Jaden McDaniels No Matter What

(AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Jaden McDaniels has been thrown into trade rumors surrounding Ben Simmons and other NBA stars this offseason. The 6’9″ wing/forward is coming off of a stellar rookie campaign where he rose through the ranks to become a full time starter after beginning the season firmly planted at the end of the bench. His value as a defender and floor-spacing shooter mixed with his size and length became too much to ignore as he blossomed into a 2-way force at just 20 years old. We do not yet know what he could be, but he has the outline of one of the most important player archetypes in the league. The Wolves should not be so keen to send him away.

 

In the NBA there are certain types of players that can be dropped into any team and situation and they will immediately make that team better. There is virtually no scheme, offensively or defensively, that will not suit them. These players are typically between 6’6″-6’10” tall with long arms and are athletically built. They possess the quickness to defend on the perimeter, the length and strength to defend on the interior, 3pt. shooting ability to space the floor, creation ability to find their own shot, and finally enough playmaking ability to operate as an offensive hub in the biggest moments. In short, this player is know as the 3&D Playmaking Wing and they are exceedingly rare.

 

Kawhi Leonard is the shining example of this archetype. Others who fit the bill are his teammate Paul George, Jayson Tatum, and of course Kevin Durant. LeBron James and Luka Dončić could be considered in this mold as well, however they operate more as supersized point guards. All of those abilities, defending, shooting, and playmaking are very rare to find in a singular package. Many players check some of those boxes but not others. A player like Robert Covington clearly has the defense and shooting part down, but a playmaker he is not. Mikal Bridges is the 4th best player on a Finals team, and similarly shoots the lights out while playing excellent defense, but lacks the real creation ability and playmaking for others. He is young and has shown flashes, so he can certainly still take that next step. Even without checking all of those boxes, players like Covington and Bridges are still incredibly valuable. These are guys that can fit into any starting lineup and can immediately mesh with existing players. Every NBA team is working to find the next Kawhi Leonard, Jayson Tatum, or even the next Mikal Bridges because of how valuable they have proven to be in the NBA today.

 

When was the last time the Timberwolves had a player that sported all of the abilities of a 3&D Playmaking Wing? They actually had Covington for a year, but he only provides the 3&D part. Jimmy Butler was around the year before. He could certainly be included in this archetype, but again he was only in town for one season. Andrew Wiggins would oscillate between checking all the boxes one game then checking none of them the next game during his tenure in Minnesota. No, the Wolves have not been able to find that sustained excellence from a player of this caliber despite their efforts to find him. But that might have changed after the 2020 NBA Draft.

 

Jaden McDaniels was the 28th pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Known as a tall scorer with loads of potential coming out of High School, he had a rough 1st season of college at the University of Washington. He spent a large chunk of the season coming off the bench for the Huskies before leaving after 1 season to enter the draft. Once thought of as a high lottery pick, he slipped to the end of the 1st round. Teams saw the potential, but it seemed like he would be a couple years away from truly contributing in the NBA and the G League seemed to be in his immediate future. After some impressive garbage time minutes for the Timberwolves early in the 20–21 season, injuries forced McDaniels into the rotation. He did not disappoint:

 

YouTube via: Bllen

Jaden broke out of his shell in that game against the Magic early in the season, but not in the way that many predicted. He showed his incredible proclivity for defense, especially on the interior. While most fans assumed he could be a great scoring wing someday, it was his defense that got him on the court early. Fast forward a few months and McDaniels was relied on as the best and most versatile defender. He initially drew the opponent’s best wing/forward option as he consistently guarded players like Aaron Gordon and Pascal Siakam, but as the year progressed he would match up with the opposition’s best offensive player overall unless they were a center. Throughout the rest of the season he was tasked with shutting down everyone from James Harden and Malcolm Brogdon to Luka Dončić and Julius Randle. Players all over the positional spectrum could expect to draw McDaniels as their defender, and they knew he would make them work for everything on offense.

 

By the end of his rookie year, Wolves fans were left wondering what Jaden McDaniels could be. Is he destined to be a Covington-esque player who shoots 3 point shots when he is open and defends like crazy? For the 28th pick that would be an awesome outcome. But it just seems like there is a higher level for Jaden. At this point, it is reasonable to think that he can grow into the 3&D Playmaking Wing archetype that has become one of the most valuable players in the league. It sounds crazy, right? Let us look at some rookie year comparisons to help make our case.

