Deep Dive: The Wolves Need To Prioritize Jaden McDaniels
When Minnesota's rangy forward begins his third season, it's time to start ramping up his development.
The wounds inflicted during Minnesota’s short-lived and highly intriguing playoff run are still fresh, but the savage nature of the Association leaves little time to lick them. The Wolves, like every other team that has exited the playoff dogfight, are already peering into the crystal ball and trying to configure how they can not only secure another invite to the playoff party next season, but stay on the dance floor for longer.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ future contract will be at the forefront of that crystal ball, while the potentially diverging futures of D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards will be similarly prominent, but Jaden McDaniels’ development and role should be of the utmost importance for a Wolves team looking to avoid the harsh reality of a one-hit-wonder season.
The 21-year-old oscillated between sparkling and youthful in his debut playoff series, following on from a regular season that meandered through a similar trail. His game one and game six were spectacular, the kind of nights that vault a player into an important offseason with a blustering wind in their sails and the bit between their teeth. On the other hand, his season-long struggle with offensive consistency and the referee’s whistle hampered him in games two through five, providing fuel and film for the very same upcoming summer.
Those two excellent playoff outings, as well as his post-All-Star break boomlet, they lay the blueprint. They build the bedrock on which his game can skyrocket.
Put simply, there aren’t players with his size and athleticism floating around the NBA ocean. There are even fewer with the same sort of defensive acumen at his age. And of the meager few who pass those stern tests, very few have flashed the offensive upside that Big Mac has. Even scanning this year’s postseason, McDaniels’ blend of talents is a rare and still sought-after commodity — a Dorian Finney-Smith with more length and an expanded offensive arsenal? Matisse Thybulle with a somewhat-consistent jump shot? Kyle Anderson with a quick-twitch and a hearty helping of bounce? A Mikal Bridges reincarnation?
All of that is the mouth-watering stuff that churns the mind’s butter throughout the seemingly unending offseason, but when the 2022-23 campaign kicks off, McDaniels and his organization need to find a way to convey those flashes into solid beams of light. A fully or close-to-fully realized McDaniels is another dimension for this team. It doesn’t just sprinkle some x-factor into Minnesota’s squad, it douses it in it. So, while they try to lock down Towns long-term to pair him with the rising tide that is Edwards, they must also prioritize building and bolstering the impact of their spindly forward.
Cementing The Role
Versatility can be a boon in the NBA, but it can also be a bane. Jaden McDaniels buckets of the former, but he’s also felt the brunt of the latter. Thanks to his 6-foot-10 (and probably taller) size and his branchy arms, he spent 48 percent of his minutes in year two — up from 38 percent in his rookie campaign — shoehorned into Minnesota’s power forward spot. All the time reeking of a team trying desperately to plug the roster’s largest hole despite his slender frame and poor big man skills.
Next season, if the Wolves are serious about developing and prioritizing him, they need to find a way to scale back his power forward minutes to purely super-small-ball lineups. McDaniels is a small forward and that’s where he needs to ply his trade.
In his preferred position, he can hassle and duel with biggest and most skillful ball-handlers like Luka Doncic or Paul George while still having that versatility to pester pacey point guards. In addition, he is perfectly designed to spend his off-ball time providing low-man rim-protection. Playing next to two bigs takes away the necessity for him to become a better rebounder, it helps him limit some of the silly fouls he commits while jostling with girthier bodies and, most importantly, it allows him to grow into the role that he is going to play when he starts to climb into his peak years.
Head coach Chris Finch has never been afraid to deploy McDaniels as a perimeter ball-stopper even in lineups where he is playing the power forward, but alleviating the pressure of having to guard bigger fours for any amount of time leads to more plays like this:
Here, the 21-year-old is still able to showcase his length and elite shot-blocking instincts, but it comes as a helper after blowing up a drive as the point-of-attack defender. With Jarred Vanderbilt on the floor alongside him (who is also able to switch onto wings and guards), McDaniels can play more as a roamer as soon as he has disposed of his perimeter duties.
In his final sextuple of games in the playoffs, too often was McDaniels on the court as a floor-spacing power forward who had to guard and try to outrebound Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman and Jaren Jackson Jr., making it impossible for him to showcase his defensive talents consistently. That needs to change next season. His archetype — a hellhound on the ball who can rotate off and protect the rim, make controlled closeouts and poke away balls in passing lanes — is too valuable and atypical to have stuffed into a box by bigger bodies.
Of course, it’s on him to remove some of the handsy-ness and boneheaded fouls from his game and add enough on the offensive end to make Finch reconsider his lineups or his offensive priorities, but at some point the Wolves brass has to dive into that pool and see what the water is like. There is a real chance it’s going to be the waters they’re wading in for the next half-decade.
