Preseason basketball is some of my favorite basketball. It comes after a long, dull hiatus from NBA basketball, through the doldrums of late-season baseball and the start of the NFL season. These scrimmages are the breath of life I need as we enter fall and we watch the natural world around us begin to die.
Preseason also brings the opportunity for fans to get an early look at rookies against actual NBA competition. It’s an opportunity to see what second- and third-year players have been working on during the summer. I was particularly interested in seeing how Jaden McDaniels looks this season.
I’ve been high on McDaniels since the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted him. I thought his length, ball skills, and defensive ability were a combination of traits that any NBA team should look to add to their roster. Based on what I saw in college, I figured that his fully developed game would be somewhere between Jonathan Isaac and Brandon Ingram. That’s not to say that he would be as good as either of those players, but his frame and skillset brought them to mind.
McDaniels came into the league lacking an NBA frame, so it was clear that he would be a project. I will not be surprised if we see some regression in Year 2 as he expands his game and McDaniels pushes to try new things. Unfortunately, his performance in the first two preseason games has been disappointing. Again, I’m not taking any preseason performance as gospel, but I do think that his struggles illuminate some areas of his game that need to work in his favor if Wolves fans are going to see him hit his ceiling.
McDaniels has taken the same amount of shots as he has committed personal fouls through two preseason games. He is 1-of-7 from the field in 35 minutes of play. This is not the start to the preseason anyone wanted to see. However, for context, let’s not forget that Jarrett Culver is a star in the making during the preseason.
Currently, I see McDaniels as a “tweener.” A tweener is a player who slides between multiple positions without really having a positional home. No one knows if McDaniels is a small forward or a power forward. He’s almost 6’11”, which sounds like a power forward. But McDaniels weighs about 215 lbs., which sounds more like a small forward. Thus, he is a tweener.
Tweener is frequently used as a pejorative, and I understand that. Many tweeners struggle to stay on the court defensively because they have no true position to defend: think Marvin Bagley or Timberwolves legend Derrick Williams. Other tweeners have a hard time on the offensive end. Will Barton struggled his first few seasons as a player with guard-like ball skills. He could get his own but wasn’t a true point guard who could initiate the offense at an NBA level, and he wasn’t a good enough shooter to play off the ball. Barton found his place by improving his shooting and his ability to facilitate for his teammates. But Barton found his stride when the Portland Trail Blazers traded him to the Denver Nuggets. While his usage stayed the same, his 3-point percentage and assist percentage improved.
In summer league, the Timberwolves experimented with significantly increasing McDaniels’ usage. The ball was in his hands for much of the game, and he was tasked with being a primary option on offense. The experiment produced uninspiring results. The expectation was that McDaniels could really produce against subpar talent. While he averaged 16 points, he shot 28% from 3 and posted a paltry 1:1 assist to turnover ratio. Certainly, this is small sample size theater. But the truth is that even though the narrative was “this is Jaden McDaniels’ team in summer league,” on the court, the team belonged to Jaylen Nowell.
The McDaniels conundrum is that he is yet to develop key skills necessary to play small forward or power forward. When McDaniels plays power forward, he provides a spacing element at that position. But he lacks the strength to rebound at the level of a bona fide NBA power forward. Rebounding was a huge problem for the Wolves last season, and playing McDaniels at the 4 does nothing to alleviate that issue.
If McDaniels spends most of his time playing small forward, his 36% 3-point shooting becomes less of a perk. The best 3-and-D small forwards in the league shoot much closer to 40%. Players like Harrison Barnes, OG Anunoby, Patrick Williams, and even Dorian Finney-Smith shot at least 39% from three last season. That 3% difference might seem small, but spacing isn’t just about percentage. It’s about how the defense guards you. McDaniels is not a knockdown shooter that the defense needs to stay attached to. He can knock down the open look, but defenses will live with a McDaniels 3-point shot when they have Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards to deal with.
McDaniels has also shown that he doesn’t have very much juice off the dribble. When McDaniels plays the three, especially next to Jarred Vanderbilt, there are two players on the court who can’t attack a defense using their dribble. If a player is one-dimensional on offense, it becomes much easier to defend them. Mikal Bridges, Anunoby, and even Jae Crowder have developed some dribble game that has helped open things up for them on the offensive end.
McDaniels has to develop his skills further to use his versatility to his advantage. He’s got to be like Will Barton and find his lane to success. Whether he works on his strength and rebounding, continues to improve his shot, or figures out how to tighten up his handle, something’s got to improve if he wants to take a step forward this year.