Why Is Jaden McDaniels So Much Better Coming Off the Bench?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Swinger (USA TODAY Sports)

Jaden McDaniels has started the past four games for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Although the roster was a shell of its former self due to COVID, the record in those four games is a microcosm of what’s been developing throughout the season. The Wolves finished 1-3 over that four game stretch. Of course these losses can’t be put entirely on McDaniels. But the prospect of him starting for the Timberwolves, especially with a fully-fledged roster, is looking dimmer by the day.

Although many fans believe in McDaniels’ upside, his starting potential on this roster is hard to justify. Unfortunately for Jaden, the Wolves are fighting for a playoff spot and they don’t have the minutes to give him true time to develop like the Detroit Pistons or Oklahoma City Thunder would. This isn’t to say there’s no room for McDaniels to develop, though. He seems to have a more comfortable fit off the bench. One possible reason is he gets more time with the ball in his hands. When coming off the bench, Jaden has a usage rate of 14.8%. When Chris Finch has started Jaden his usage rate drops to 12%.

McDaniels shoots 44% from the field when playing off the bench, compared to 42% starting, and shoots 35% from behind the line off the bench compared to 25% when starting. That’s a 10% dropoff. His points per game drop off, too, from 9 PPG off the bench to 7 PPG in the starting lineup.

So the real question becomes: What does McDaniels do off the bench that he can’t in the starting lineup?

Simply put, there is more opportunity for McDaniels on the bench. It’s a lot easier to see touches when playing with Naz Reid and Jaylen Nowell than next to Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards.

Here’s a shot chart from a streak of games that McDaniels started:

As you can see, a majority of his shots are corner threes and from in close. Although McDaniels spends a lot of his time in the corners as both a starter and off the bench, it’s especially relevant when he plays with the starters.

Ultimately, the trio of Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, will put a lot of shots up. This means when McDaniels plays alongside the starters, he never truly got to play his game. When he plays with the bench, he gets to explore more of his game.

Looking at his shot chart from a streak of games on the bench, you can clearly tell the difference:

To state the obvious, McDaniels gets more shots when he comes off the bench. But it’s important to highlight his shot selection. When you look at his threes, you see an expansion of his game. No longer relegated to the corner, Jaden seems to have confidence on angle threes. However, he seems disinclined to take straight ahead shots from the top of the three-point line, especially on the left side. McDaniels has really seemed to showcase his ability in closer shots lately, especially around the free throw line.

These types of shots create an interesting wrinkle in McDaniel’s game. If he can continue to become more confident in this shot, it can become a legit weapon for him. Jaden has a long wingspan, so it’s easier for him to shoot over defenders. If he can get to his spot in the mid-range over defenders, his shots will come easier – you can see it in the clip above. McDaniels receives the ball, and gets straight to his spot in the midrange. Once his shot motion has already started, there is nothing Darius Bazley can do.

McDaniels appears to be gaining confidence in his own driving ability. Before he came off the bench, McDaniels would often settle for a three. In the clip above, he recognizes the lack of size in the paint, attacks the closeout, elevates over the defender, and gets the bucket with the foul. McDaniels’ lack of size is slightly concerning. But if he can continue to gain confidence around the rim, like we’ve seen lately, his success in that area of the game will rise.

We’ve seen more of Jaden McDaniels bags of tricks when he comes off the bench. As he reaches deeper into this arsenal, we’ve seen more flashes as a ball-handler in a pick-and-roll.

A great example is this PnR action with Naz Ried:

This clip represents McDaniels’ ability well. He shows off his handles while using the PnR action to get a difficult pass off to Naz Reid.

The bench opened up a new McDaniels when Chris Finch first moved him there. But now we see McDaniels trusting himself and opening up even more. With his confidence growing on the bench, Jaden has been fantastic lately. Attacking the paint, expanding his playmaking game, and increasing his 3-point percentage has been huge for the Timberwolves this season.

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