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Is Jaden McDaniels Here to Stay?

The University of Washington alum had his first major breakout game as a rookie on Wednesday night.

Orlando Magic v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

It has been a long night out, and my friends and I know that we must get food before heading home, or we will be wrecked the next day. We wander out of the bar in search of cuisine and stumble upon a Spanish tapas restaurant. We recall this place being excellent despite never actually eating there. Maybe it was a buffet item we had at a work party or just heard reviews from friends. Regardless, everything looks divine on paper.

As we get to the front door, the hostess says that it will be a $100 cover charge since the restaurant also has a bar area. This price seems outrageous, but we’re starving, and the food looks good, so we bite the bullet and pay. Mouths drooling, expectations rising, we walk through the entryway to the front door and pull.

Nothing.

We try again.

Nothing.

It’s locked. Irate, we turn back to the hostess to get our money back, but she’s already packed up, and the place has apparently closed for the night. We’ve been robbed.

Irate and let down, we decide to split up in search of much-needed sustenance. After a few minutes, my friend calls and says he’s found a fascinating hole-in-the-wall venue called Vando’s. The energy is electric, and the layout has a lot of promise, but they aren’t serving food. We make a mental note that we have to put this in our bar rotation, but as an earlier in the night option.

As time continues to pass and my hopes dwindle, it begins to rain. With my jacket hoisted over my head to shield the rain, I round the corner to find a new pub with a bright neon sign still lit. I briefly scan the menu posted outside, and the food and drink deals look like an absolute steal. Skeptical, thinking this is too good to be true, I rush inside. There are a few people at tables who look as if they don’t have a care in the world. The pub is warm, well lit, and has hopeful energy. While I make my way to the bar to sit and order, I call my friend. As the phone rings, the bartender approaches with a big smile and says, “Welcome to McDaniels, we just opened tonight. My name is Jaden. What can I get for you?”

My friend answers my call, and all I say is, “I found it.”

Orlando Magic v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Jaden McDaniels had an absolute breakout game for the Minnesota Timberwolves the night they lost to the Orlando Magic. McDaniels played the first truly meaningful minutes of his career. Not only did he not disappoint, but he also exceeded expectations and showed that he is worthy of minutes from now on.

In 26 minutes, McDaniels scored 12 points on 5-9 shooting and 2-4 from three. He also had eight rebounds, one assist, one steal, three blocks, and a game-high +19.

When the Timberwolves drafted McDaniels, I had my reservations. I loved the raw talent and potential he flashed at the University of Washington, but I saw McDaniels as more of a project and lottery ticket prospect.

In his one lone season at Washington, McDaniels proved to be a versatile scorer, effective shot-blocker, and a solid rebounder. However, he didn’t improve his body at all and had significant lapses in what was one of the worst zone defenses in college basketball. There were concerns over his attitude, and he didn’t show a willingness to do the little things that contribute to winning.

The Jaden McDaniels we saw against the Magic was a completely different player than the one at Washington.

McDaniels was everywhere. He grabbed rebounds, rotating as a weakside shot-blocker, deflecting passes, hitting spot-up threes, and running in transition. He was everything scouts hoped he would grow into.

McDaniels had gotten a few minutes in garbage time in previous games, but these were his first meaningful minutes. Entering this season, the expectation was that team would send McDaniels to the G-League bubble where he could get minutes and be a development project. After the Magic game, though, did he show enough to be a legitimate rotation option at the four?

In short, I don’t see how the Timberwolves don’t give McDaniels more minutes from now on. His two-way versatility is precisely what this team needs and something that no one else at that position possesses.

Jarred Vanderbilt has been a breath of fresh air, but as we saw against the Magic, his lack of scoring is a liability late in games. That isn’t an issue with McDaniels as he shot 76 percent from the line at Washington and, per Synergy, was in the 82nd percentile in points per possession when shooting off the catch.

This season, we see more of the same from McDaniels as he is shooting 41.7 percent (5-12) from three off the catch. Comparatively, Juancho Hernangomez is shooting 34.3 percent (12-35) in these same situations.

This skill helps create space for driving lanes as defenses won’t be able to help as much off McDaniels. Players who can penetrate the lane at will, like Anthony Edwards or D’Angelo Russell, will get easier scoring opportunities with McDaniels on the floor, or they’ll use their playmaking abilities to set him up for an open three.

