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Minnesota Timberwolves v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

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Film Room: Inside Jaden McDaniels’ Offensive Evolution

The third-year rising star is emerging not only as the league’s top perimeter defender, but also as a scorer with sleeping giant potential.

Jaden McDaniels has been used mostly as a defensive stalwart in his young career, and to great success.

When just looking at his NBA role, it’s shocking that McDaniels was at one point the No. 1 high school prospect garnering comparisons to Kevin Durant (shout out to any tall, skinny players who can dribble and have excellent body control). He had a tumultuous season at Washington that sent his draft stock plummeting. Now that McDaniels has established himself as one of the league’s preeminent defenders, the young Minnesota Timberwolves’ wing is showing what he can do offensively.

Coming into this season, McDaniels’ offense was better in theory than reality: evident talent years away from being honed into something concrete. Besides the occasional corner 3 or the fun strong side cut into a lob with D’Angelo Russell, McDaniels’ only true responsibilities came on the defensive end. This season, McDaniels’ usage has barely risen (13.6% to 14.6%), but his efficiency has skyrocketed. Per Cleaning the Glass, McDaniels is scoring 1.241 points per shot attempt (86th percentile). To bolster this point, Synergy has McDaniels ranked in the 75th percentile on all possessions with 1.078 points per possession (PPP). For reference, this is up from 0.999 PPP (57th percentile) last season.

What makes this evolution so exciting is that McDaniels’ opportunities haven’t really changed. His usage growing is great, but a 1.0% change isn’t an outlandish alteration to play style. Additionally, his four most common play types from last season are the exact same as this season. Last season, spot-ups, transition, cuts, and offensive rebounds accounted for 79.6% of his possessions, while this season they account for 82.1%. McDaniels hasn’t really changed what he’s doing on the court, he’s just gotten extraordinarily better at and more confident in those things.

Minnesota Timberwolves v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Okay, well that’s not entirely fair. The play types that McDaniels has been involved in are largely the same. However, that doesn’t mean that their level of difficulty is the same. Besides a significant uptick in efficiency, we’ve seen McDaniels take a meaningful step in executing more difficult and nuanced actions from the same situation.

The most meaningful evolution in McDaniels’ offense is how effective he is as a spot-up scorer. So far this season, McDaniels spots up on 45.1% of his possessions (90th percentile in frequency) and is scoring 0.989 PPP (44th percentile). On the surface, that number isn’t overly impressive and is actually down from 0.997 PPP from last season. The difference, though, is what McDaniels does out of this action. Last season, McDaniels took a jumper off the catch 67.8% of the time and drove 32.2% of the time. This season, McDaniels is shooting off the catch only 49% of the time and driving 51% of the time.

Why does this change matter?

The biggest reason is that defenders now have to think when they close out to McDaniels. Before, they could closeout hard and force him off the line knowing that there wasn’t really anything he was going to do. Now, they have to be wary of the drive while also respecting the shot. This slight hesitation, along with personal shooting growth, is why McDaniels is scoring 1.18 PPP (73rd percentile) shooting off the catch, which is up from 1.02 PPP (47th percentile) last season. At 6-foot-9, he’s becoming a dynamic scorer defenses can’t hide poor defenders on (see: Trae Young in last week’s win over the Atlanta Hawks).

The improvement in McDaniels’ 3-point shot has been noticeable across the board. He’s shooting 40% from the corners (58th percentile), 40% above the break (79th percentile), and 40% overall (78th percentile) – love to see the consistency. McDaniels becoming a reliable outlet option from 3 for the rest of the team is crucial for this offense. Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns deservedly attract immense amounts of attention, so McDaniels continuing to prove that he’s a confident and reliable perimeter option will benefit the entire roster.

McDaniels’ outside shooting improvement is a pivotal tool for his individual and team success moving forward, but it also opens a myriad of possibilities for McDaniels to impact the offense inside the arc. “Slim” is posting his career-high in effective field goal percentage at 59.7% (88th percentile), is shooting 72% at the rim (82nd percentile), and 43% from the mid-range (64th percentile). Additionally, McDaniels is posting a career-high assist rate of 8.5% (44th percentile), up from 6.2% (18th percentile), and assist-to-usage rate of 0.58 (50th percentile), up from 0.46 (22nd percentile).

All of this has been made possible by McDaniels’ improved shooting, which doesn’t allow defenses to sit on one particular thing. Now, they have to worry about McDaniels attacking in a variety of ways, and he’s been able to punish them regularly, especially considering he rarely sees the opponent’s best perimeter defender.

Here, McDaniels is on the left wing. As the ball swings to him, Zach LaVine closes out in a very high stance with high hands. McDaniels quickly uses a strong jab step with his right foot that sends LaVine in the wrong direction. McDaniels then immediately drives and uses his long arms to secure the ball over the dig from the strong side corner defender before extending and finishing through contact at the rim.

