With less than a month until the start of one of the most anticipated seasons in Minnesota Timberwolves history, our overlords at ESPN are driving the narrative by dropping their 12th annual rankings of the 100 best players in the NBA this season. Nothing gets sports fans’ blood boiling faster than their favorite players ranked too low, and their rivals ranked too high. But luckily for Wolves fans, the ranking gods have finally shown mercy on us by ranking the big three of Anthony Edwards (25th), Rudy Gobert (18th), and Karl-Anthony Towns (13th) amongst the game’s elite. Sprinkle in a 93rd place ranking for D’Angelo Russell, and the Timberwolves have one of the best rosters in the league and the respect of at least a section of the national media.
The Wolves are so stacked that even after their four top 100 players, another young starlet is waiting in the wings to join his teammates in the eternal glory of NBArank. Jaden McDaniels turns 22 next week and has already shown enough two-way potential to be considered for such a prestigious honor. As the fifth starter on a team with championship aspirations, McDaniels will look to make the jump from promising young player to bonafide star.
First, let’s examine what it takes to crack the top 100. And the answer is, it’s not as tough as you might think. There are only about 450 players in the NBA in any given season, so the top 100 represents the best 22 percent of active players, pretty good but not quite elite. This year’s list kicks off with the murderer’s row of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Grant Williams, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Love, and Seth Curry as the last five in. McDaniels wouldn’t exactly be kicking out All-Stars and future Hall of Famers to crack the top 100. Okay, one borderline future Hall of Famer, but that’s it.
Compare McDaniels to Williams, and you quickly see how close McDaniels already is to etching his name in history in next year’s NBArank. Williams was the 5th best player on the Celtics team that lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games in the NBA Finals. Williams averaged 7.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, and one assist per game while shooting 41.1 percent from three for the runners-up. McDaniels averaged 9.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game while making just 31.7 percent of his threes in his second season for the 7th-seeded Wolves. Both McDaniels and Williams are defensive standouts. However, Williams is a far better shooter at this point in his career.
We know that McDaniels isn’t all that far off from immortality. So how does he get over the hump? Like most basketball players, it all starts with shooting better. After a solid rookie season shooting 36.4 percent from three, McDaniels had a sophomore slump, regressing to just 31.7 percent from deep last season. He’s been working on his shot mechanics to have the same arc on his shot every time he puts it up, something that plagued him last year. If McDaniels can get his numbers back up even to where they were in his rookie season, he will improve his offensive efficiency and provide a better fit in the starting lineup next to Gobert, KAT, Edwards, and DLo.
But his versatility on defense is the biggest aspect of his game that will propel him into the top 100. McDaniels already became Minnesota’s top perimeter defender in his second season. His mix of size — which, if you believe everything you read on Twitter, he’s still growing — and quickness makes McDaniels a terror for smaller guards. It’s nearly impossible to find space to breathe when McDaniels locks you down, and Gobert backing him up around the rim will only magnify that. Gobert’s rim protection will give McDaniels and Minnesota’s other perimeter defenders the green light to be even more aggressive on the ball and attack ball handlers, knowing the Stifle Tower is there to erase any of their mistakes. By the end of the season, it wouldn’t surprise many Wolves fans if McDaniels becomes one of the best defensive players in the NBA.
But his penchant for getting himself in foul trouble might keep him from reaching his top 100 potential. McDaniels finished with the 9th most personal fouls in the NBA last season and averaged three personal fouls in just 21 minutes per game in the playoffs. The Wolves will need McDaniels to clean the fouls up if they expect him to be a huge part of their championship plans.
McDaniels has already surprised the NBA world by showing immense potential as a two-way threat through his first two seasons. Now it’s time for the third-year player to hone his skills and prove to everyone that he’s one of the best 100 players in the NBA. If he can find his shot, continue ascending as an elite defender, and stay out of foul trouble, there is no reason that McDaniels can’t join his starting teammates on the list to end all lists next season.