Heading into the season, Minnesota Timberwolves fans had lofty expectations for Jaden McDaniels. After a surprising rookie season in which he showed flashes of star potential, McDaniels entrenched himself as a building block for the future. He dominated the summer league and was inserted into the opening day starting lineup. All signs were pointing to a breakout in his sophomore campaign.
However, McDaniels struggled from the opening tip-off.
The 21-year-old started Minnesota’s first 10 games, and the results were concerning. McDaniels averaged 4.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.0 steal in 24.6 minutes per game on an atrocious 38/25/67 shooting split. The Timberwolves were 3-7 and in the midst of a six-game losing streak. Things were getting dark early when Chris Finch made a change that may have saved Minnesota’s season. He moved McDaniels to the bench, replacing him with Jarred Vanderbilt.
The Wolves are 8-3 since the lineup change. They’re in the middle of the Western Conference playoff conversation with the best starting lineup in basketball and the third-best defense across the last 11 games. Since his addition to the starting lineup, Vanderbilt has transformed into one of the best defenders in the NBA. But the Wolves aren’t dominating because they kicked McDaniels to the curb. He’s playing an integral role with the backups.
McDaniels is thriving in his new role as the leader of the bench mob.
McDaniels has turned his season around over his last ten games coming off the bench. His playing time has increased to 25.9 minutes per game, and he’s averaging 7.9 points and 4.9 rebounds on a much more respectable 44/28/63 shooting split. McDaniels is more comfortable developing against other teams’ backups at this stage of his career.
Last season McDaniels made a name for himself as a rookie on a bottom-feeding team. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell were in and out of the lineup for myriad reasons while fellow rookie Anthony Edwards developed into a young star. Last year’s Wolves were devoid of any other bonafide talent, leaving the door open for McDaniels to showcase his gifts. He could navigate his first season in the NBA without any repercussions. Jaden’s wingspan, quickness, and natural defensive acumen complemented his reliable three-point stroke. After his rookie year, some Wolves fans saw a young Khris Middleton or Mikal Bridges.
This year Towns and Russell are healthy, Malik Beasley is out of jail, and Edwards is primed to make a leap. McDaniels and other young role players are improving. And Gersson Rosas’ trade for Patrick Beverley was widely approved. Therefore, expectations rose. Now, the Wolves were under pressure to perform right away. Most saw Jaden’s inclusion in the opening day starting lineup as a sign that he was about to take his game to the next level.
However, McDaniels couldn’t compete for touches with the KAT-Ant-DLo three-headed monster. He was relegated to standing in the corner on offense while taking the brunt of the work as a perimeter defender. It was a thankless role that even the savviest of veterans would have a hard time with, let alone a 21-year-old kid. As a starter, McDaniels sometimes went whole quarters barely touching the ball. He went halves without hoisting a single shot. That’s not a good environment for a second-year player to improve.
As one of the leaders off the bench, though, McDaniels has more freedom to work with the ball in his hands. He can cut, spot up, and hone every aspect of his game while continuing to wreak havoc on defense.
Arguably the best thing that’s come from McDaniels’ move to the bench is his ability to stay out of foul trouble. Jaden’s most significant weakness as an aggressive defender is committing too many fouls. As a starter, he committed 4.2 fouls per game and fouled out of three games, all losses. Over his last ten games, McDaniels is down to 3.4 fouls per game and has fouled out twice. Minnesota won both games, and one was the Philadelphia 76ers game that went into double overtime.
Whether he’s starting or coming off the bench, McDaniels’ development is of the utmost importance to the Wolves. They’re suddenly a team that has aspirations beyond a play-in tournament exit. Minnesota is currently in seventh place in the West and is tied for fifth and percentage points from home-court advantage. The Western Conference is vulnerable because several top teams missing key players for large chunks of the season.
Finding the perfect role for a young, talented player like McDaniels is critical for Minnesota if they truly want to shock the world and compete in the playoffs this year. So far, it’s been a wonky fit. But with McDaniels as a two-way menace off the bench, the Wolves can match up with almost anyone.