The Minnesota Timberwolves had a weird weekend.
First, they beat the Houston Rockets by pulling off the greatest comeback of the millennium. Nothing like a 22-0 run to get your blood pumping. Then on Saturday, Houston got every one of those 22 points back as it routed the Wolves, 129-107. I was hoping that facing the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, and Houston twice would amount to a better record than 1-3 over that stretch, but here we are.
The Timberwolves still stink.
But, it’s ok, we’ve got a lot to be excited about. Malik Beasley returned to the lineup on Saturday and although he looked rusty, that’s to be expected after missing 12 games. It’s going to take a bit for him to re-adjust to being on the floor. D’Angelo Russell is nearing his return as well, which means that soon we will get to see this team at full strength, something I was starting to think we would never see. I don’t mean to jinx this, but I am very excited to see how a healthy Wolves team looks.
Beyond the improving health of this team, I’m feeling really excited about how the young players on this team are developing. The upside to this disastrous season is that Gersson Rosas and Chris Finch get to take a long look at the first-, second- and third-year guys to see what they’ve got.
The young guy I want to talk about today is the player who I’ve been high on since he was drafted: Jaden McDaniels.
From the moment that McDaniels joined the rotation, he has shown outrageous defensive ability. He’s gotten up for highlight blocks time and time again, which has led me to give him the name “Jaden McDenials,” which is not currently listed on Basketball-Reference as one of his official nicknames.
Lately, McDenials has been showing much more than the ability to block shots. He’s been tasked with guarding the toughest perimeter players on opposing teams. Here is a brief collection of clips showing McDaniels shutting down Luka Doncic, John Wall and performing one of the greatest closeouts in Timberwolves history leading to Ben McLemore missing the hoop by a mile.
Even more impressive is that McDenials’ offensive game has been steadily improving, which is putting the league on notice. Reportedly the Timberwolves received a lot of inquiries about Jaden prior to the trade deadline. But, McDaniels has shown so much potential this season that he became the deal-breaker between Orlando and Minnesota completing a deal for Aaron Gordon. It seems like he is almost as valuable to the Wolves as Tyler Herro is to the Miami Heat.
It makes sense that the Wolves are reluctant to trade McDaniels, he has one of the most positive on/off numbers of any Timberwolves player. They have a net rating of plus-8.8 when he is on the floor. That is tied for team-high with Karl-Anthony Towns. Additionally, McDaniels is a member of every single positive five-, four-, three- and two-man lineup — the only Timberwolf to meet that standard. His numbers may not look great, but Minnesota is usually playing their best basketball when McDaniels is on the floor.
I want to give a quick shoutout to Timberwolves Talk A.K.A. @threesley on Twitter. He does great film work and is an essential follow if you are a Wolves fan. I’ll be using several of his tweets here.
As the season rolls on, McDaniels’ game continues to grow beyond being a defensive ace. We’ve seen all year that McDaniels has a fearless, quick trigger from the 3-point line.
The real question for McDaniels is whether he will be able to create his own shot. In college, we saw him attack relentlessly off the dribble, demonstrating a strong enough handle to punish closeouts and attack in transition.
But part of his success in college came despite his slight frame. Rolling 6’9” and 180 pounds is a lot different at the college level than it is in the NBA. Currently, McDaniels is lacking the physical strength to play a larger offensive role than as a catch-and-shoot threat. Here McDaniels is going up against the smaller Kevin Porter Jr. It looks like McDaniels gets a step on KPJ and should have an open path to the basket, but one bump by Porter and McDaniels’ momentum is stopped and he has to settle for a difficult, off-balance mid-range shot.
Luckily he gets his own rebound and keeps the possession alive. When I wrote about McDaniels’ preseason, I talked about his game as a combination of Brandon Ingram and Jonathan Isaac’s skillsets. He’s shown us the Isaac-level defense, but the Ingramian offensive game is still a work in progress.
Here is a play from Wednesday’s game against Dallas. McDaniels prods into the paint against Luka, realizes that nothing is there and dribbles back out. Naz Reid sets a screen for him at the top of the key and they enter into pick-and-roll action. Jaden looks to pass to Naz but realizes at the last second that he can’t string the pass to Reid on the roll, so McDaniels takes a…jump shot? Floater? Attempted off-the-backboard-pass to himself?
I’m not sure what he did, but it wasn’t good.
But sometimes Jaden’s mid-ranger falls. Until his body develops further, he’ll have to rely on his mid-range game if he wants to expand his scoring beyond the 3-point line.
He will also need to stay engaged offensively. Throughout the season there have been offensive stretches when he is not touching the ball where he has visibly lost engagement. Rather than cutting or attacking the offensive glass, he was still, waiting for someone to kick it out to him. Under Chris Finch, we’ve seen McDaniels be a more engaged off-ball offensive player.
But, maybe the eventual role for McDaniels on offense isn’t as a shot creator, but rather, a roll man. Per Synergy, McDaniels has been the roll man on 13 possessions this season, which has resulted in only two points. This is not very good. But this play against Dallas made me jump out of my seat. He runs a quick dribble hand-off with Juancho Hernangomez. He quickly releases off the screen and cuts to the basket, Juancho hits him and he slams it in.
McDaniels’ jumping speed is incredible and he has an opportunity to give the Wolves a vertical element that they are missing. One of the biggest reasons that Gordon seemed like such a good fit for the Timberwolves is that he is a versatile defender who can handle the ball as an auxiliary playmaker and be a rim running roll man. McDaniels checks the box as a versatile defender. As his handle and body continue to develop, we could see him fill that Gordon role better than Gordon himself. In fact, McDaniels already has All-Defense potential.
If he can be an All-Defense level player with offensive production similar to Gordon, then watch out NBA, Jaden McDaniels could be a star.