This time, Jaden is in the right corner as Kyle Anderson pushes the early offense. Again, the swingman is quick and decisive with his attack, which again puts his defender off balance. As McDaniels receives the ball, he uses a strong rip through to simulate a baseline drive, which sends Jayson Tatum scrambling. McDaniels promptly counters Tatum’s momentum with a crossover into an uncontested floater.

As the play develops here, McDaniels does an excellent job of lifting out of the corner to make himself available to Anderson. In previous seasons, McDaniels was either slow and reactive with this movement or entire uninterested. As he gathers the ball, McDaniels again quickly and confidently attacks, showing off his quality handle and footwork with a bevy of crossovers and spins. Bogdan Bogdanovic does a good job of staying with McDaniels, but this is a case where McDaniels is simply too big and has no issue getting to the rim.

Given the versatility of lineups that the Timberwolves can use, McDaniels regularly finds himself with a mismatch. He’s too quick and lanky for most power forwards to deal with and smaller guards struggle to keep him out of the lane. Now that McDaniels is capable of exploiting these matchups, his scoring should only rise.

Even when McDaniels can’t get all the way to the rim, he’s still a threat and shooting 46.3% on 2-point pull-ups. Here, McDaniels lifts out of the corner to provide an outlet for Anderson before attacking. Malik Monk does a good job of staying with McDaniels and even gets physical to cut off McDaniels’ drive. Instead of frantically getting rid of the ball, McDaniels gathers himself, pivots, and fluidly knocks down the fadeaway over the smaller defender.

Here, we see a similar situation where CJ McCollum doesn’t allow McDaniels to do much off the bounce. After a few crossovers and recognizing the shot clock running low, McDaniels essentially says screw it. McDaniels uses a hang dribble and knocks down the pull-up jumper in rhythm over the smaller defender.

In previous years, teams could hide their lesser defenders on McDaniels. These tended to smaller guards who didn’t stand a chance of defending Edwards. In the past, that was a viable option. Now, McDaniels is regularly exploiting them. They don’t have the size to consistently keep him out of the lane, and even if they do, he’s proven that he’s comfortable just pulling up over them in the mid-range.

From a pure individual off-ball scoring perspective, McDaniels is becoming incredibly difficult to defend. This growth helps the rest of the team because they now have a viable outlet. Defenses also have to stay home a little more which further improves floor spacing. McDaniels is also quickly getting to a stage where he’s making everyone else around him better because of his passing. McDaniels is a threat attacking closeouts, but he isn’t exclusively looking to score.

McDaniels’ ability to punish defenses shooting off the catch or attacking the rim forces them to make extra rotations. When they don’t, McDaniels scores. When they do, he’s exhibited significantly improved passing capabilities.

Here, McDaniels is set up in the right corner as the play begins. Boston is intent on keeping Al Horford as the low man, so he and Marcus Smart switch as McDaniels relocates, which also allows them to keep Smart on Edwards. As Anderson cuts across the floor, Conley goes into a pick-and-roll with Rudy Gobert, which initiates the switch between Derek White and Tatum. Desperate to get out of that matchup, Horford and White again switch. This move is easy for Horford who hasn’t left the lane for 10 seconds, but White now has to scramble to the opposite corner where the ball is quickly swinging to. White doesn’t get there in time, and McDaniels blows past him. This drive forces Horford to step up, releasing Gobert for the back door lob.

This time, the Timberwolves try to put McDaniels in motion, but the play gets blown up and turns into an Anderson-Gobert dribble handoff. After attracting the attention of all five defenders in the paint, Gobert kicks out to McDaniels at the top of the arc. McDaniels attacks strongly downhill and again collapses the entire defense. Instead of trying to finish through contact, McDaniels does a great job of avoiding contact and making a perfect kickout to Anderson for an open corner 3.

Putting a ceiling on McDaniels’ offensive potential feels shortsighted given his pre-NBA pedigree and consistent growth. Given his place on this roster, he’s been put in a great spot to steadily grow and improve his offensive game. The shooting continues to improve, he’s a threat off the dribble, and his threat as a passer grows by the game.

The Wolves were laughed at for making him untouchable in the Rudy Gobert trade. Timberwolves fans knew that was an absurd notion at the time, and it only grows sillier by the day.

McDaniels has already emerged as an All-NBA level defender on the national scene, but who’s to say the accolades should stop there? Given the growth and diversification of his offensive game, why not Most Improved Player? That may be a bit much to ask for and in the grand scheme of things doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that Jaden McDaniels has steadily improved throughout his career. Given his defensive prowess and his tantalizing offense, it’s impossible to be anything other than exhilarated about his future.