Jaden McDaniels got off to a rocky start to his sophomore season, and it looked like the young forward was in line for a brutal sophomore slump.
However, the versatile Minnesota Timberwolves’ forward found his groove as the season progressed and started to turn things around. Fighting through that initial and inevitable wall of adversity that materializes once the league has a season of film on a player, is often what separates those who make it and those who don’t. Even though it wasn’t the idyllic second year, McDaniels’ growth, perseverance, and overall impact is something that Timberwolves fans should still be ecstatic about.
McDaniels’ defense is still his crown jewel.
Before we dive into the brilliance he regularly displayed on the defensive end, the elephant in the room must be addressed. Unfortunately, this elephant can’t control its limbs and is committing fouls all over the place. This season, McDaniels committed the ninth-most personal fouls in the league and had a foul rate of 4.9%, which ranked in the 8th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.
Hopefully, these are just the trials and tribulations that a young player can overcome. If he can’t, though, it will be a serious issue. Constantly helping the opposition claw their way towards the bonus is never a good thing, especially when it’s the result of numerous ticky-tack fouls that could be easily avoided by not hand checking the ball-handler. His constant fouling also take him off the floor because he becomes a liability. The second he has to be benched, the Timberwolves lose any offensive contribution McDaniels would’ve provided, he fails to find any sort of rhythm, and he loses crucial developmental reps. McDaniels’ constant fouling isn’t something I’m going to be overly concerned about, but there needs to be a meaningful improvement in that area of his game next season.
Putting the hair pulling foul issues aside, McDaniels’ defensive versatility and impact could easily land him on an All-Defense team in the future. His combination of length, agility, and instincts make him an absolute menace to deal with. He frequently takes the opponents best perimeter player, but he also switches and battles in the post. McDaniels gets pushed around occasionally due to his slender frame, but he battles on every possession.
McDaniels’ defensive tools make him one of the biggest disruptors on the Timberwolves roster. His steal rate of 1.2% ranked in the 42nd percentile, and his block rate of 1.5% ranked in the 91st percentile. The beauty of McDaniels’ shot blocking is the various forms it came in. He was one of their most important low-man defenders with his weak side rotations, and he turned away pull-up jumpers when he was defending on-ball.
While McDaniels’ blocks and steals are impressive highlights, the vast majority of his defensive impact comes when he doesn’t record a counting stat. I know that sounds counter intuitive, but with his length and positioning, if McDaniels is in the way, its typically enough to significantly disrupt the shot.
Here, McDaniels starts the possession by perfectly moving his feet in unison with Paul George to cut off the drive without using his hands. McDaniels then absorbs the contact, limiting the separation George attempts to create. McDaniels again mirrors George’s drive to the lane and heavily contests the off-balance pull-up.
McDaniels shines on defense when he is fully committed to his fundamentals by moving his feet and not using his hands. Here, we see how McDaniels strings together his team defense into quality on-ball defense. As Jonas Valanciunas backs down Karl-Anthony Towns, McDaniels is periodically digging at Valanciunas in an effort to keep him off balance and aid Towns in any way possible. McDaniels’ efforts force the kick out pass, which he promptly recovers to. Due to McDaniels’ tremendous length, the ball-handler doesn’t take what should be an open three. Instead, he shot fakes and tries to beat McDaniels with a one-dribble pull-up. On the close out, though, McDaniels stays under control. This balance and composure allow him to react and get a strong contest on the deep mid-range jumper.
When we think of a player’s defensive abilities, we naturally drift towards what they do defending the ball since that is where most of our attention lies. On-ball defense is obviously important, but the truly great defenders are the ones who wreak havoc away from the ball with their denials, rotations, and positioning.
Here, McDaniels is playing drop coverage in the pick-and-roll (just another sign of his versatility). As Cole Anthony probes the lane, he sees there isn’t an advantage to be gained so he makes the next pass in the set’s progression and relocates to the corner. Anthony’s pass to his teammate on the move catches D’Angelo Russell not engaged, allowing RJ Hampton to easily get in the lane. Hampton’s downhill threat forces Naz Reid to step to the ball, theoretically creating an easy layup for Wendell Carter Jr. However, the moment that Anthony made his pass, McDaniels already read what was going to happen. Instead of sticking to Anthony, McDaniels disengages and drops to Carter, which allows him to deflect the pass for the turnover.
McDaniels’ processing speed is almost supernatural. He reads and reacts to unscripted rotations in the blink of an eye. His off-ball effectiveness can disrupt opponents in short windows like we just saw, but it can also completely ruin a team’s possession.
Here, McDaniels doesn’t record a stat of any kind, but he executes my favorite defensive possession of the season by single-handedly defending the weak side of the floor for the entire possession. As the Bucks try to attack the rim and swing the ball, McDaniels is constantly moving on the weak side to take away skip passes or kick outs. He naturally moves to impede passing lanes and has an uncanny sense of where everyone is on the floor. As the ball finally makes it to his side of the floor, he then proceeds to use his length to deflect it out of bounds.
Getting frustrated by McDaniels’ incessant fouling is an acceptable reaction. It takes him out of the game, kills his rhythm, and actively aides the other team. When he is locked in, though, there aren’t many wing defenders who are as impactful as McDaniels. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it’s true. His physical tools are impressive and allow him to do things most can’t, but it’s his basketball IQ and processing speed that puts his defense in rarified air.
