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Jaden McDaniels: More Than Just a Defender

The emergence of Minnesota’s other rookie has been a pleasant surprise this season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Jaden McDaniels continues to shine as one of the 2020 NBA Draft’s biggest steals. The Minnesota Timberwolves rookie initially earned his minutes with his defensive prowess and continued expanding his game on what seems like a nightly basis. While McDaniels’ defense is his central selling point, his recent offensive growth has been meaningful and impressive.

If we hopped in our time machine and went back only a month, McDaniels’ offensive role was essentially to stand in the corner and shoot when left open. It’s a rather simplistic role that, while needed, doesn’t do a tremendous amount in terms of running a hard-to-cover offense. However, in recent weeks, McDaniels has executed, embraced, and proven, as he has in every other aspect of his rookie campaign, that he is much more than just a standstill shooter.

McDaniels has slowly emerged as an excellent cutter, more versatile off-ball shooter, and shockingly accurate passer. McDaniels’ steady growth allows the offense to be more complex and doesn’t allow opponents just to hide a defender on the guy standing in the corner.

The goal here is not to denigrate corner shooting as it is still an important part of the game, especially for a team that has been painfully devoid of shooting in recent seasons. It is also still an important part of McDaniels’ offensive package and a role he’s succeeded at. Per Cleaning the Glass (as of late Monday morning), 23 percent of McDaniels’ shot attempts have come from corner threes (74th percentile), and he is making them at a 43 percent clip (67th percentile).

In past seasons, the number of times the Timberwolves have had an offensive possession like the one above and then missed the open shot is enough to drive a fan base insane. The ball movement was spectacular, and the team was rewarded with a quality shooter making the shot.

Knocking down open corner threes isn’t the only value McDaniels brings to the offense, as the Timberwolves’ offensive numbers are significantly more impressive when he is on the floor than when he is off. As a team, the Timberwolves score 4.5 more points per 100 possessions (81st percentile), their effective field goal percentage is 1.7 percent higher (73rd percentile), and their turnover percentage is 0.6 percent lower (67th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass.

McDaniels provides excellent floor spacing for an offense that would regularly be congested. He also is a breath of fresh air when it comes to decision making, and shot selection as 67.8 percent of his shot attempts come when he is considered open (closest defender is four or more feet away), per NBA Stats. A significant reason for that number being so high is his role, but it is also an encouraging sign that he isn’t another young kid out there jacking shots to boost his scoring numbers.

Sacramento Kings v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

With that said, it is also naïve to expect McDaniels to continue standing still in the corner. A recent trend in McDaniels’ offensive game has been his understanding of space on the floor. He rarely takes away a teammate’s space with a bad cut or not circling out to a new zone, and he has an innate sense of where he needs to be to make himself available to teammates.

Finding open pockets on the floor helps create open shots. It seems pretty simple but not something young players tend to show at a high level. Given this team’s current roster construction, McDaniels will rarely (if ever) be relied on to create off the dribble, so finding these open pockets will be the primary source of his scoring attempts.

Against the Knicks, McDaniels showed how well he understands the floor on this Rubio drive. McDaniels initially fills his lane in transition and goes to the corner. Rubio is looking for the whip-around pass, but his baseline drive is cut off, and Julius Randle is in a position to intercept the pass. Instead of stalling in the corner, McDaniels immediately looks to relocate. He takes a few steps to cut but quickly sees Karl-Anthony Towns streaking to the rim. McDaniels doesn’t continue his cut, which would kill any floor spacing, but instead pops out to the wing. By initiating a cut, though, McDaniels drew Randle towards the paint, where he made a puzzling decision to switch onto Towns. McDaniels is now left wide open on the perimeter and knocks down the open three.

Off-ball movement doesn’t always have to be a flashy back-cut or sprinting off a series of screens. Often, simple movement and relocation can confuse defenders and force them to make mistakes, which is precisely what happened.

Most of McDaniels’ off-ball movement is subtle and calculated, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t susceptible to brow-raising cuts. In fact, McDaniels is one of the most effective cutters on the team. Per NBA Stats, McDaniels is scoring 1.32 points per possession (PPP) when he cuts (59th percentile). He has an excellent understanding of lanes, the defender’s body positioning, and timing.

