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Jaden McDaniels and the Challenge of Non-Linear NBA Development

Wolves forward Jaden McDaniels has fought through frustration and moments of immaturity that have been detrimental to the team’s success. But does the 23-year-old deserve as much criticism as he receives?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves rising star Jaden McDaniels has proven to the rest of the NBA that he is an elite point-of-attack defender. His wiry 6-foot-9 inch frame, paired with a 7-foot wingspan and incredible agility, allows him to be a pest, hounding the opposing team’s best perimeter player night in and night out. But, he’s also had some moments that have caused fans and media alike to wonder if he is playing up to expectations.

Is that type of criticism warranted?

McDaniels having moments of frustration and immaturity is not new. He had his difficulties in his lone season at the University of Washington. At one point, the Seattle-area native led the Pac-12 in technical fouls. Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton called him selfish, while Sports Illustrated explained that he needed a growth spurt, not in height, but in his maturity.

The Timberwolves suffered mightily from his immaturity last season. They were without McDaniels in their eventual 4-1 series loss to the eventual champion Denver Nuggets as a result of him suffering a fractured hand when he punched a wall during the Wolves’ win over the New Orleans Pelicans in the regular season finale on April 9 of last year.

Jaden’s battle with frustration reared its head in Minnesota’s 108-106 win against the Lakers on December 30. In what was a seven-point Timberwolves lead late in the fourth quarter, McDaniels gave L.A. four points. He allowed LeBron James an easy layup after committing a shooting foul, and then got a technical called on him for arguing with the ref over the call. LeBron made his free throw to convert the and-one, and the Lakers hit their technical free throw to cut the lead to three. The ensuing possessions were a Mike Conley miss and LeBron hitting an insane shot that was ultimately ruled a 2-pointer after a lengthy review. Had it been a 3-pointer, it would have tied the game.

Those are the moments of immaturity that people are talking about and harp on consistently. Last season, he cost himself another opportunity to play playoff basketball and gain more meaningful NBA experience, and this season, almost cost his team a victory. Every single win matters, and the Wolves currently find themselves atop the Western Conference but only by one game.

New Orleans Pelicans v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

I see a lot of fans constantly complaining about refs and how certain games and players are officiated.

People in the arena aren’t afraid to tell refs they suck or fire off tweets on Twitter and comments on Facebook and Instagram. If it upsets fans so much to vocalize their frustration, imagine how McDaniels must feel when those calls directly impact his team’s chances of winning, awards, and thus the amount of money he can make?

Yes, punching a wall is stupid. But it happened, and all Timberwolves fans can hope for is that Jaden continues to grow.

With that said, some of McDaniels’ edge is crucial to his success as a player, especially on the defensive end. It’s tough to be an elite defensive player without being willing to talk trash and bring some fire and confidence on that end of the floor. His ejection in the game earlier this season against the Golden State Warriors after Klay Thompson attempted to punk him is a great example. He definitely has some fire to him that hasn’t subdued from college. McDaniels just needs to learn how to more consistently harness it productively.

I enjoy that Jaden plays with this fire. Look at the other top defenders in the league’s history. Ben Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and our own Rudy Gobert. They have that same fire and tenacity. Some flare in their persona where they just aren’t going to lay down and take anything. They are going to talk trash and check the ball. Jaden does need to subdue some of this, I agree.

However, the Wolves can’t subdue this from Jaden. To be an elite defender and take on that challenge night in and night out, it has to be there.

Over his last five games, McDaniels is shooting 56% overall and 58% from downtown. He’s not forcing anything on the offensive end and is still committed to playing defense at an elite level despite receiving a poor whistle and his place as the fourth or fifth option offensively with the starting rotation. This stretch alone is a good display of growth — one that can hopefully sustain beyond a flash in the pan. If he can sustain it, it’s further proof that McDaniels is going to be a phenomenal piece paired with Edwards for years to come.

McDaniels’ growth process won’t always be linear, just like any 22-year-old trying to find their way in the professional world, let alone one that comes with as much attention, pressure and scrutiny as McDaniels’ job. Now, moving forward, the challenge for Jaden and the Wolves is stoking that fire without getting burned by it.