What lies ahead in Minnesota’s offseason is a mystery that will surely unravel in time, but there are a few immediate answers to the Jaden McDaniels conundrum: find a backup four through the draft or free agency and/or shift Patrick Beverley to a bench role next season. One or both of those things seem like simple ways to get McDaniels into a tailormade small forward role. That’s priority one, that’s the root and the trunk, from there the branches will sprout forth and more McDaniels leaves can flourish.
Searching For Screens
When the Timberwolves were wallowing in decades of rebuilding, they never felt the hindrances of developing players. Sure, they had plenty who didn’t work out, but doling out reps to their youth during the season was never an issue. Now, with wins there for the taking and playoff positions there for the jostling, the tightrope becomes thinner and harder to tiptoe.
It would have been impossible to let a Zach LaVine run point guard and spectacularly fail for the sake of development if that version of the Wolves were chasing 50 wins. Letting Andrew Wiggins experiment with every kind of shot diet would have been merely a dream (or nightmare) if it was lining up with a playoff pursuit. Even Anthony Edwards, the current golden boy, wouldn’t have been promoted to the starting lineup after spending his first half-season traipsing through the inefficiency wilderness.
It’s not quite a poison apple that the Wolves are now snacking on — winning games and competing in playoff games is always juicy sweet — but finding time to allow McDaniels to dip his toes in the higher-usage waters while still producing a well-oiled offense is a balancing act they’re going to have to undertake eventually.
McDaniels featured as the shot-taking ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations just 21 times last season, producing 18 points (0.86 points per possession — 56th percentile) and shooting 50 percent from the field, per NBA Stats. Minnesota doesn’t have the wiggle room to overload their budding wing with pick-and-roll reps, but it would be beneficial in the medium-to-long term to see his frequency skyrocket next season.
He won’t and shouldn’t be hitting the numbers of this season’s Russell (428 possessions) or Edwards (418 possessions), but entrusting McDaniels with two or three pick-and-roll possessions per game should be enough to simultanously see what they have without torpedoing the offense.
It’s unlikely Finch is going to thrust the ball-handling duties onto McDaniels and he isn’t hardwired to hijack an offense the way Edwards is, but it seems feasible to expect more empty-side pick-and-roll/dribble handoff possessions, ones that come naturally in the second phase of the offense or when things break down for Edwards, Russell or Towns.
Something like this:
Watching him attack drop coverage — the league’s most fearsome with Rudy Gobert at the base of it — is encouraging, and his mid-range game has slowly become a useful weapon (shooting 57 percent on 21 percent of his total field goals), but therein lies the problem: Finch is likely reticent to hand over any ball-handling reins to a player who can’t competently and consistently put pressure on the rim in pick-and-roll situations.
McDaniels has proven a capable finisher around the cup (68 percent shooting clip on 35 percent of his shots) and his touch seemed to grow exponentially along with his confidence last season, but the vast majority of those looks come from dunker’s spot dump-offs, slicing 45 cuts, transition leak-outs and closeout-attacks. The former Washington Husky has yet to prove he has the craft, patience and handle to put trailing defenders in jail and finish around or through rim-protectors. No amount of faith from the coaching staff is going to be enough until he ups that part of his game.
It’s a longshot to hope that his offseason workouts with Patrick Beverley and Kawhi Leonard are going to magically turn him into a Klaw regen, but Leonard was once the same way. It’s a skill that needs practice and in-game reps aplenty.
To spin it the other way, and maybe this is what Finch and his coaching cohorts will see too, there are some genuine pick-and-roll playmaking chops bubbling inside McDaniels. If he can mix in creation for others with his mid-range game and the occasional floater or rim foray, there will be room for more opportunities as his third season progresses.
McDaniels’ size allows him to see over the defense and his gangly limbs can squeeze through tight spaces to flick passes through and around defenders. His vision is mostly limited to the roll-man and occasionally the weakside corner at this stage, but there is a foundation there to build off. If the Wolves want to see their young stud grow into more than just a ‘middling shooter and great defender’ type — which he can — they will need to start putting that foundation to good use.
Again, McDaniels is a big dude. Tall and wispy like a strand of smoke floating from a bonfire. That size is not only intriguing as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, but it allows him to play as the roll-man as well. This is another avenue that is worth investigating further. Last season, he scored 1.25 points per roll-man scoring possession (74th percentile), albeit on a meager 20 possessions.
Minnesota isn’t a big pick-and-roll, rim-running team, but when you have a long, fast and bouncy athlete like McDaniels, it’s worth shifting a little bit more attention toward it. Finch did a fantastic job twisting and molding his team toward the roster’s strength in his first full season, but pick-and-roll play seemed like an area that was lacking.
In the miniature sample size we’ve seen of McDaniels as a roller, the immediate standout is how quick he gets in and out of his screen. He doesn’t have the strength to gain an advantage by setting a bruising pick, but he can pivot speedily out of the action and use his long strides to stay a step ahead of the defensive coverage.
