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“He’s going to be special”: On Jaden McDaniels’ Meteoric Rise From Underwhelming College Star to NBA Starter

The former University of Washington Husky has gone from benched to first-round pick to starting NBA games in a very short period of time.

Minnesota Timberwolves v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves impressed during their first two preseason games against the injury-depleted New Orleans Pelicans and the Denver Nuggets, the reigning No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. Both matches resulted in wins — the first convincingly, the second in overtime — thanks to renewed energy and attention to the defensive end of the court. However, despite the successes, a dusting of darkness marred their otherwise lustrous sheen.

Simply put, Jaden McDaniels didn’t look all that great.

In 35 minutes combined, he shot 1-for-7 from the field and was 0-for-3 from beyond the 3-point line in the corners. He turned the ball over four times, picked up seven personal fouls — he fouled out of the opener against the Pelicans in only 13 minutes of action — and posted a plus/minus of -17 overall.

In short, he played poorly, and the Wolves were worse when he was on the court. And yet, head coach Chris Finch wasn’t concerned.

“He’s gotten a lot of great shots; he’s taking the matchups we want him to take. The first game, he got in foul trouble, which was unfortunate. Those shots will go in,” Finch told Canis Hoopus during an after-practice media session over the weekend. “Probably just a little bit of preseason game fitness that he’s just not quite where he needs to be. Leaving [shots] short, or what have you. But it would be good for him to have a breakout game, too.”

Well, ask, and ye shall receive.

Monday night, McDaniels bounced back against the purposely encumbered Los Angeles Clippers, scoring 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting (3-for-4 from deep) in 23 minutes. He grabbed five boards and a steal as well.

His performance was a pleasant return to his 2020-21 form, which gained him notoriety as one of the NBA’s biggest rookies surprises. Selected with the 28th overall pick out of the University of Washington, McDaniels was universally praised for his perimeter defense and his ability to knock down corner 3s consistently, particularly those on the left side of the court where he shot 20-for-44.

He also registered above-average shooting numbers around the hoop (66% field goal percentage) and in pull-up situations (50% effective field goal percentage), which represented a significant deviation from what he accomplished during his lone season in a Huskies’ uniform (52% and 37.6%, respectively). These two aspects of his game were among the most prominently criticized entering the NBA by the NBA draftnik community.

“Because he can get [pull-up shots] at any time, I’m not sure he’s really ever learned what a good or an efficient shot is,” The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie wrote prior to the draft. “Falls in love with the contested pull-up a bit too often at the expense of derailing the offensive flow. On top of it, to be this type of player, you need to be an utterly elite shooter off the bounce. Right now, McDaniels is about average.”

He added, “He has the ability to maneuver around defenders and finish off of one at the rim, or the ability to explode off of two feet for a dunk. But he takes a lot of tough ones because he gets tunnel-visioned going toward the rim and doesn’t have the strength right now to explode up through contact when he gets touched. Even struggles to play through contact a bit in the midrange as a ballhandler.”

Vecenie’s criticisms were not without merit and indicate how quickly McDaniels developed last season, especially after Finch took over coaching duties for the final 41 games of the season following the ouster of Ryan Saunders.

Finch has been impressed by McDaniels’ growth since entering the league, though he admits he didn’t watch him much during his year in college. He believes that a more defined role and his basketball smarts are the driving forces behind his success.

“The [college and NBA] game is so different and oftentimes these players are used in such different ways. That can be that they’re overexposed to things they’re not overly comfortable with or underexposed to things that suit them well. In the league, to play as a young player, you kind of have a narrower channel, which things you’re allowed to do. He played really well within himself last year, and I thought that was key to his ability to help us, his ability to get better,” Finch told Canis Hoppus. “He’s got a high basketball I.Q. He plays really well off the ball. He can really pass, and we’ve seen that this summer from him. It was good to see him make shots the other day. That needs to continue to improve for him. And trying to find him higher usage situations where he can play-make, but with our team, it’s not always easy to do because he’s a perfect player with that first unit in everything that he offers us. But that first unit already has three high-usage guys. Trying to find those opportunities going forward will be key to his growth, and I think it’s something that we could try to benefit from.”

McDaniels figures to be one of the athletes vying for a spot in the starting rotation after making 27 starts during his rookie campaign. Many in and around the Wolves believe that he still has higher pinnacles to reach despite all that he has shown.

“He’s going to be special. I’ve said that since Day One, and I think everyone on this team knows just what Jaden will be,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Man, we got lucky. We got really lucky to get him. He’s improving every day. He’s getting more experience. He’s putting muscle on his body. He’s becoming the player that we hoped he would become. He’s a special, special, special specimen.”