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Without Jaden McDaniels, Who Can Step Up For The Wolves?

The Minnesota Timberwolves are going to be without defensive stalwart Jaden McDaniels for 2-3 weeks, the team announced.

NBA: MAR 17 Timberwolves at Bulls Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves announced on Tuesday afternoon that they will be without forward and defensive stalwart Jaden McDaniels for around 2-3 weeks following an MRI that confirmed a Grade 1 right lateral ankle sprain. McDaniels suffered the injury with 7:30 remaining in the first quarter of their 117-100 win over the New York Knicks on Monday. McDaniels also missed time earlier this year, as he was sidelined from the team’s first two games of the season due to a strained calf.

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McDaniels’ presence on the defensive end of the court is surely to be missed as he is the primary point of attack defender for this team, but it might not be as bad for the Wolves as fans may be inclined to believe.

According to NBA.com, when McDaniels is on the court, the defensive rating is 108.5, and when he is off the defensive rating is 103.3, which means the Wolves actually perform better defensively as a team when McDaniels is not on the floor. Surely, this is a number that can be reduced into a simple on-off metric (and is based off a small sample size), because it doesn’t factor in that when McDaniels is not on the floor, the opposing team doesn’t have their best offensive weapons in; and if they are, they aren’t going unchecked for long.

What the Wolves might miss most, however, is McDaniels’ offensive ability. Over his last five games (two of which were cut short due to the injury in the Knicks game and the ejection against the Golden State Warriors), McDaniels was shooting a blistering 78.5% with an impressive 22/28 mark. While this is also a small sample size, that type of efficiency is unparalleled for a guy who is arguably a fourth option behind Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Mike Conley. When McDaniels is on the court, the Wolves boast a 117.8 offensive rating, and when he is off they have a 108 offensive rating (-9.8 difference).

McDaniels isn’t a simple catch and shoot type of player; while he’s good at that, Slim is more prolific at creating shots off the dribble and pulling up.

Looking at his shot zones map from NBA.com for this season, McDaniels finishes in a lot of areas well above league average at this point in the season. While these shot attempts are a smaller sample size due to the infancy of the season at this point, his 2022-2023 shot zones map from NBA.com show a similar pattern in where the mid range game is his bread and butter and he is an above league average scorer.

Jaden McDaniels Shot Zones map from NBA.com for the 2023-2024 season.
NBA.com
Jaden McDaniels Shot Zones map from NBA.com for the 2022-2023 season.
NBA.com

As any championship team does, the Timberwolves will need to dig deep and find ways to keep winning games with their best perimeter defender sidelined for what could be nine games (10 if the Wolves make the In-Season Tournament Championship), which is under the assumption it takes the full three weeks for McDaniels to recover from the injury and return on December 12th (three weeks from November 21st).

The players that are going to be expected to fill this void from a rotational standpoint are surely going to be some combination of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kyle Anderson, Shake Milton, and Troy Brown Jr.

NAW is likely going to have to be the guy to step up the most, seeing as he is the most viable defender of the previous four mentioned to help contain the ball at the point of attack. Alexander-Walker started the year off extremely cold on the offensive end. In the first eight games posting an abysmal 33% overall and 28.5% from deep. He has picked it up over his last five games. During this stretch, he is shooting 53% overall, and 45% from 3. If NAW can continue to step up on the offensive end and keep up the defensive activity he has shown the ability to maintain, the Wolves might not skip too many beats on either end of the floor, and continue to find themselves in a prime position for home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs.

Shake Milton also hasn’t had the greatest start for his Timberwolves campaign, but he has turned it up a dial as of late. He is averaging 41% shooting overall in his last five, which isn’t the greatest shooting percentage, but it’s an improved mark over the 37.8% he posted during the first eight games of the season. Part of that is due to Alexander-Walker (and Kyle Anderson) taking more of the on-ball duties with the bench units

Anderson is going to continue to continue to do Slow-Mo things; Rudy Gobert is having a resurgent season in which he looks like his former Defensive Player of the Year self; and Karl-Anthony Towns is back to scoring at a high level and his playing the best defense of his career, posting a 108 defensive rating which is the best mark of his career at this point in the season.

The Wolves are set to enter some choppy waters without McDaniels, but with the veteran leadership this team has and key bench players trending upwards as of late, the boat might not rock as much as some believe.