kid who has never been on a losing team in his life could find it hard to adjust and stay outwardly happy. But, on the other, he is far from the only kid in that situation, and most of them handled it better.

McDaniels wasn’t throwing hissy fits or getting into verbal spats with his coaches, but it’s the little things that might go amiss to the naked eye — the frustration fouls after missing a shot (while already being in foul trouble), the dumb shots when he hasn’t touched the ball in a few possessions, or, worst of all, the open vexation toward teammates when he didn’t receive the ball when he was open.

Admittedly, with incumbent point guard Quade Green sidelined for most of the season with an academic suspension, the service to McDaniels was often poor or just non-existent. There were far too many times when he would stand open calling for the ball only to be ignored completely. Most of the time, he took it like a champ, but when he didn’t, it was a very bad look.

In the play above, he pouts and visibly shows his frustration multiple times throughout the play. When he doesn’t get the ball on the elbow the first time, you can see it building, and when is shunned on a second flash, he makes it known to his teammate openly before skulking off.

Look, he is a kid, and he can’t be expected to be perfect, but if this happens at the next level he is going to get splinters in his behind from how quickly he gets slammed on the bench. Scouts, executives and coaches notice attitude, and they find it very important. If he’s not careful, McDaniels might just learn that the hard way.

Fit With Minnesota

With McDaniels, it’s all about trust. You must have trust in your coaching staff and your locker room leaders to show him how to mature and grow as a person and a player. And you must have trust in your development staff to show him how to harness the insane gifts he has and unleash them in the most productive way possible, while still understanding that he has a lot more he can learn along the way.

Historically, Minnesota has had many a dysfunctional locker room and even more high-potential players fall to the wayside. And while this regime currently feels different, I don’t think anyone would blame you for not wanting to take a swing on a legitimate project like Jaden McDaniels.

With that being said, Minnesota is currently treading water in the choppy waters that is the Western Conference, and taking swings and turning them into home runs might be the only way they ever learn to swim. If you snag McDaniels with a mid-first or early second-rounder and the slim chance that he fully pans out occurs, you’re looking at a franchise-changer. A physical freak of nature who can play multiple positions and do two-way things that most players can only dream of.

Risky? Sure. Unlikely to pay off? You betcha. Worth a punt for a team with multiple picks in a weak class and an iffy future outlook? Perhaps...