This is the time of year when most Minnesota Timberwolves fans take what I call a “basketball siesta.” As usual, the Wolves have long been eliminated from playoff contention, and fans can zone out for a few months until the draft lottery, checking in on the NBA Finals and tuning in for the occasional Game 7 in Round 1 or a Dame Time buzzer-beater. There is no need to watch the three teams who actually have a shot at the title cream seventh and eighth seeds full of youngsters getting their first playoff experience.
This season is a little different. The Wolves went 7-5 down the stretch, igniting hopes for the future with a Karl-Anthony Towns–Anthony Edwards–D’Angelo Russell Big 3 led by new head coach Chris Finch. The early stages of the playoffs that usually drag on are suddenly interesting thanks to the play-in tournament and the Los Angeles Lakers falling to the seventh seed in the West.
That’s all well and good to keep the attention of most casual NBA fans, but for Timberwolves faithful, the reason to tune in to the first round is to get a potential glimpse into the future one of our own. Aside from Edwards blossoming into the most likable player in the league as a rookie, Jaden McDaniels was the unexpected breakout star on a Wolves team that has rarely found this kind of diamond in the rough in its 32-year history.
The sunken-eyed 20-year-old out of Washington was the 28th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and was acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Ricky Rubio trade. It took him a while to get used to life in the NBA. McDaniels didn’t see action in six of his first 11 professional games, and then, bam, 12 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks in 26 minutes in a last-second loss to the Orlando Magic on Jan. 20th. McDaniels had arrived. He started 25 of the team’s last 30 games and finished his rookie campaign averaging 6.8 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and a block while shooting 36.4% from three.
The sinewy and slender 6’9”, 185 lbs. McDaniels has shown a tantalizing two-way game. Along with Josh Okogie, he’s one of the only Wolves you could describe as a good defender. He was already essentially untradable during Minnesota’s trade-deadline pursuit of John Collins, and he will likely start at the four alongside Towns in next year’s frontcourt.
So what does a 20-year-old on the sixth-worst team in the NBA have to do with making Wolves fans watch the first-round playoff matchups? Those of us not taking our basketball siesta will notice two players who look a lot like our wildest dreams for McDaniels’ future. Close your eyes and try to visualize these players before I tell you who they are. They’re about as tall as McDaniels, skinny, have 7′ wingspans, are quick in the open court, and are devastating wing defenders who can also handle the ball and rain fire from three.
Okay, open your eyes. Are these the guys you were picturing?[videopress Cc9zX4GJ] [videopress G84y2lDq]
Khris Middleton and Mikal Bridges are the Wolves fans’ fantasy McDaniels future comps. Middleton’s a two-time All-Star who was the 39th-overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was traded by the Detroit Pistons alongside Brandon Knight for Brandon Jennings, spent time in the G League, and took a few years to put it all together. Now that he has, Middleton is one of the league’s premier two-way talents, averaging 22.5 points, four rebounds, and 4.5 assists while shooting 50% from deep in the Milwaukee Bucks’ two wins over the Miami Heat.
Bridges was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 10th-overall pick in 2018 before a draft-night trade sent him to the Phoenix Suns. He’s thriving in the desert with the upstart Suns alongside Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton. While he has struggled to make an offensive impact in two regular-season games against the Lakers, he shut down LeBron James in Game 1, holding the Chosen One to just 18 points on 6-13 shooting.
It might be foolhardy for Wolves fans to believe that McDaniels could ever reach the level of Middleton and Bridges — we’ve been burned before — but McDaniels is already showing signs of becoming the next Slim Jim superstar. He’s already a better shooter than Middleton or Bridges were in their rookie years. McDaniels connected on 36.4% of his triples, while Middleton’s career 3-point percentage is 39.5 and Bridges shoots it at a 37.6% clip through three seasons. McDaniels’ true shooting percentage of 55.2 is in the ballpark of Middleton’s and Bridges’ career marks of 57.2% and 61.8%, respectively. He’s already better at blocking shots as he’s three inches taller than Bridges and two taller than Middleton. His height and position also gives McDaniels an edge as a rebounder.
The Timberwolves will have to use next season to figure out where McDaniels fits best. Can he bulk up a bit to bang in the post with other power forwards, or is he best used on the wing, similarly to Middleton and Bridges, where he can switch any position 1-4. Anthony Edwards spent the season dazzling fans with his high-flying dunks and electric personality on his way to a Rookie of the Year-caliber season, but it could be McDaniels’ quiet contributions and sneaky upside that finally bring balance to the force and catapult the Wolves over the hump and into playoff contention for years to come. If he turns out anything like Middleton or Bridges, the Wolves will be a force to be reckoned with in the future.