 

All stats via basketball-reference.com

 

When looking at Kawhi Leonard’s rookie season, Jaden’s 1st year can give fans hope. The two players played almost the exact same amount of games and minutes albeit one for a great Spurs team and the other for a bottom feeding Wolves team. Offensively Kawhi has a slight edge in 3pt% (37% to 36%) although Jaden took nearly twice as many 3’s. McDaniels bested Leonard in 2pt% (54% to 53%) and their total Effective Field Goal Percentage was virtually the same. Kawhi was the better rebounder (Board Man Gets Paid) and more than doubled Jaden in steals, but McDaniels nearly tripled the amount of blocks that Kawhi had. The context to these numbers matters with Kawhi playing much more on the perimeter alongside multiple big men for a great Spurs team while McDaniels was forced into power forward duties with the Wolves dearth of talent in that spot. The steal and block differences for each player could certainly be attributed to the positional variances. Overall it is very encouraging for McDaniels’ rookie numbers to rival Kawhi’s in some areas, as we now know that Kawhi Leonard is the grand standard for the 3&D Playmaking Wing.

 

While we should be encouraged by the way Jaden McDaniels’ rookie statistics measure up to Kawhi Leonard’s, we cannot complete judge his future based on Basketball Reference. We need to be able to analyze his actual play to see what boxes he checks on his path towards this incredibly valuable player archetype. We have identified 5 characteristics of this 3&D Playmaking Wing, so which boxes does McDaniels check?

 

Defending on the Perimeter
One of the first and most important aspects to becoming a great wing player in the NBA is defending perimeter players in space. Kawhi made a name for himself as a defensive supernova at the point of attack as he shut down the best ball handlers in the league and made their lives hell. Jaden McDaniels checks this box with flying colors.

Look at this highlight of Jaden on an island against James Harden. That is… not easy. He did the same thing to Luka, Malcolm Brogdon, and others. The scary thing is McDaniels can continue to get better in this area as he learns how to better navigate screens and defend without fouling. Pencil him in as an impactful point of attack defender for years to come.

 

Defending on the Interior
3&D wings are rarely known for their ability to defend the paint, but the best ones are able to hold up adequately so offenses do not hunt them down low. Players like Paul George and Jayson Tatum are great examples here. While they are certainly not behemoths that are able to stymie driving attempts and absorb post up moves from opposing centers, they are not mismatches that offenses will actively seek. When George or Tatum switch onto an opposing center, more times than not they can hold up just fine. Not only does Jaden McDaniels hold his own down low, but he can be a weapon as a shot blocker in the paint. If we look at Block Percentage (the percentage of 2pt. shots a player blocks when on the court) he actually outperformed Bam Adebayo’s 3.2% by amassing a 3.4% BLK percentage. The eye test showed McDaniels standing up to bulky forwards like Pascal Siakam and Julius Randle without requiring help to make them work for their shots. This area is certainly another “Check” for McDaniels.

 

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Three Point Shooting
It seems most Wolves fans have supreme confidence that Jaden McDaniels is going to evolve into a high level shooter in his career. Looking at his raw numbers, and he already seems to be above average shooting over 36% on 198 threes in his rookie season. That amounted to be about 3 attempts per game. Jaden was billed as a tall scorer with a confident shooting stroke in high school, and that confidence seems to have translated to the NBA. I am not a “shot mechanics” wizard, so I will just say that confidence in their shot is an incredibly important aspect to shooting in the NBA. McDaniels brought that trait with him. The caveat is that almost all of Jaden’s 3 pointers were assisted (97%) and many times he was fairly open as teams loaded up to stop Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. As a 20 year old, shooting 36% from the 3 point line on nearly 200 attempts is no small feat, but his next step will be to keep that efficiency while taking more attempts and some potentially more difficult shots as his offensive responsibilities grow in his career. For now, we can check off this box for Jaden and mark him down as a good 3pt. shooter with potential to become a real floor-spacing weapon.