McDaniels has also shown some flashes of shooting off the dribble and running in transition. However, I think his offensive role should be mainly as an off-ball shooter to keep the floor spaced and not have too much of an overlap of roles.

However, the biggest surprise for me in the Magic game was McDaniels’s rebounding and rim protection. I expected McDaniels to develop into a good shot blocker given his length and athleticism, but the way he rebounded and controlled the paint stunned me. McDaniels not only handled the physicality in the post but sought it out.

Players with McDaniels’ height and wingspan luck into a few blocks based solely on their physical tools. McDaniels showed against the Magic, though, that he has the instincts and timing to be an effective weakside rim protector.

As we can see below, teams will have to take note of where McDaniels is located defensively. McDaniels starts by rotating to the baseline to guard his man sitting near the dunker’s spot. As Evan Fournier enters the lane, McDaniels gives a quick look over his shoulder. This look confirms to McDaniels that his man isn’t relocating and that McDaniels can help on the drive, and help he absolutely does.

Again, McDaniels shows off his stellar weakside rim protection. As Nikola Vucevic makes his move towards the lane, McDaniels shows his awareness by locating his man before helping. McDaniels jumps early but makes sure not to initiate contact with Vucevic. This early jump causes Vucevic to adjust his shot, and McDaniels has perfect timing to swipe the ball away on his way down. The most encouraging part of this play is that McDaniels didn’t give up after the first block. He remained focused, didn’t bite on the hesitation, and timed his second block to perfection.

Aside from Karl-Anthony Towns and Vanderbilt, the Timberwolves don’t have any shot blocking threats. Opponents will still try to drag Towns out to the perimeter, so having another rim protector on the floor is crucial. Like Vanderbilt, McDaniels can fill this role.

Additionally, McDaniels is a solid perimeter defender. He won’t make an All-NBA Defense team, but he can hold his own. McDaniels needs to improve his consistency and off-ball awareness (just like the rest of the team because good God they are bad), but his length and athleticism can cause issues for opponents, as we saw against the Magic when he poked the ball loose and finished in transition.

Besides the eye test, the advanced numbers for McDaniels are entirely absurd. Before we dive in, we need a disclaimer. These numbers are from Cleaning the Glass, which takes out garbage time minutes. For McDaniels, that means he has only played 45 minutes, which doesn’t even qualify him for percentile rankings. The sample size is minuscule so far, so the odds of these numbers remaining as-is is unrealistic. Unless they do, which would be delightful. All set? Good. Prepare for a bombardment of numbers.

According to Cleaning the Glass, the Minnesota Timberwolves score 10.3 more points per 100 possessions when McDaniels is on the court compared to off. They also have a 3 percent higher effective field goal percentage, a 2.9 percent lower turnover percentage, and a 13 percent higher three-point percentage.

Defensively, the Timberwolves allow 40.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when McDaniels is on the court compared to off. Opponents also have a 19.7 percent lower effective field goal percentage, shoot 18 percent worse at the rim, and shoot 16.6 percent worse from three.

All in all, the Timberwolves have a plus-50.7 efficiency differential (points per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions) when McDaniels is on the floor compared to when he’s off.

Dear Lord, that’s impressive.

Before you get your Twitter fingers loosened up, relax. As I previously stated, I’m aware of the sample size. These numbers are going to change. It still doesn’t take away from the fact that the 28th overall pick is off to an incredible start.

The game against the Magic may end up being McDaniels’ best game of the season. I hope it isn’t. I don’t think it will be. Even if it is, though, what we saw from McDaniels is more than just a flash in the pan. He showed legitimate defensive awareness that will only improve with more experience. We saw a toughness he didn’t show at Washington. We saw an understanding of his offensive role that will fit perfectly in a healthy lineup.

McDaniels’ performance wasn’t something where a young kid catches fire one night and can’t miss. It was a cumulation of basketball IQ, toughness, and energy. All intangible things that keep players in a rotation even when the ball isn’t bouncing their way.

Jaden McDaniels had a scintillating performance against the Magic. He proved that being relegated to the G-League bubble is beneath him and that he deserves more minutes going forward. The Minnesota Timberwolves now have two power forwards who are legitimate rotation players who make less than two million dollars. McDaniels has lived up to his end of the bargain through his performance. Now it’s up to the coaching staff to make the easy decision.