While it was disappointing that we were unable to see Jaden McDaniels in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, characterizing this season as anything but a massive success for him would be wrong. After the Minnesota Timberwolves brass parted the seas for McDaniels to take over in the starting lineup, Jaden delivered the best season of his career.
He came into the year carrying the “3-and-D” tag, which wasn’t entirely unfair based on what we’d seen from him through his first two seasons in the league. He proved to be much more than that, and now finds himself in line for a five-year, nine-figure contract extension this summer. He is both the Wolves’ present and future, forming a potentially dominant wing tandem with Anthony Edwards for years to come. He’s given Timberwolves fans much to be giddy about today, while leaving just enough meat on the bone to leave us dreaming of what the future might hold.
A Complete Scoring Arsenal
As a rookie, Jaden was primarily used as a spot-up shooter, evidenced by 54% of his shots being 3s. Last season, that was still Jaden’s most common role on offense, but he began to add more drives attacking close-outs. His 3PAr (3-point attempt rate) fell from the aforementioned .540 to .455, with the gap almost entirely showing up in extra shots at the rim. He increased his rim frequency by 5.4% as a sophomore as a result.
This year, McDaniels showed he has nearly every tool in his bag as a scorer. He certified himself as a shooter that defenses must account for, making 39.8% of his 3s, but the most encouraging development was the way he created for himself. About half of McDaniels shots were within 10 feet of the rim this year, and he was uber-efficient on those shots. He made over 75% of his shots at the rim and over 46% of his attempts in the floater range (3-10 feet). His free throw rate rose to a career-high .201, and the number of unassisted twos he made was at a career-high as well.
That’s a long-winded way of saying this: McDaniels has shown an ability to create offense for himself, and is remarkably efficient from every spot on the floor when doing so. He averaged 12.1 points per game this year, but the creativity and touch he displayed inside the three-point line was that of a guy who will soon score 15-20 points a night.
Watching the Washington Husky grow in the half-court was eye-opening, but my favorite thing to do was sit back and watch as defenders tried to figure out where his next step would be in transition. When I watch Jaden handle the ball in the open floor, I’m often reminded of the way former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson detailed what made Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson so difficult to defend in 2021. Peterson told The Athletic’s Robert Mays, “I think that’s what makes it so difficult for guys to get a bead on him (Jefferson), because his body can lie to you.”
The article would go on to explain that Jefferson has extraordinarily long legs for a person his height, and that the long limbs moved in a way that made it look like Jefferson is always about to crossover with each step, constantly keeping defenders off-balance.
That is exactly what I imagine it must be like to defend McDaniels in the open floor.
His limbs fly all over the place, with his stride motion never giving the defender an idea where the next step is headed. It’s an advantage that the Pacific Northwest native has figured out how to use to make himself an absolute terror in transition. By the time you know if McDaniels’ next step is going forward, decelerating, crossing over, or euro-stepping, it’s too late for the defender.
Jaden McDaniels transition spin + finish pic.twitter.com/aJvPQr6BBb— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) March 21, 2023
Incomparable Wing Defense
It’s hard to overstate how good of a defensive season Jad had. Outside of possessions where there were cross-matches in transition or the handful of fourth quarters where Edwards took a primary defensive assignment, McDaniels spent just about every minute of his defending the best offensive player on the opposing team. As long as the matchup wasn’t Nikola Jokić or Joel Embiid, the assignment was Jaden’s, and he made life miserable for nearly all of them.
McDaniels is likely to find himself on an NBA All-Defensive Team because of his ability to defend in every scheme. He can switch 1-4 with ease, gets skinny to get through screens and contest from behind in drop, and is a ferocious weak-side rim protector when the Wolves play up at the level of a screen. His main weakness on defense is rebounding (more on that in a moment), but from the time the ball crosses half-court to the time it goes up for a shot, you’d be hard pressed to find someone better at making life difficult for star players.
Jaden McDaniels when asked about Paul George saying McDaniels is one of the best defenders in the league:— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) April 27, 2023
"Yeah, I heard it. He not lying."
