The Minnesota Timberwolves are entering a crucial year that should see them make a substantial leap in their quality of play. The natural development of Anthony Edwards and the cohesion between Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert has, and likely will continue to, gotten most of the limelight. However, Jaden McDaniels’ continued progressions is just as big of a factor. McDaniels has emerged as one of the preeminent defenders in the league, but what might an offensive leap for the young forward look like?
Last season, McDaniels averaged career highs in points (12.1), assists (1.9), field goal percentage (51.7), and 3-point percentage (39.8). Assuming the shooting efficiency at least maintains, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a solid jump in the first two categories this upcoming season. Simply stating that McDaniels should continue to improve is also a lot easier said than done. In his young career, McDaniels has been extremely low maintenance on offense as his usage rate peaked last year at 14.7 (39th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. He doesn’t demand the ball and typically acts as just a play finisher. Last season, 80.5% of his play types came through either spotting up (45%), in transition (22.6%), cutting (6.8%), and offensive rebounds (6.1%), per Synergy.
Given the roster makeup and the mouths that need feeding, McDaniels’ usage and play type probably won’t see drastic change. Given his role, though, the former Washington star should continue to see plenty of easy scoring opportunities, which should give rise to continued efficiency improvements. Last season, McDaniels points per shot attempt jumped to 1.234 (85th percentile) from 1.139 (61st percentile) in the previous season.
Even though McDaniels will have very limited on-ball responsibilities, the biggest area of his game that needs to improve is his ball security. McDaniels already made a massive leap in his scoring efficiency that will hopefully sustain, but if he can start taking better care of the ball and even setting up teammates more, the overall offense of the Timberwolves could take a meaningful step forward. Last season, the Seattle, Washington product had a turnover rate of 13.6, which ranked in the 20th percentile. When he was spotting up, his most common play type, and did anything other than shoot off the catch, he had an astronomically high turnover rate of 17.4.
Continuing to grow as a spot-up scorer is going to be crucial for McDaniels throughout his career. He shot 38% in these situations off the catch, and his improved shooting forced defenders to close out aggressively, which generated a plethora of opportunities to attack closeouts. McDaniels was really impressive scoring in these situations as he shot 47.4% overall when attacking closeouts. Overall, McDaniels’ 0.988 points per possession (PPP) ranking in the 44th percentile is underwhelming. However, if we remove the fouls and turnovers to look at just the shot attempts, the 2020 first-round pick would’ve been at 1.14 PPP, which would’ve ranked in the 78th percentile.
There’s obviously some stat manipulation going on there, but the broader point is to emphasize how much more effective McDaniels can still be as an off-ball scorer/creator if he can get control over his turnovers. He attacked closeouts on nearly 51% of his total spot-up possessions, so there is always going to be some risk of turnovers. If his ball security does improve, though, the Timberwolves will be able to generate a lot of easy scores out of McDaniels spot-up possessions.
Tied into improving his ball security is also an improvement in playmaking. McDaniels’ assist numbers improved last year across the board, but his assist rate of 8.3 (41st percentile) and assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.56 (43rd percentile) aren’t anything to write home about. McDaniels should be constantly attacking rotating defensive coverages, which should provide a bevy of playmaking opportunities be it throwing lobs to Gobert, kicking out to shooters, or dumping it off to cutters. Even though he didn’t post astronomical assist numbers last year, there were a lot of flashes that suggest an incoming improvement as a secondary/tertiary creator.
One of the biggest opportunities for McDaniels to capitalize on is collapsing a defense and throwing lobs to Gobert. Here, the Wolves get Gobert switched onto Fred VanVleet, and the Toronto Raptors understandably scramble to make that entry pass more difficult. This defensive attention also creates a 2v1 situation on the weak side. As the ball swings to McDaniels, the defender closes out hard to deter a shot while also biting on McDaniels’ pass fake to the corner. This fake by McDaniels creates a driving lane in the middle of the floor. McDaniels quickly beats the defender, which triggers multiple defensive rotations and all five defenders collapsing in the lane to the ball. McDaniels’ gravity leaves Gobert unattended for an easy backdoor lob.
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This time, we can again see how McDaniels can exploit defensive rotations. As the Timberwolves get into their set, the Boston Celtics are actively switching everything to keep Horford in the lane as the low man. As McDaniels relocates to the opposite corner, Horford switches on him. As Gobert rolls to the rim, he forces the mismatch by dragging Derrick White with him. Horford immediately triggers the switch and kicks White out to McDaniels in the corner. White now has a lot of ground to cover to get to McDaniels. As the ball swings to him, McDaniels confidently attacks White’s momentum and tosses the easy lob to Gobert to exploit the 2v1 situation he created.
Here, McDaniels shows off his competency in transition with tremendous movement and passing vision. Jaden does a great job of running the right wing in transition and collapsing the defense before kicking out to Edwards. Instead of staying stagnant, he relocates to the corner after the Edwards pump fake to maximize their spacing. Edwards proceeds to kick it to McDaniels who yet again has a great opportunity to exploit a sloppy closeout. McDaniels’ baseline drive forces the defensive rotation and creates the lob for Gobert.
While the bulk of McDaniels’ playmaking attempts will come in the form of the clips we just saw, that doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of finding shooters on the weak side. These drive-and-kick situations are a lot more difficult because they require a much broader vision. However, McDaniels has proven he’s capable of making these reads.
Here, McDaniels receives the kick out and yet again confidently attacks the closeout. His drive and rim pressure again collapse all five defenders to the paint. Instead of forcing a lob or a floater, McDaniels reads the weak side corner and delivers a perfect pass for the three.
This time, the former five-star prospect gathers the defensive rebound and pushes in transition. After employing a quick in-and-out move, McDaniels effortlessly gets to the rim where he’s met by a trailing shot blocker. Instead of forcing a bad shot, he adjusts in mid-air and makes the pass to the wide-open shooter in the opposite corner.
The final area where McDaniels could leverage an improvement in his ball security and playmaking is as an on-ball creator. Those opportunities were, and likely will continue to be, rare as he ran the pick-and-roll on only 4.4% of his possessions as a scorer and 7% when you include his passes. Even though these opportunities were rare for McDaniels, there could still be a huge opportunity for the Timberwolves to use him more as a second side creator or primary offensive option with the bench units.
As the pick-and-roll ball-handler, McDaniels generated 1.051 PPP (87th percentile) and 1.048 PPP (74th percentile) when you include his passing. For a 3&D wing, those are exceptional numbers. It’s obviously a small sample size, but McDaniels’ absurd effectiveness in these situations suggests there are opportunities for Timberwolves to exploit.
Here, the Timberwolves run McDaniels off a stagger screen and into a pick-and-roll with Gobert. This off-ball movement creates some defensive confusion as both defenders struggle to get their positioning correct. As Cam Johnson and Royce O’Neal struggle, McDaniels accelerates at Johnson who has become the impromptu drop defender as O’Neal struggles to get over the Gobert screen. As McDaniels attacks, he sees that Nic Claxton has both feet outside the lane despite his weak side rim protection duties. McDaniels delivers a perfect pass to Gobert in traffic who finishes through the foul.
Jaden McDaniels has already far surpassed being just a local fanbase’s darling. His defense has rightfully attracted plenty of eyes on the national stage, even if the accolades don’t properly represent that, and his offensive efficiency has improved year over year. If McDaniels can take another leap this season by cutting down on his turnovers and improving his playmaking consistency, he could be in for a massive year.