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March Madness: The Progression of Jaden McDaniels

The Timberwolves rookie has been an unexpected surprise this season.

NBA: New York Knicks at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

There aren’t many impactful late-first-round picks in Minnesota Timberwolves history. In fact, the franchise has had several misses in the lottery as well. At any rate, drafting well outside of the lottery is something that really smart (or really lucky) teams do well. Expecting success later in the draft is foolish, but teams can find value there.

Take Jaden McDaniels, the 28th pick in the 2020 draft. If most observers were being honest, they didn’t expect much from McDaniels this season. While it’s easy to get excited about any new young player drafted by your favorite team, it appeared early on in the season that the 6’9” and 185-pound rookie power forward was simply going to have to wait for his opportunity to show what he could do.

Fortunately for the former Washington Huskie, McDaniels had several things going for him. For instance, the Timberwolves did not have an entrenched starter at power forward. McDaniels plays power forward. The team is plus-9.8 points per 100 possession better with him on the floor than off, the second-best mark on the roster to Karl-Anthony Towns.

Another thing going for Jaden is that this team has few players who can guard an opponent’s best player. McDaniels happens to have a 6’11” wingspan and strong defensive instincts, which has allowed him to leapfrog others at his position for extended playing time.

McDaniels’ ability to make 3’s certainly helps his case, too. He’s currently taking 3.0 attempts per game and making 37.7 percent of them. When he’s on the floor with Anthony Edwards, Towns, and Malik Beasley, teams tend to leave McDaniels alone and the 20-year old has no fear in making his opponents pay for their mistakes.

New York Knicks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

McDaniels’ Magnificent March

What Edwards has done thus far as a rookie is very notable — hell, he just earned one of the Rookie Players of the Month awards for his outstanding play in March. Similarly, McDaniels also had an impressive month of March, averaging 9.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and over a block per game in 12 games. Doing so while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from beyond the arc were career-bests for the kid from Federal Way, Washington.

It’s important to note that Jaden’s strongest month of the season did not simply come out of nowhere — McDaniels’ role has grown each month and he has continued to produce when given an opportunity. His minutes in January (188) nearly doubled in February (341) and played as many in March (342) in four fewer games.

McDaniels’ March performance felt more like the culmination of his talent and accumulating experience. Chris Finch is asking a lot from a young player and he is rising to the occasion so far.

McDaniels Uncommon Talent For The Timberwolves

Watching McDaniels and wondering what he can ultimately become in this league is a fun exercise (and a necessary one for a team with a record of 12-36). The Timberwolves haven’t had many players in their history capable of guarding an array of players like Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and James Harden. His versatility is as rare for this franchise as shooting guards who can shoot.

Given McDaniels’ age, skill set, and fit with Towns, losing him at the deadline would have been more than tough. He’s not the kind of player that should be necessarily untouchable on the worst team in the league, but he’s also someone other teams should have to try and pry away.

Yeah, you’d like him to grab a few more rebounds and maybe that will come as he grows into his body or if he becomes less perimeter-oriented. The free-throw shooting also leaves a lot to desire. Luckily for McDaniels, he is still young enough to work on and develop those types of things. Besides, it’s not like big men who can make 3’s and defend multiple positions frequently pass through Target Center.

Ultimately, the Timberwolves may found their power forward of the future from an unlikely source: the late first round. When I wrote in October about picks in the later parts of the draft, this is what I was talking about. If Minnesota wants to expedite this rebuild, they will need to find gems in unlikely places, especially if they lose their own first round pick later this summer.

McDaniels is such an intriguing prospect now and it’s hard not to be excited for his future when you look at his month-to-month progress so far this season. In just 41 games, McDaniels has already carved out a really nice niche on this team.