As good as McDaniels is at the point-of-attack, I would love for Minnesota to find more time for him to play off the ball as a helper. If the team retains Nickeil Alexander-Walker, I’d love to see those two play together in order to free up Jaden to more aggressively use his length as a disruptor. Given how much offensive responsibility the Wolves give Edwards, and that they play a center at power forward often, there aren’t many opportunities for McDaniels to jump passing lanes or roam as a last line of defense at the rim. Playing lineups that allow him to tap into that would only bolster his value to the defense, which is scary to think about.
Area For Improvement
It may just be due to his thin frame, but the one glaring weakness in Jaden’s game is that he’s a poor rebounder. He is listed at 6-foot-9, yet averages 3.9 rebounds per game for his career. This past season was especially bad for him in that department, as he only grabbed 9.8% of available defensive rebounds when on the floor this year, down from his 13.3% average over the first two years of his career.
When a team is bad at rebounding, the blame often gets directed toward their big guys. For the Wolves, I think a bigger issue on that front has been the help the bigs get from the guards and wings. If McDaniels can become even a 5 rebound per game player, that would go a long ways to helping Minnesota close out possessions, and would again increase his value as a defender.
When noting Jaden’s poor rebounding, it is only fair to mention that his rebounding numbers may be a bit deflated because of his defensive responsibilities. More often than not, McDaniels found himself defending a guard on the perimeter, which by definition takes him out of position for some rebounds. I don’t know that that should absolve him of grabbing a lower percentage of available rebounds than many point guards, but it is at least part of the puzzle.
Either way, the Wolves can’t have their small forward rebounding like a point guard because of his defensive duties while the actual point guard also rebound like a point guard. That’s not how you rebound well as a team.
Defending Without Fouling
Are you impressed? I’ve made it over 1,000 words into this review without bringing up the fouling.
(Editor’s note: Yes, very much so, Mike.)
In all seriousness, McDaniels one bugaboo before shots go up is his propensity to foul. Only Domantas Sabonis of the Sacramento Kings fouled more than McDaniels did this year. It’s not just the points that opponents get at the free throw line off of those fouls, the Wolves also just desperately need their wing stopper on the floor for as many minutes as possible. It is in part a credit to the quality of player Jaden has become that him being in foul trouble is so detrimental to the team.
He does foul a lot, but it really feels like many of his fouls could be eliminated if he stayed a bit more composed on the floor. Too often frustration fouls send such an integral piece to the bench early in games, so handling those emotions in a better manner would go a long ways for both player and team.
The Next Frontier as a Playmaker
This isn’t so much a weakness as it is just the next step for McDaniels as an offensive player. I feel pretty comfortable saying he’ll be a higher-volume scorer as increased usage comes his way, but I’m excited to see what he becomes as a playmaker. He has about a 1:1 AST:TO ratio for his career, but he showed some really nice flashes as a passer this year.
Rudy Gobert dunk, great driving interior pass from Jaden McDaniels pic.twitter.com/rr4C2c7SoC— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) December 29, 2022
He reads the floor really well for someone who averages less than two assists per game, so I think there’s a lot more to tap into here. Notably, McDaniels seemed to develop a bit of chemistry with Rudy Gobert as the season wore on. Between his scoring profile and the flashes of improved passing he showed this year, I’m incredibly excited to see how Jaden would handle higher usage. I would personally make it a priority to find out.
In case it wouldn’t clear, I felt McDaniels had a remarkably impressive season. He was vital to the success of the Wolves on a nightly basis, and I recently argued that they’d have missed the playoffs altogether had he been included in the Rudy Gobert trade instead of extra draft capital. For the most part, I just want to see more of what we saw this year. Give the kid more responsibility on offense and find out just how much juice there is there.
For McDaniels to fill out his game as a complete player, it’ll be about cutting down on his fouling and finding a way to use his length and athleticism to make an impact as a rebounder.
The sky is the limit for Jaden McDaniels. Let’s hope that his long-term upside is realized in Minnesota after signing a contract extension this summer.