Searching for the Ceiling: Jaden McDaniels

AP Photo/Nell Redmond

The “Searching for the Ceiling” series will examine Timberwolves young players one at a time analyzing what their best case outcome could be as they continue to develop in the league. Each player’s “ceiling” will be compared to a current veteran in the league, and if they reach the level of that current player they will have reached what I believe to be their best case outcome. Each Timberwolves player will have “ceiling” comparison on offense and on defense. The first and second installments in the series covered Jaylen Nowell and Naz Reid. Next up we have the rookie defensive ace, Jaden McDaniels.

 

In less than one season, Jaden McDaniels has already become a Timberwolves fan favorite and defensive phenom that has not been seen around the state of Minnesota in years. Just ask Canis Hoopus site manager and leader of the Jaden McDaniels Superfan Club, Kyle Theige. The rookie from the University of Washington burst on to the scene early in the 20–21 campaign with some breathtaking blocks on Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Pascal Siakam, and many others and has now cemented himself as one of the Wolves’ go-to defenders. His defensive prowess was an enormous surprise for many Wolves fans who assumed he was a 2–3 year project when Minnesota drafted him with the 28th pick in 2020. Coming out of high school Jaden was billed as a smooth scorer at 6’9″ and had shades of Kevin Durant with the ball in his hands. A rough year as a UW Husky saw him scuffle to perform consistently on the court as he found himself coming off the bench for the 2nd half of the season. Anyone who watched the young kid who played at Washington at age 19 probably does not recognize the 20 year old Jaden McDaniels that is starting for the Wolves and is becoming the best defensive option on the team. His breakout and continued progression has left Wolves fans salivating at his future potential, but the question remains; how good can he be? His ceiling seems to be limitless, so we will try to find the right comparisons on both ends of the court.


Defensive Ceiling: Wing Sized Jonathan Isaac

Jonathan Isaac has struggled to stay healthy for much of his 4 + year career to this point, but when he does play he looks like the offense-breaking defender of the future. He has performed at the level of a Defensive Player of the Year, and is the rare type of defender that offenses need to game plan against. At 6’11” with a 7’1″ wingspan and quick twitch athleticism, he is able to cover an incredible amount of ground on the court. Mix that with solid defensive instincts and good hands, and you have a ball-thieving/shot-swatting machine.


Prior to his injury in the 19–20 season, which was his most recent stretch of sustained health, he was averaging 2.3 blocks and 1.6 steals in 28 mins per game. The eye test proved that he was even more valuable than those numbers suggested as he effortlessly switched from guarding big men in the post to snuffing out perimeter drives by smaller players. Isaac’s instincts for help defense may be the most impressive part of his defensive game however. If a teammate gets beat on a drive, Isaac is almost always in the right spot to deter them at the rim. If the offense runs a pick and roll, he can be found digging hard at the nail to blow up the play before recovering out to his man. He is truly the perfect defensive player for the future of the NBA.


So why is Jaden McDaniels, a 6’9″ — 185lb wing being compared to a 6’11” — 230lb versatile big man? To me, it is the versatility, instincts, and unique body types that make them comparable as the perfect defenders for the future of the league. McDaniels is never going to be as big as Jonathan Isaac. He is likely done growing, and 230lbs would not fit on Jaden’s slight frame. However, they do both share the natural defensive skills and competitive temperament at young ages that make them both so intriguing. As constructed, Isaac’s physique makes him best suited to guard positions 3–5. But if he were closer to Jaden’s size and build, he would likely be at his best guarding positions 1–4, similar to Jaden. That is why McDaniels could seemingly be chalked up as a “wing-sized Jonathan Isaac.”

In looking at their Advanced defensive stats from each player’s rookie year, it would seem that Jaden has some catching up to do if he hopes to reach Isaac’s level.

 

via basketball-reference.com

The STL% and BLK% are tilted fairly heavily in the favor of Jonathan Isaac, but it would seem that Jaden’s smaller size would affect that. Also, lately McDaniels has been playing on the perimeter more often as a 3 or 4. Defensive metrics are difficult to parse for perimeter players, and with Isaac spending most of his rookie season as a 4 or 5 that could explain his higher block percentage.


As most Wolves fans would attest, simply watching Jaden McDaniels and using the eye test is the best way to measure his impact right now. We KNOW bad defense when we see it, and so it really sticks out when a player like McDaniels frustrates and shuts down opposing players. The way he can slide his feet to seamlessly switch across positions then have the instincts to help his teammate at the rim with a perfect contest or block is not something we are used to. If you spend any time watching Jonathan Isaac highlights, Jaden’s defensive abilities look a lot like a smaller version of Isaac. While he may never reach the DPOY type of hype that Isaac has received, McDaniels will be an enormous success story and a massive breath of fresh air for the Wolves should he continue his defensive ascension.