If there is cause for concern with McDaniels going forward, it has to be what he showed, or didn’t show, for much of the year on offense. McDaniels was once the top ranked player in his high school class because of his offensive upside. He was once heralded the next Kevin Durant, which is always such an asinine comparison, but that offensive development has slowed.
Given the Timberwolves roster, McDaniels is mostly going to operate as an off-ball scorer, at least in the short term. The problem with this is that his outside shooting saw a precipitous drop off as his three-point percentage dropped from 36.4 on 3.1 attempts in his rookie season to 31.7 on 3.6 attempts this season. Additionally, McDaniels shot only 36% on corner threes (41st percentile), 30% on non-corner threes (22nd percentile), and 31.5% shooting off the catch from three. For comparison, these numbers are down from 41% (57th percentile), 33% (29th percentile), and 36.8% respectively.
McDaniels’ off-ball shooting struggles are a concern, but it isn’t all doom and gloom as his shooting numbers dramatically improved after the All-Star break. Yes, I’m well aware of the difference in sample size, but it’s still a common delineation point for segmenting single season stats.
Heading into the All-Star break, McDaniels was shooting 29.6% from three, 29.7% on all shots off the catch, 29.6% on three-pointers off the catch, and 30.8% on pull-up threes, per NBA Stats. After the All-Star break, this marks jumped to 39.6%, 38%, 38.8%, and 50% respectively.
Even though the shooting numbers improved as the season progressed, I’m willing to chalk a lot of it up to progression to the mean or small sample size. I’ll give you that. However, there is an area that McDaniels significantly improved throughout the season that wasn’t fluky or due to sample size. This improvement is reflected in the improved shooting off the dribble numbers, and that is how McDaniels started attacking closeouts.
I know, it’s a niche skill, but it is a vital one for off-ball shooters to have. Off-ball shooters become incredibly easy to defend when you know you just have to run them off the line. If they can do something off the bounce, though, that’s when things become tricky. Defenders now have to hesitate with short close outs, which result in an easier shot off the catch, or they put their teammates in a disadvantageous position.
Entering the All-Star break, McDaniels shot 58.9% inside ten feet, 54.8% after taking one dribble, 47.5% after taking two dribbles, and 48.7% when taking three or more dribbles. After the All-Star break, these numbers leaped to 65.3%, 78.6%, 50%, and 66.7% respectively. Those are wild improvements.
Since Anthony Edwards and Towns attract as much attention as they do on their drives, McDaniels will constantly be put in situations where defenders are scrambling to close out on him. Here, the Raptors collapse on Towns’ drive, leaving McDaniels open in the corner. On the catch, McDaniels doesn’t hesitate. He takes one dribble, secures the ball through the swipes, and uses his long strides to finish at the rim.
This time, McDaniels has a size advantage after a switch and attacks downhill. His length helps exaggerate his crossover, allowing him to blow past Steph Curry. McDaniels has had that skill for a while, but the important improvement is how he attacks the rim. Without hesitation, we see McDaniels attack the rotating defender, fully utilize his added strength, and finish through the contact.
McDaniels also utilized his off-ball movement to set up defenders. Here, McDaniels relocates to the wing and looks to make an entry pass. This movement gets McDaniels’ defender higher in his stance and makes him more susceptible to the forthcoming jab step. McDaniels sends his defender the wrong way, takes two dribbles, and buries the pull-up.
Since he’s constantly moving, McDaniels keeps his defenders moving and can therefor better leverage his ball-handling and length to create advantages. Here, the Timberwolves push the ball up the court and McDaniels exposes his defender’s lack of fundamentals by attacking before he can get set. McDaniels immediately attacks off the catch, and the defender panics by flipping his hips. McDaniels instinctively pulls off a crossover that his matchup has zero chance of reacting to. From there, it’s easy work for McDaniels.
Besides scoring, McDaniels also showed improvement in his ability to leverage his rim pressure to create for others. Here, McDaniels receives the kick out pass and drives baseline. McDaniels’ drive forces the defensive rotation, and instead of trying to force a bad shot, McDaniels wraps around the defender to set up Towns for the dunk.
McDaniels isn’t going to be a primary scoring or playmaking option, and that is completely fine. If he can continue to improve and expand on his off-ball scoring, his offensive impact will grow to meet that of his defensive impact. The tools are there, he just needs to keep putting the pieces together. Next season, teams are likely going to dare McDaniels to beat them with his shot. Closeouts will probably be short, and they’ll try to take away the drives and mid-range game. If he can prove to be at least a league average shooter, though, he’ll be able to punish defenses in a myriad of ways.
This season overall felt like a bit of a let down compared to McDaniels’ breakout rookie season.
Most of that is due to where the expectations were set, but McDaniels got off to a rocky start as he struggled with foul issues and adapting to additional attention from defenders. Even with the foul issues, McDaniels’ defensive potential remains astronomically high. There are few things he can’t do, and if the foul woes get cleaned up, he’ll be making All-Defense teams sooner rather than later.
The more prominent question, though, is what McDaniels looks like offensively next year. He struggled to find a consistent groove for most of the season and seemed to lose confidence in his outside jumper. McDaniels likely won’t turn into some dominant on-ball scorer, and he doesn’t need to be. If he can find some consistency with his off-ball shooting, that will open up different ways to attack defenders by driving to the rim, pulling up in the mid-range, or using his gravity to create for others.
This season wasn’t an overwhelming, punch-you-in-the-face success for McDaniels. However, it was still a step in the right direction, which is always a win. The brilliant defense we saw from him as a rookie improved. He took steps to be more versatile on offense, and he overcame adversity when it mattered to grow as a player.