 

Ability to Create Own Shot
This is one of the most difficult skills for a 3 & D wing player to develop. So many guys around the league can shoot, but only the true stars can score with the ball in their hands. A look at Jaden McDaniels’ shot distribution chart shows a guy who is analytically sound in terms of where he is attempting his field goals. Over half of his shots are 3’s, then about 1/4 are at the rim (between 0–3 feet). Jaden converted 69% of his shots at the rim which is very high for a 20 year old. While the stats look great as far as his ability to impact the rim, the eye test showed that he typically was able to get his shots there from rebound putbacks, passes from teammates on cuts, and dunks/layups in transition. In other words, most of his attempts at the rim were created by others (assisted on 70% of 2’s) and were relatively low difficulty finishes. On the rare occasion that McDaniels did create for himself to get his own shot, he would end up in the midrange/floater area because of an inability to get by his defender 1 on 1. While he showed decent touch and OK efficiency (41% from floater range, under 50% from 10ft. to the 3pt. line) in these areas, it does not seem like he will be able to make a living from the midrange anytime soon. It is difficult to tell whether the ball handling will need to be improved or if it is a lack of athletic burst that makes it difficult on Jaden to get all the way to the rim, but both areas may need to be improved to check this box. This first professional offseason should tell us a lot about Jaden’s ability to improve in his shot creation ability. While he will not be asked to spearhead an offense this coming season, he will be relied on to beat mismatches as defenses load up to stop the Wolves’ star players. McDaniels will commonly see the opposition’s weakest perimeter defender so a tighter handle could do wonders to improve his offensive versatility.

 

Playmaking for Others
The final tool and usually the last one to develop for these superstar wing players is the ability to guide the offense and set up teammates off the dribble. As of now, Jaden McDaniels clearly does not check this box because we just have not seen him operate in this capacity. His raw stats his rookie season(1.7 assists per 36 minutes) and lone season in college (2.1 assists per game) show a play finisher as opposed to a playmaker. That will happen when playing with guys like Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, and Ricky Rubio. There was just no need for Jaden to ever initiate offense through a pick and roll or in the high post. Those are places that I believe he has the potential to get comfortable, but for now he is not offered those opportunities. One positive for Jaden’s trajectory in this area is his assist:turnover ratio. In college he had only 65 assists to his 100 turnovers… That isn’t good! His rookie season in the NBA saw 71 assists to only 47 turnovers albeit with much less responsibility, but it is still a positive indicator for his ability to read the floor and make the smart pass in the future. Right now his development here may hinge on his scoring game. If he is able to score off the dribble efficiently then the floor could open up for this 6’9″ slenderman to make smart passes all over the floor. He does not need to be Ricky Rubio with eyes in the back of his head, but being able to suck the defense in with scoring gravity and make the right read to the open teammate will be an enormous swing skill that could determine Jaden’s ceiling.

 

The Future
As the NBA draft and free agency approaches, trade season will be in full swing. Gersson Rosas and the Wolves front office are likely as active as ever discussing trade scenarios to improve the team, and I would not be surprised to find out that Jaden McDaniels is nearly untouchable. If it were me, I would be reluctant to include him in any trades this offseason unless you are returning a bonafide superstar (I love Ben Simmons but I would make sure to keep McDaniels out of any negotiations). Reason being, McDaniels’ trade value might be as low right now as it will be in the next 3–4 years. How many 1st round picks would it take to trade for Mikal Bridges — 2 or 3? Robert Covington who is basically 3 & D only was just traded for 2 1st round picks last offseason at age 29 with a history of knee injuries. In all likelihood Jaden McDaniels will have more trade value than that as soon as next season.

 

The way the NBA is heading where versatility is king a player who can defend everywhere and space the floor on offense will be exponentially more valuable. At only 20 years old, Jaden also already shows an incredible work ethic and competitive drive that should surely see him develop in the areas that he needs to as he takes the next step into becoming one of the most valuable player types in the NBA. Maybe he takes multiple developmental steps and becomes a dominant 1–2 punch with Anthony Edwards over the next decade. Likely? Probably not as infinite factors could affect that outcome, but I am not going to be the one to bet against him. Hold on to Jaden McDaniels at all costs, Timberwolves. He might just be the ticket to the next great Wolves teams.

 

-Jerry W.