***Bonus Defensive Ceiling: Shades of Bam Adebayo***

No, Jaden McDaniels is not going to turn into the ultra-versatile rim protecting center that Adebayo has become. BUT in the research to find a comparison for McDaniels, it had to be noted that there are some statistical similarities between the two from their rookie years. Per 36 minutes, McDaniels is actually averaging more blocks (1.5) than Bam did (1.1). Additionally McDaniels has a higher block % than Adebayo did. These numbers do not mean that Jaden will become a better rim protector, but they do portend to him having exceptional defensive instincts already so early in his career. Another similarity is that they both played a lot of the power forward position during their rookie year seasons, but that is not likely their best position in the future.


Bam is obviously best as an offense-wrecking center, but to me a fully unleashed Jaden McDaniels means playing him as a true wing at the small forward position. Currently McDaniels is masquerading as a power forward next to Karl-Anthony Towns, but the best way to maximize his strengths will be to move him down the positional spectrum. His unique abilities are further emphasized by his height and length. Playing him at the 3 gives him the ability to smother perimeter players with his size while not giving up speed to slide with them. He is also more free to chase blocks and steals using his superior instincts and hands because there will be a 2nd line of defense if his gambles fail. Perimeter defenders have that luxury. Guarding bigger players at the 4 actually mutes what he does best, and highlights his only real weakness — his slight frame and strength. Although Jaden has had success against 4’s like Julius Randle and Pascal Siakam, he is susceptible to getting pushed aside by stronger big men near the rim.


For the Wolves, the path to quality defense will include Jaden McDaniels guarding opposing wings and ball handlers as much as possible with a couple of solid big men (Towns & some other acquisition) roaming the paint. When configured that way, McDaniels will get credit for being one of the most impressive perimeter defenders in the league while having the versatility and length to switch on to bigger offensive players when needed. A true defensive star seems to be in the making for the Wolves.

Offensive Ceiling: Jaylen Brown

The $1 million question among Wolves fans. What in the world can Jaden McDaniels be on offense? Typically rookies who excel on defense in the NBA had that reputation coming into the league. Players like Josh Okogie and Matisse Thybulle were known defensive stalwarts in college but it was assumed they would struggle on offense for the early part of their career, which has mostly been true. Jaden’s reputation coming into the league was as a 6’9″ smooth scorer who gained comparisons to Kevin Durant as a top recruit in high school. He was never supposed to be a great defender so early in his career, but luckily for the Wolves defending has been his greatest strength. His defense will keep him on the court, but how he develops on offense will determine his star (or superstar) potential.


So can he be Kevin Durant? Is he destined to be Mikal Bridges, no more than a 3rd offensive option on a good team? Or will he be a low usage big wing on good teams with the skills to be a high usage scorer on bad teams a la Jerami Grant? All of those outcomes could be true! (Ok FINE, he will not turn into Kevin Durant ) But the best comparison statistically and stylistically could be Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics.


Finding a comparison for Jaden McDaniels was difficult. Most rookies with sky-high offensive potential have a larger role in their rookie years than Jaden, so he could not be compared to blue-chip wing prospects like Kevin Durant or Jayson Tatum. Enter Jaylen Brown, the 6’6″ 220lb wing for the Boston Celtics. When Brown was drafted with the 3rd pick in the 2016 draft, it was a clear bet on future potential. His skills were unrefined, but he had all of the physical tools and competitive attitude to turn into a star in the NBA. Brown’s reputation initially was as a solid on-ball defender because of his long and strong frame, but there was always untapped potential as a scorer inside of him even among modest rookie numbers. Take a look at his rookie highlights, and see if his defensive “wow plays” and his low usage offensive role look familiar to a certain rookie for the Wolves:


Jaylen Brown 2016–2017 NBA Season Highlights

Focusing on his offense, Brown’s highlights come from opportunistic cuts and mostly from the playmaking of his teammates. He is scoring after no more than a couple of dribbles. Jaylen had a little bit more leeway in Boston’s equal opportunity offense than McDaniels does in one that is dominated by Towns, Edwards, and DLo, but you can see the similarities in how they come by their buckets.


The comparison in rookie numbers bear out those similarities in their play. Their “Per 36 minutes” numbers show a couple of solid play finishers that are not asked to do much else as evidenced by their low assist and turnover numbers. Based on their roles in their respective offenses Jaylen ended up with a higher percentage of 2pt. attempts compared to 3pt. attempts, but they served similar roles.