After Ricky Rubio refeeds Towns in the post, he cuts to clear out that side of the floor. As Rubio cuts, his initial defender goes to double Towns. Seeing that he has been left, Rubio tries to sneak back to the block for an easy layup. This move forces the weakside defender to leave the passing lane to Anthony Edwards and drop to the baseline to defend Rubio. As that is happening, we can see Towns look for the skip pass to Edwards, but Kevin Porter Jr has made the proper rotation to deny that passing lane. This whole time, McDaniels has been at the top of the arc. After Rubio makes his initial cut, McDaniels takes a few steps towards Towns to simulate his relocation to the court’s left side. McDaniels recognizes that Rubio’s cut has forced the weakside defense to shift and leave the lane completely unoccupied. Seeing that his defender is ball-watching, McDaniels bolts to the rim for the uncontested dunk.

Opposing defenses are forced to focus most of their energy on Towns when he has the ball. This attention creates opportunities for teammates to get rewarded if they are willing to move off-ball, something Towns has never really been surrounded by.

Again, McDaniels capitalizes on the attention Towns draws to create an open shot. As Rubio dumps the ball to Towns in the post, the floor is imbalanced with four Nets on the left half of the court, and James Harden left to defend the weak side that has McDaniels, Edwards, and Jarrett Culver. McDaniels could have easily stayed on the wing for the open three, which wouldn’t have been a wrong decision, but instead sees the gapping path to the rim for the easy two. McDaniels bolts towards the lane and receives the pass, but Harden slides to him at the last second. Afraid to draw a charge call, McDaniels makes an incredible off-balance pass against his momentum for the open corner three.

Sure, McDaniels could have stayed on the wing for a potentially open three and not made the same cut Edwards ends up making right behind McDaniels. McDaniels also could have tried to finish over Harden as Harden didn’t rotate in time. I wouldn’t have been upset with either of those decisions, but I’m glad McDaniels did what he did. It shows his spatial awareness, passing accuracy, and willingness to move the ball for a more open shot.

Again, McDaniels shows his ability to pass on the move and understanding of floor spacing in the below clip. After passing to Towns, McDaniels immediately cuts to the rim because he knows the rim protector has been pulled out of the paint to defend Towns. Towns delivers a perfect pass to McDaniels, but Harden has rotated from the weakside. Without hesitation or breaking stride, McDaniels makes a tremendous touch pass to Jaylen Nowell in the corner and avoids a potential charge call.

McDaniels ability to process making the catch, seeing the weakside rotation, making the skip pass, and avoid a charge in a split second is remarkable for any player, let alone a rookie. The physical tools that McDaniels brings to the table are apparent, but his basketball IQ and the cerebral aspects of his game were tragically underestimated.

McDaniels will continue to punish teams with his off-ball abilities, and he likely won’t be asked to do much of anything off the bounce. The primary reason for this is that Towns, Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell have the ball most of the time. However, that doesn’t mean McDaniels is incapable of creating off the bounce. McDaniels is shooting 42.3 percent when he takes at least one dribble and 44.3 percent when you take out his pull-up threes. As McDaniels continues to find success with his off-ball shooting, defensive closeouts will be more aggressive, and he can attack those to get to the rim.

Additionally, McDaniels is scoring 1.42 PPP (98th percentile) in dribble handoffs and 1.08 PPP (90th percentile) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. His understanding of angles and defensive positioning shines through in these situations, as does his eagerness to make the right play.

McDaniels has already proven that he is an exceptional defender. He drastically raises the Timberwolves’ defensive ceiling, and defensive accolades are in his future. What we don’t know is how impactful his offense will be.

McDaniels likely won’t be a prolific on-ball creator, and that’s fine. However, over recent weeks, McDaniels has also proven he is significantly more than just a corner shooter. The beauty of his role is that he doesn’t have to try to become something he isn’t. He can incrementally improve in different areas and steadily grow his game. Jaden McDaniels’ defense has been incredible and rightfully gets all of the shine. However, please pay attention to how his offensive role is subtly expanding because it is meaningful and fascinating.