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Film Room: Breaking Down the Minister of (On-Ball) Defense Jaden McDaniels

The Timberwolves’ third-year rising star’s incredible defense on Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox played a big role in Minnesota sweeping both ends of a back-to-back.

Jaden McDaniels is one of the premier defenders in the NBA. He may not get the recognition he deserves, but his singular presence allows the Minnesota Timberwolves to do a variety of things on defense. In the past, we’ve seen him defend the weak-side on his own, matchup against the opponent’s best wings and forwards, and act as a weak-side rim protector. In their last two games, though, McDaniels provided yet another look as his primary assignment was Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox in back-to-back nights.

In last season’s playoffs, the Timberwolves did as good of a job containing Morant as anyone in the league had all year. Their strategy consisted of throwing as much length and pressure as possible at him in every ball screen. After an offseason trade that you may have heard a thing or two about, that strategy was no longer possible. Instead, Minnesota pivoted into a more common drop scheme defense. Adding a premier rim protector like Rudy Gobert helps mitigate Morant’s at-rim dominance, but the issue of the on-ball defense still remained, especially with the departure of Patrick Beverley. Against two of the best and most athletic point guards in the NBA, Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch blended the two defensive ideologies by showing a tremendous amount of size and length with Gobert at the rim and McDaniels as the point-of-attack defender.

Shutting down players like Morant and Fox is near impossible because they are premier talents in the league. Both guards are freak athletes with dynamic scoring games, brilliant passing vision, and have their sights set on numerous accolades this season. Despite all that, both Morant and Fox struggled mightily when defended by McDaniels as they both shot just 3-10 from the floor, per InStat.

Whether this defensive wrinkle was planned or a happy accident due to Desmond Bane being out (McDaniels defending anyone else would’ve felt like a waste), Finch found a new wrinkle to throw at teams. The most obvious advantage to moving McDaniels to defending the point-of-attack is that the opponent’s point guard is immediately met by the best defender on every possession. The second benefit is that everyone else can worry about just their assignment. Previously, the Timberwolves point-of-attack defense was nonexistent. Besides the threat of interior scoring, this also created situations where players would have to aggressively rotate to help and leaving their man wide-open for a three. With McDaniels at the point-of-attack, the rest of the team can stay home on their assignment because McDaniels has the length and ability to recover more effectively when he does get beat.

Here, McDaniels easily evades Brandon Clarke’s initial screen and forces them to reset the look. McDaniels positions himself in an aggressive stance that negates the screen’s effect and encourages Morant to attack middle. You’ll rarely see this from a defense as it can invite a litany of issues, but it appears that McDaniels and Gobert are on the same page. As Morant eagerly accepts the invitation to drive, McDaniels positions himself to take away any pass to Clarke and defend against a potential pull-up. Morant hits the boosters and flies into Gobert with the wild miss.

This may not have been the most prudent shot selection from Morant, but take a look again and you’ll see he doesn’t have many other options besides bringing it back out to the perimeter. McDaniels’ length has taken away Clarke and Dillon Brooks on the strong-side. The reliability of Gobert at the rim allows Kyle Anderson to stay home on Jaren Jackson Jr. Given the defensive acumen of McDaniels and Gobert, the rest of the team can stay home, taking away any outlet opportunities.

Here, we see McDaniels hold up just fine in isolation as well. As Morant attacks, McDaniels exhibits perfect footwork as he cuts off the initial drive and effortlessly flips his hips to stay attached on the secondary drive. Since McDaniels stays attached without fouling and has the length to contest anything at the rim, Nathan Knight doesn’t have to fully help off the corner shooter, Edwards doesn’t have to collapse from the wing, Naz Reid can stick with his man in the post, and Jaylen Nowell can stay in the passing lane on the weak-side.

The biggest concern with this strategy going forward is McDaniels’ uncontrollable desire to foul. He currently has a foul rate of 4.6, which ranks in the 19th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. The former Washington star can get too handsy, be reluctant to get beat off the dribble, and has a penchant for picking up unnecessary fouls, but that didn’t happen in these two crucial wins.

Against Memphis, McDaniels had one foul and it was on Morant in a crowd. Against the Kings, only one of McDaniels’ five fouls came when he was defending Fox, and it was in the fourth quarter. Overall, McDaniels looked far more comfortable with the idea of getting beat off the dribble and recovering, something he did regularly in these games. It stands to reason that a significant reason for that is the presence and reliability of Gobert behind him.

Here, McDaniels gets a little jumpy and bites on the shot fake, giving Fox a driving lane. Instead of reaching out and grabbing Fox, something we’ve seen him do plenty of before, McDaniels simply pursues the ball, knowing that he has help behind him. Sure enough, the mere presence of Gobert forces Fox to slam on the breaks. By then, McDaniels is already back rim side and getting a strong contest on the fade away pull-up jumper.

The final advantage we saw from this change in defensive coverage is how McDaniels can bait them into pull-up threes out of the pick-and-roll. Neither Morant nor Fox are elite shooters, both at 32% on the season, so going under screens is an easy choice when defending them. At the same time, you also don’t want to give NBA players an absolutely wide-open look. We saw how McDaniels can operate with drop coverage by shepherding the ball-hander to the rim protector, but he also utilizes his length to bait bad shooters into shots that he can get a good contest on.

Here, Morant runs a side pick-and-roll and McDaniels goes well under the screen. Down double digits on the road, Morant likely views this as a prime opportunity to spark a comeback. However, Morant is only shooting 28% from that zone of the floor. As he queues up his slow release, McDaniels fluidly slithers around the screen and gets a strong contest to force a miss.

This time, Fox runs a similar side pick-and-roll, and McDaniels yet again goes way under the screen. Fox is tempted to drive, but once he sees how deep McDaniels is, he backs it out to the perimeter. Instead of resetting the play, Fox underestimates McDaniels’ ability to recover and pulls up for a three in a zone he’s shooting only 31% from. McDaniels gets a strong contest and forces the miss.

Going forward, the expectation shouldn’t be for McDaniels to pick up every opposing point guard. His primary assignment will still be the best opposing wing. However, against teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings who have extremely athletic and effective point guards, it is a different look they can implement, especially come playoff time.