 

via basketball-reference.com

Standing next to one another, Jaden and Jaylen look to have completely different body types. Although 3 inches shorter, Jaylen Brown is at least 30lbs heavier than the lanky McDaniels. That does lead to some differences in their offensive play. Jaylen used brute force and a chiseled frame to make up for a lack of refinement in his offensive skills as a rookie. Jaden’s offensive game is similarly oozing with potential yet unrefined, so he uses superior length and height to make up for it.


After a modest rookie season, Jaylen Brown was named an All Star this season, his 5th in the NBA. He has taken incremental leaps each year (except his 2nd-3rd year) to go from 6.6 pts/gm in his rookie season to nearly 25 pts/gm this year. That is an exceedingly difficult leap to make, but with every rise in responsibility has come a rise in level of play. Through sheer competitiveness, drive to get better, and a positive developmental system around him he has been able to do develop into a star. This is what heartens me about Jaden McDaniels following a similar track. There is no question about Jaden’s competitiveness and desire to get better. Any player that has his commitment to defense and playing the right way at only 20 years old is destined to get better. Around him the Wolves have also crafted an environment and system for Jaden to learn, grow, and explore his skills. An assumption can be made that Chris Finch, the head coach, is here for the long haul. While Finch has not proven himself as valuable as Brad Stevens just yet, it is clear that a smart head coach whom the players respect can foster growth in their young stars.

Jaden McDaniels will only continue to play more minutes and receive more responsibility in the offense as he develops his skills and experience. If his comparison to Brown holds up, his increased scoring volume will come at similar or increased efficiency. Currently Jaylen Brown is not necessarily a playmaking hub for Boston. His ability to get to the basket or drive and kick has greatly improved along with his pull-up jump shot, but he mostly makes the simple passing reads off the dribble and is not the big wing creator like a Luka Doncic or even Brown’s own teammate Jayson Tatum. That is perfectly fine for a team’s 2nd best player. If this iteration of the Timberwolves works out like we think it will, it is unlikely Jaden McDaniels would even be considered the 2nd best player. Especially on offense. Being a play-finisher and scorer can be a perfect role for McDaniels to develop in too. On a team that expects to have Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell as playmaking hubs, McDaniels should easily be able to slot in as a shooter, cutter, and break-in-case-of-emergency scorer as the shot clock winds down. Continuing to develop these skills along with increasing volume and efficiency offensively will bring him closer to the level of Jaylen Brown and will give the Wolves offensive options all over the court.


Wolves Perspective

So what does this mean for the Wolves if Jaden McDaniels nears his offensive and defensive ceiling? To put it simply, A TON. When the lanky rookie from Washington was drafted, fans (and likely the front office) assumed he would need plenty of minutes in the G League to refine his game and contribute to winning basketball. To everyone’s surprise except his own, Jaden has been one of the Wolves best players this season full stop. He is unlikely to give up his starting role, and is firmly implanted as a “Core” member of the team.


In the NBA, the name of the game is acquiring stars. Unfortunately for sub-glamour markets like Minnesota, stars usually need to be drafted and developed. Typically these stars are drafted high in the lottery after a miserable season. While the Wolves DID have a miserable 19–20 season granting them a shot at another future star (Anthony Edwards), Jaden McDaniels was acquired through some savvy front office moves that gave the Wolves the opportunity to draft Jaden McDaniels with the 28th pick. Finding a diamond in the rough that is the later 1st round of the NBA draft can be franchise changing. Now the Wolves have an incredibly inexpensive contract that will last 4 years, and a burgeoning young star that figures to add new skills and develop current ones during that time.


Finally, Jaden McDaniels reaching his offensive and defensive ceiling will fill the biggest need for the Wolves moving forward — two-way players that are net positives on both ends of the court. Minnesota’s future core players skew heavily towards the offensive end, and that has been a theme for this franchise ever since Kevin Garnett was traded. Think about the Wolves’ history of best players in that time. Al Jefferson, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and on and on. If Jaden McDaniels continues his ascent on defense to replicate a smaller version of Jonathan Isaac and develops his offensive game incrementally to the point where he can near Jaylen Brown’s production, the Wolves can end a long line of “Offense Only” stars. They can add an intense defender and relentless scorer to that list of names that wreaks havoc on both ends of the court for 35 minutes per night. Make no mistake about it, Jaden McDaniels developing into his potential would be franchise changing for the Wolves.

-Jerry W.

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