Fast, controlled and finishing with the aforementioned silky touch.
Again, look how quickly he spins out of this pick. Because his screen and pirouette are all in one motion, Royce O’Neale is flapping a stray arm at nothing in his attempt to tag the roller and cover for Gobert. With Edwards attacking downhill — once again in an empty side scenario — McDaniels can easily sky above any low-man help. This is the kind of thing Minnesota should be looking to exploit more regularly next season — use their spindly lob threat, use their soft-finishing wing, use their young phenom and floor-spacing center to open up vertical lanes for that guy.
And when those lanes aren’t there, McDaniels can always pop out of picks. He had a roller-coaster season from behind the arc, but sliding out of a screen and into a shooting pocket is going to get him rhythm jumpers and, if not, he can attack the mismatches he finds on switches and drop smaller defenders off at the front of the rim.
All of this can circle back around to his ability to make great reads with the ball in his hands, because getting the ball in his hands is all this is really about. Whether the play ends in a pick-and-pop jumper, a pick-and-roll drive as the ball-handler, a roll-man finish around the rim, or a short-roll zip like the clip below, McDaniels will only ever be able to grow as a scorer, creator, finisher and playmaker if the ball is in his hands more.
The skill package is there. It’s dirty and grimy and covered in burrs that will need to be polished, but it’s there. Now, despite the developmental limitations that come with a winning team, the Timberwolves coaches and front office need to find a way to unleash that package.
Cruising By Closeouts
If Minnesota’s coaching staff continues to feel like the return on investment on ball-handling McDaniels reps isn’t worth it, they can always dip back into the off-the-catch scoring well — one they started to fill their bucket with more often as McDaniels’ sophomore season progressed.
In theory, an increased diet of drives after attacking closeouts is a stable middle ground between a corner-dwelling spot-up shooter and a usage-eating pick-and-roll threat. It’s the ideal way to let Edwards, Towns and Russell thrive in their usage zone while still allowing McDaniels more confidence, more touches and more scoring growth.
Most importantly, and unlike the pick-and-roll ball-handling, the 21-year-old is already legitimately dangerous at it. Outside of his defensive expertise, it’s the area of his game where his spidery strides and slithering body work shines brightest.
He isn’t the kind of ball-handler who is going to dazzle and delight with his dribble moves, but his ability to cover ground so quickly and eurostep or contort into soft finishes is more applicable when he is bursting by closing defenders and attacking a tilted and scrambling defensive shell.
Take this pretty pedestrian drive-and-kick situation as the perfect example of what McDaniels can and should be doing more regularly. Look at how Orlando’s defense crumbles when Anthony Edwards and all of his steamrolling driving force starts to rumble downhill toward them. At one point, three defenders are standing in his way, leaving McDaniels spacing to the corner, ready to slice past the closing defender and get to the face of the rim with a few simple dribbles.
It’s not always that simple, but with an offensive game plan that skews in McDaniels’ direction more often, we will see more of those kinds of plays.
Of course, so much of McDaniels’ ability to skate past closeouts and become a dangerous downhill scorer and decision-maker will rely on how well he can knock down triples — especially from the corners. Unless he can consistently bury the looks he receives from the aforementioned drive-and-kick situations, post-ups or even semi-transition plays, he won’t garner the gravity to have defenders sprinting at him and trying purposefully to run him off the line.
What side your faith falls on that shooting contingency really depends on how much you buy his post-All Star break improvements. In the 56 games leading up to the break, McDaniels shot 32-of-98 (32.7%) from the corners. However, as his role and confidence grew in the admittedly small 14-game sample size after the hiatus, he splashed 14-of-31 (45.1%) from those very same areas.
The pre-break McDaniels has to rely on poor scouting report knowledge or a deeper bag of ball-handling tricks to get busy off-the-bounce, the post-break McDaniels lets his shooting threat do the preparation work for him while he slips past panicking defenders. If he comes back next season as a more consistent and confident shooter, those closeout-attacks are going to come easier from day dot.
McDaniels won’t be able to hijack the offense in these situations, but he can still flash the full array of his budding talents if the coaching staff commits to him and he commits to forcing the issue more. The shooting to build the foundation, the long strides and nifty finishes to cement the framework and the playmaking flashes to add the décor.
There is something there with Jaden McDaniels. Something that isn’t just a gangly grim reaper defender and something that isn’t just a spot-up shooter with the occasional periphery skill. It’s not Finney-Smith or Thybulle or Anderson. There is something bordering on special. Now it’s just time to put it all into action. It’s time for the player to come back for year three with a game better suited to scoring and playmaking outbursts and it’s time for the coaching staff to empower those changes. It’s time to prioritize Jaden McDaniels.