One of the most enjoyable perks of watching talented young NBA players develop is seeing the incremental improvements in niche areas. You can see him learn from his reps in very specific areas, and while they often won’t help him become a 30-point-per-game scorer, they may contribute to success.
This is the type of progress we have seen in Jaden McDaniels’ passing. McDaniels averaged 1.3 assists per game over the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first 21 games of the season leading up to Dec. 8; in the 18 games since then, he is averaging 2.6 dimes. Not crazy numbers, but McDaniels interior passing, in particular, has been key in this elevated playmaking.
McDaniels is tall and nimble, and his ability to read the game has caught up to his physical advantages in a way that makes him difficult to handle in the paint. Not only has he continued to build his control and feathery touch on shots around the basket, he now knows how to throw passes with the right timing, touch and accuracy to navigate the complex ballet that takes place near the rim.
This development has been most impactful in his partnership with Rudy Gobert. There’s been plenty of angst around the lack of chemistry between the team’s playmakers and the French big man as he has struggled to assimilate to the offense, but McDaniels has as good a connection with Gobert as almost anyone. Almost 37% of McDaniels’ assists since Dec. 8 have been to Gobert.
Whereas many of their teammates throw low bounce passes or whip the ball off Gobert’s hands, McDaniels knows to deliver the ball high and with the right loft to help Gobert secure it. He’s capable of slowing his pace to make passes more palatable, and the two have a solid chemistry for when to make their cuts in order to open lanes to the basket.
Apart from Kyle Anderson, McDaniels is the best on the team at throwing lobs that Gobert can actually catch and finish. His height and length are helpful in getting the pass over big men when they commit to him.
McDaniels’ link with Gobert also shows up in an area that will be as crucial as any other part of his game if he stays in more of a complementary role: attacking closeouts.
McDaniels is fluid. He can shoot, pass and dribble. And as long as he’s playing with Anthony Edwards, he’s going to have chances to drive against defenders rotating back out from help position. If he continues to make quick, correct decisions like he does in the clip above, he’s going to be a handful as a secondary attacker.
In his three seasons, McDaniels has gotten better and better at getting to his spots as a driver, rising up and knocking down short jumpers over shorter defenders. Defenses are having to respect that shot more and more, and it’s already opening up some passing lanes for McDaniels once he gets into floater range or closer
He can still stand to work on his ball control, but McDaniels can be relied upon to take his man off the dribble and make the right call. His teammates need to master the timing on the cuts you see from Anderson and Jaylen Nowell above, where a perimeter player knifes through the gaps while the defense is focused on the driver. The more they do that, the more they’ll get easy buckets on dump-offs.
The next step is to add more consistency as an interior passer on the move, where McDaniels can press the advantage with his athleticism. However, he has already flashed some great reads off cuts and in transition. He’s shown a real propensity for those wrap-around passes — no doubt aided by those Mr. Fantastic arms — and doesn’t panic when the game speeds up around him.
So we’ve seen McDaniels make those intricate passes around the basket for at-rim looks, but he also knows when to send it back outside against a collapsing defense.
As with offensive rebounds, paint touch kick-outs are great times to shoot threes because the shooter is likely already lined up with the basket after watching their teammate get the ball inside. In fact, you see a few of the assists above come from offensive rebounds, where McDaniels can put his length and energy to good use and get extra points for the Wolves.
Throwing interior-to-interior passes is a delicate thing that requires balance. You have to throw it hard enough that it can’t be picked off but soft enough that the teammate can actually catch it from a short distance, and the best defenders know how to read your intentions and bait you into a turnover. It’s a craft that takes time to learn, but McDaniels is showcasing some real playmaking chops down there in his first season as a full-time starter.
He’s no Chris Paul or Nikola Jokić, obviously, but he makes enough good reads to consistently help create open shots when he’s out there. With more development, the flashes of high-level processing could lead to a player that can contribute to championship-level ball movement in the future.