Jaden McDaniels has become the most intriguing player on the Minnesota Timberwolves, an exciting development in what has become an otherwise dismal start to the season. McDaniels made his debut in mop-up time of a blowout loss on Dec. 27th against the World Champion Los Angeles Lakers.
There wasn’t a lot to take away from that game. McDaniels would score six points and grab a rebound in eight minutes of meaningless basketball.
He would have a handful of nondescript performances that wouldn’t move the excitement needle. But then came the unforgettable game against the Orlando Magic. It ended rather tragically, with the Wolves blowing a lead, then losing on a Cole Anthony buzzer-beater. However, it was the game when we got our first real glimpse of the type of player that would, in theory, fit seamlessly into Gersson Rosas’ vision for this team. A versatile two-way player.
The first thing I noticed, other than his shockingly slight frame, was his easy demeanor. He wasn’t intimidated by the moment, and it seemed to translate to the way he performed. McDaniels showcased his knack for shot-blocking on one end and 3-point shooting on the other. He naturally switched onto smaller guards in pick-and-roll situations and seemed to understand how to space the floor on offense without the ball in his hands.
There was a memorable defensive series where McDaniels had two consecutive blocks against Orlando bigs, physical play around the rim with the likes of guys like Nikola Vucevic. But ultimately, it was his sense of timing to block shots without fouling that piqued my interest. I have long felt this team has needed a shot-blocking big to protect Towns around the basket.
McDaniels finished that game with 12 points, eight rebounds, and a chest full of confidence. That would be the high water mark so far for the rookie, but it showed exactly the kind of value a player with his potential can provide this team. He has officially replaced Jarred Vanderbilt as the most intriguing player on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Don’t get me wrong: Fan affinity hasn’t lessened any for our beloved Vando. After all, Vanderbilt’s defense, rebounding, and consistent effort make him easy to love. Couple that with injuries, health and safety protocols, and ineffective play from the two guys who started the season primed to get most of the burn at power forward, and Vanderbilt has become a regular fixture in the starting lineup.
That seemed unlikely before the season started because Juancho Hernangómez and Jake Layman figured to get the majority of minutes at the 4. But now McDaniels is also factoring prominently into that mix.
The third of Minnesota’s three picks in this year’s draft following Anthony Edwards (No. 1 overall) and 19-year-old Argentinian Leandro Bolmaro (No. 23), Rosas took McDaniels because of his athletic potential. Edwards is being given free rein in the offense to accelerate his development. Bolmaro is currently ballin’ in Barcelona, to mixed reviews. The 6’7 combo guard is clearly on a slower developmental path.
Minnesota grabbed him out of the University of Washington with the 28th pick — that whole draft day shuffle still has me a bit dizzy — deep enough in Round 1 where philosophy and vision factor heavily into a team’s decision-making.
They could have drafted a plug-and-play player at 28. According to draft experts and league brass, a few guys on the board were more NBA-ready, the kind of players who wouldn’t necessarily become a star but can contribute right away. Desmond Bane, Tyler Bey, and Tyrell Terry come to mind.
As an aside, Terry played his high school ball at DeLaSalle. While drafting a local player would have been fun, let’s face it, the Wolves have a checkered past when it comes to sentimental moves — I’m old enough to remember Joe Smith and Jonny Flynn.
Instead, they took McDaniels based on his upside. Players like him generally can be great but have flaws that kept them out of the lottery. Hitting on one of these guys is like drafting a lottery player — if they can reach their potential.
There was uncertainty surrounding McDaniels coming into the draft. He wasn’t a consistent starter in college, and he didn’t produce big numbers. When he did play, he, um, received a lot of technical fouls. That alone may have been an indicator that maturity would be a significant concern with the young forward.
But McDaniels is 6’9” and a skilled athlete who has the kind of defensive versatility that modern-day coaches and executives drool over. Every organization wants a guy who can defend multiple positions and space the floor.
He is by no means a finished product, nor is he expected to be right now. We might not have seen him on the court this year if COVID hadn’t disrupted things in the G League. But here he finds himself, up with the big club during this unique season, where the expectations for him were low.
McDaniels hardly saw the floor early in the season, and when he did, it was in garbage time. But then Ryan Saunders started giving him meaningful minutes, and what has happened since has been nothing short of intriguing.
He has proven to be just what Rosas’ ordered.
Despite his young features and slight frame, McDaniels has displayed a cool toughness that caught most of us by surprise. His overall basketball IQ is phenomenal. He plays beyond his years.
Going forward, he will factor prominently into the Timberwolves’ plans, future and present day.