With rumblings of All-Defense honors and whispers of Most Improved Player consideration this summer, Jaden McDaniels figured to be as important a piece as any for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2022-23.
The expectations were that he continue to be a versatile force on the defensive end while improving his discipline and limiting his fouling, leading to an increased impact by simply being available. On offense, more efficient shooting in an effort to become a stud role player was the expectation.
Has he met those expectations thus far?
For the most part, yes. Although being tasked as the do-it-all defensive option for the Wolves has made it difficult for the third-year Swiss Army Knife stay out of foul trouble.
Competent outside shooting from Minnesota’s starters — other than Rudy Gobert — was a key piece to a functioning offense, due to Gobert’s inability to stretch the defense beyond the arc. With D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns theoretically being threats from deep, it was important that McDaniels improve upon his 32% 3-point average from last season.
So far, he’s done that.
After not making a 3-point shot in the first four games of the season (0/7), Jaden McDaniels is shooting 41% from deep in the last 11 games. The volume certainly isn’t high, as he’s attempting roughly three per game, but a high percentage from 3-point land is essential as a complimentary offensive piece.
If McDaniels’ percentage were to plummet, defense would become much easier for opponents (well, even easier than it’s been to stop this sputtering offense). Teams would be able exert more energy guarding Edwards, Russell and Towns, packing the paint and taking away driving lanes.
With McDaniels consistently needing to be guarded, it keeps those driving lanes (somewhat) open, allowing Edwards and others to attack the rim.
This play is a good representation of the options the Wolves have on offense, as McDaniels’ shooting keeps Ja Morant attached to him, Gobert lurks in the dunker’s spot as a lob threat, and Towns has to be accounted for on the pop.
If Morant and the Grizzlies felt comfortable bringing help — willingly leaving McDaniels open from three — Edwards likely is forced to pass to Gobert or to kick it to Russell (which isn’t necessarily an easy pass).
According to Cleaning The Glass, McDaniels ranks in the 80th percentile in points per shot attempt, a jump from his 61st-percentile finish last year. The 22-year-old forward is also much improved at attacking closeouts, as when the ball finds itself in his hands after a few swings around the perimeter, he’s shown the ability to take his man off the dribble and score either at the rim or in the mid-range on pull-up jumpers. Despite those instances, he’s turning the ball over more than he ever has and averages 1.5 per game. According to Cleaning The Glass, he ranks in the 14th percentile in turnover percentage. Perhaps it’s due to a lack of offensive creation from the Timberwolves thus far, but it’s something that will hopefully return to average levels. But if that’s the cost of McDaniels expanding his offensive game at this point, it’s worth it.
Being a threat to hit the open shots and attack off the dribble after a bad closeout makes him someone who defenses cannot fall asleep on.
This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen McDaniels’ ability to attack off the dribble, but this season it seems a bit more comfortable and intentional.
His cutting off the ball remains good, a cherry on top to an offensive game that’s in the early stages of “elite role player” status.
On the defensive side of the ball, he continues to be Minnesota’s best perimeter defender. Without Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley, though, McDaniels has been tasked with a lot, perhaps a factor in his highest per-game foul mark (3.8 per game) of his career.
Combined with his already-present fouling issue, it’s a recipe for mixed results.
McDaniels getting screened more often (no Beverley or Vanderbilt to guard on the perimeter) creates an opportunity for fouls. So does often guarding the opposing the team’s best perimeter player, as does frequently providing help defense.
He’s fouled out in three of the last five games, two of which were losses to the New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies. Part of it can be chalked up to lack of discipline, for sure, but to put this much responsibility on his hands is a tall order.
The former Washington Husky’s performance so far in year three is a net-positive, with encouraging offensive strides leading the way. With the Wolves’ offense slowly improving recently, we might be in store for another small boost to McDaniels’ game.