Heading into Jaden McDaniels’ rookie season, a stint in the G-League bubble that exhibited promising signs for the future would have been considered a booming success for the Minnesota Timberwolves front office and fan base. Coming out of the draft, the skinny kid who had a roller coaster freshman season at the University of Washington was regarded as a project in the truest sense of the word. The clichéd two years away from being two years away.
Now, as his debut NBA campaign reaches its crescendo, McDaniels has shattered those expectations into a million tiny pieces, scooped them up, glued them back together and smashed them apart again. Just 54 games into his professional career, not only has McDaniels solidified himself as a heavily featured member of the Timberwolves rotation, he is cemented as one of the brightest parts of the team’s murky future.
Unlike his rookie companion Anthony Edwards, McDaniels doesn’t pop as a box score contributor. He isn’t the type to blow defenders off the court with a tornado of points. McDaniels is a low-key, under-the-radar impact guy. His 6.8 points and 3.6 rebounds aren’t going to elicit any dropped jaws, but it’s harder to say the same about the fact the Timberwolves are 2.8 points better per 100 possessions when he is on the floor. Yes, that’s the same kid who wasn’t even supposed to feature in the big leagues this season making his mark in a positive way each time he steps on the court.
When the 20-year-old first started to emerge from then-coach Ryan Saunders’ coaching basement, his role was nothing if not rudimentary. With his gangly frame and elite defensive instincts, he was tasked with altering as many shots as possible at the rim — a notion that came naturally to him after spending his lone college season as a roaming shot-blocker in Mike Hopkins’ Washington Huskies zone defense. Offensively, it was even more simple: shoot standstill 3-pointers and move the ball if those shots aren’t available.
However, as the season has grown so has McDaniels’ confidence in his own game. So has his faith in his on-court job security. So has the trust his coach, now Chris Finch, has in his rookie forward. Since coming back from the All-Star break, Finch has started to allow more responsibility to trickle down into McDaniels’ bucket.
The change was first noticeable on the defensive end of the floor. Instead of just operating as a free safety style weakside shot-altering presence, Finch tasked McDaniels with the daunting task of point-of-attack stopper on some of the league’s most fearsome ball-handlers. Just like he has with every other job unexpectedly heaped onto him this season, McDaniels took to his on-ball role like cattle to a grassy field.
Almost overnight, leaping rim-swats became plays like the one you see below. Where his unique blend of calmness and ferocity allows him to treat all-time scoring monster James Harden like puppy chow:
The most impressive thing about the rookie is how he is consistently able to battle above his weight class; a mentality that has served him well as he has transitioned into a more versatile and well-rounded defender.
By now, it’s common knowledge that Luka Doncic is not easy to contain in mono e mono hoop combat, and much of that comes down to his ability to compensate for his middling athleticism with off-the-charts body control and underappreciated core strength. The Slovenian prodigy unleashed all of that on this play against McDaniels in the next clip — on a night that the rookie held the MVP candidate to 0-7 shooting from the field — and still couldn’t shake the rookie.
Despite his slight frame, McDaniels is a master at giving himself recovery room and not letting bumps knock him off-kilter. As long as he can stay within striking distance of his opponent, the rook is always going to be able to get one of those long arms in to contest, deny or alter a shot.
The last aspect of McDaniels’ on-ball defense that is worth noting is how incredibly formidable his hips are ... yes, his hips. Being able to rotate one’s hips quickly is paramount for top-tier perimeter defending. With shifty ball-handlers moving from left to right effortlessly, a seamless hip flip allows a defender to effectively shadow his man no matter how quick they are to change direction with the ball.
Here, from the latest line of great McDaniels defensive performances against the Utah Jazz, is a premium example of why the rookie’s hip flexibility and speed of rotation are among the best in the league already. Despite Jordan Clarkson’s scoring nous, McDaniels’ hip flip porn renders the guard’s spin move useless and gives McDaniels the opportunity to get a hand up on the ensuing shot.
It would be easy to forgive McDaniels for dropping his duties as a rim-protector as he comes to grips with a life plagued by the likes of Doncic and Harden, but the University of Washington alum has continued to impact the game in the interior as well as the perimeter. In fact, he harmoniously oscillates between the defensive requirements mid-game.
Stopping the lumbering stylings of Rudy Gobert is a completely different beast to quelling a dribble-drive superstar like Harden or Doncic or a scoring addict like Clarkson, but the difficulty level is still sky-high. It really does seem to make no difference to the stone-faced freshman, though.
Watch how quickly McDaniels’ play recognition kicks into gear as he analyzes this broken floor possession. He starts at the right slot as he gets matched up in transition, but he quickly recognizes that D’Angelo Russell is overmatched and helpless against Gobert, who is rumbling down the middle of the floor to the front of the rim. Just as the Jazz are getting ready to kill the Wolves for not matching up properly, McDaniels sprints from the slot to the fron of the rim, providing a road block and giving the Stifle Tower a test of his own medicine.
Offensively, McDaniels’ foundation was built on much shakier ground. He entered the league as a catch-and-shoot threat and only that, but Finch has begun to allow McDaniels to work through his mistakes as he tries to reach his lofty ceiling.
Broadening McDaniels’ shooting horizons came first, allowing the rookie to work into a few triples off-the-dribble. It doesn’t seem much, but taking and making jumpers like this are a big step in the right direction and something that didn’t seem possible a few months ago.
From a few dribbles into a 3-point shot, blossoms the ability to get into the mid-range area, create space, and knock down shots off-the-dribble. McDaniels’ handle will need a sizeable amount of work on his handle to become a true threat off the bounce, as he just doesn’t have the first step or natural wiggle to shake off defenders and create space for himself without a better handle, but he is exhibiting signs of life as a versatile scorer.
Thus far, he has connected on 42 percent of his mid-range jumpers (60th percentile among forwards), so there is a baseline for mid-range success buried underneath a barrage of open 3-pointers and layups. If and when the handle is at the level where he can consistently get off looks similar to the one he does in the clip below, he is going to be quite a handful offensively.
Perhaps the biggest hole in McDaniels’ scoring package is his inability to get to the rim unassisted. He is a fantastic cutter and can make an impact as a lane-filler in transition, but it’s very rare to see the 20-year-old slither his way all the way to the basket off the back of a dribble-drive.
Where McDaniels has been able to combat the lack of burst and wiggle is by attacking closeouts or flying through hand-off actions and tear-dropping shots in when he gets two feet in the paint. It’s not as efficient as a typical shot a few feet closer to the rim would be, but McDaniels is making looks like this at 44 percent, which ranks him in the 72nd percentile among qualified forwards according to Cleaning The Glass.
As a whole, McDaniels’ game still requires plenty of molding. He isn’t even close to the finished article and it may take years before we can confidently say he is. Right now, he is a talented youngster who is still learning the ins and outs of his own game while trying to combat the challenges that come with one of the strangest NBA seasons in recent memory.
However, his growth over the past few weeks is cause for serious celebration and optimism. It’s the start of what could be a role player turning into a high-quality ceiling-raiser or even star player. Right now, the training wheels are still on, but the future in which they’re off is more real than ever — there is certainly far more light at the end of that tunnel than there previously had been.
The expansion of Jaden McDaniels’ game is real.