When the Minnesota Timberwolves were stuck on 19 points mid-way through the second quarter in Friday night’s tilt against the Toronto Raptors, it would have been the smart wager that they were well on their way to one of many blowout losses they’ve endured through this unenjoyable, backbreaking campaign. In one of the few instances where a game didn’t go from bad to worse this season, you would have lost that bet.
Don’t worry, they didn’t break the mold too dramatically, with the usual late-game toxic concoction of poor execution, puzzling rotation decisions and a frighteningly obvious inexperience throughout the squad leading to an ugly 86-81 defeat.
Even within what can only be described as one of the ugliest games of the entire NBA season, there was beauty to be found, coming in the form of Minnesota’s rampant third quarter. Anthony Edwards committing first-degree murder on a Target Center rim and Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe was the highlight of the period and capped off the fun in the most exquisite way, but it was fellow rookie Jaden McDaniels’ defensive masterclass that spearheaded a quarter in which Minnesota only gave up 13 points.
On the night, McDaniels finished with a sumptuous defensive rating of 75. On the season, Minnesota is 9.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when the 20-year-old is on the floor, a jaw-dropping number that ranks him in the 93rd percentile leaguewide according to Cleaning The Glass. When you factor those numbers into the equation, it shouldn’t be surprising that the wispy-armed rookie impacted the game in a positive fashion, but this was something extra-special.
Before the vaunted third quarter, McDaniels was already leaving his defensive imprint on the game. Less than two minutes after checking in, Big Mac picked up where he left off in the win over Toronto last week. It’s obvious when you look at McDaniels that his arms extend into next week, but the way he uses them is what gives him the potential to be a special stopper. Here, after getting into Siakam’s body originally, he gets his hands high and not only avoids the rookie whistle, but he smothers Siakam’s passing line of sight as well. Then, to finish off the play, he swipes down and exhibits his impressive hand-eye coordination to knock the ball out of the Raptor’s hands and off his leg to force the turnover.
While things were going south on both ends for the Wolves during the rest of the first half, McDaniels was fairly quiet. Still, he did manifest a couple of missed layups with those long arms and exceptional timing. McDaniels has entered the league with an innate ability to read a developing offensive play, come off his man at the right moment and deter the shot at the rim — with or without swatting the ball.
While his first-half performance was his usual rock-solid, it was the post-halftime performance that can only be described as otherworldly. After starting the period on the pine, McDaniels checked in at the 8:21 mark, and within 15 seconds of game time, he was giving Siakam fits again.
Unlike many young, underdeveloped rookies, McDaniels seems to be quickly mastering the art of playing without fouling whilst still being able to get into his opponent’s jock and force turnovers and contested shots. Siakam scores 0.94 points per possession in isolation, and his ability to wheel and deal around the rim has become a staple of his game. In this play, McDaniels puts the former Most Improved Player in the slaughterhouse. He slides his feet perfectly, helping thwart Siakam’s multiple attempts to change directions. He keeps those hands high. And he nudges Siakam into a travelling violation without committing a foul.
So, determined not to be scorned by a rookie’s devilish defending, Siakam tries to face up and attack from the left side of the floor. Instead, McDaniels finds a new and even more impressive way to flatten his spirit. As he did earlier in the first quarter, Big Mac uses his lateral quickness to stick with a driving Siakam, but this time he reveals his insane quick jump ability. Unlike his first strip attempt early in the game, McDaniels misses on his swipe down, but he bounces back up rapidly to meet his man’s layup attempt the shot’s apex.
This time, it leads to a run-out on the other end, with the sequence ending in a momentum-building Jake Layman triple. This, folks, isn’t your garden variety defensive effort. Not for a veteran, let alone a 185-pound rookie. Against an All-Star. In his 22nd game.
Then, McDaniels flashes his versatility. As if locking McDaniels in an inescapable jail wasn’t enough, Minnesota starts to switch everything that their defensively-minded rookie is involved in. First, he openly communicates the switch with Karl-Anthony Towns and Jordan McLaughlin and shows hard on a slicing Fred VanVleet. His quick hands poke the ball away from VanVleet, forcing him beyond the 3-point line with the shot clock running down. The play results in a dubious travel call, but there is no denying the way McDaniels swallowed the point guard up is first-class.
Next, VanVleet tries to get a leg up on McDaniels in transition. Predictably, he fails. Like a cheetah stalking a gazelle, the rook tracks the 2019 NBA champion down the floor and eviscerates his fast break attempt. At this point, Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse must be pulling his hair out at the fact that McDaniels went one pick before the Toronto were on the clock on draft night.
In his final noteworthy play of what was one of the best quarters of the season, McDaniels is again tasked with switching onto a nifty guard. This time, it’s Matt Thomas. Thomas doesn’t have the notoriety that Siakam or VanVleet have, but he is knocking down a scorching 45.2 percent of his 3-pointers throughout his 57 career games. Thomas is an elite off-ball mover and shot-hunter, capable of launching a deep bomb with just a sliver of space.
After slithering through two different Aron Baynes (who is a human truck) screens and still maintaining an arm’s length distance, he rockets back in front of Thomas and forces him to give it up. Apparently, giving it up means throwing it into the 5th row. Timberwolves ball. Another McDaniels defensive win.
And that’s the third quarter. A breathtaking one. But there was one more play at the beginning of the fourth quarter that needs to be denoted. Another blocked shot. That really shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore. According to NBA.com, players are shooting 37.3 percent when being defended by McDaniels, among players who have played at least 20 games, only Philadelphia 76ers defensive stud Matisse Thybulle has stifled opponents more effectively. And while he hasn’t yet played enough minutes to qualify for Basketball Reference’s block percentage leaderboard, he would rank 10th in the league (4.9%).
When McDaniels is on a would-be scorers hip, it’s pretty much curtains for the offense. Even without the strength to consistently fight through big-bodied screens, he is already one of the best rearview contesters in the league. The combination of recovery speed, length and shot-blocking timing makes for some of the most impressive come-from-behind swats the league has to offer.
Here, Siakam (who has to be having night terrors about the Gumby-esque rookie by now) is the victim. He brushes off McDaniels slightly coming around the screen, but it’s not enough to get rid of McDaniels. He catches up quickly, and he virtually punctures the ball with a ferocious slap.
While this was the crème de la crème of McDaniels’ awe-inspiring beginnings, it won’t be the last time we point out these same defensive strengths. Already he may have taken the mantle as Minnesota’s best defensive player, and he is unarguably one of the league’s brightest prospects on that end. This was just a snapshot. A one-game sample size. The future will be just as bright. Hell, it would be surprising if it doesn’t get significantly brighter.