On Monday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves won a huge game over the third-seeded Sacramento Kings on the second night of a back to back, lifting themselves temporarily out of the play-in tournament and into the sixth seed at 39-37. That only lasted until the Golden State Warriors won on Tuesday night, though. The Wolves only have six games left in their season, but due to how tightly packed the Western Conference Standings have continued to be, they are in reach of the fourth-seeded Phoenix Suns (40-35) and the 11th-seeded Dallas Mavericks (37-39).
However, with the Wolves on a four-game winning streak when it matters most, it is starting to feel more likely that they can get the sixth seed or better, and avoid the play-in tournament. And they’re winning despite dealing with injuries to several key players on the team including Kyle Anderson, Taurean Prince, and of course Karl-Anthony Towns, that almost derailed their season. Almost every player on the team has stepped up and made big plays that contributed to their recent resurgence and win streak. However, perhaps the most important development for the Timberwolves short term, and long term potential, has been the growth of Jaden McDaniels’ offense.
If you watch the Wolves, you know what Jaden can do on defense. He guards 1 through 4 with ease, goes to battle with every team’s best offensive player for an entire game, and put the clamps on anyone in the league in the fourth quarter. A few of the most knowledgeable and plugged-in NBA analysts have even begun to campaign for McDaniels’ position on the All-Defense teams, including the The Ringers’ Kevin O’Connor, who stated “McDaniels is pretty clearly an All-Defensive player this year, he should be on everybody’s ballot, on the first or second team. Pick your spot wherever you want, he should be one of those top 10 guys”.
Recently, though, McDaniels’ offense has stood out almost as much as his defense. Over the last eight games, McDaniels has averaged 17.5 points while shooting 50.5% from the field, and 44.1% from three-point range on 4.3 attempts per game.
Still, it’s not just that he’s scoring more consistently, but also how he’s scoring. We’ve always known McDaniels has a lot more offensive skills than he showed in the first two years of his career. He was a McDonald’s All-American and top recruit coming out of high school in large part because of his offensive skills. However, because of how many talented offensive players the Wolves had when he got drafted, they placed him into a tertiary role on offense, and forced to earn his way onto the court with defense.
While we got to see much of Anthony Edwards‘ learning process in real time, Jaden did a lot of his work in the shadows, waiting to emerge when the time was right. Now that the team has several good facilitators who encourage consistent ball movement, including Anderson and new addition Mike Conley, Jaden seems to be finding his spots more easily, and revealing all the moves in his bag.
One of the most fun things to watch is how good his handles have become. When McDaniels gets into on-on-one situations, he has a quick crossover that can get defenders on their heels enough to drive by. He’s also been implementing downhill spin moves to great effect, and is able to hit a 360 dribble at nearly full speed while staying under control and getting squared up to the rim. Almost every time, the defender is kept on Jaden’s back with no pat to the ball while he leaves them in the dust. If it doesn’t turn into a layup, it creates space for him to take a midrange pullup.
Jaden can also change speeds quickly, and make defenders play at his pace. If he notices a defender jump early, he’s begun to hang in the air SlowMo style to get a good vantage point over their outstretched arms and wait for the contest to fall before shooting.
Perhaps Conley has been influencing Jaden’s game a bit too, because he’s started to use more floaters on his way to the rim when the paint is packed, or he has a taller defender on him. In the most recent game against the Boston Celtics, McDaniels executed it to near perfection two possessions in a row.
McDaniels has also started to develop more offensive chemistry with Rudy Gobert. While Jaden has been pretty good at passing to Rudy all season, his alley oop passes are getting smoother, and he’s been able to get the ball into the post on mismatches more consistently. In an interview earlier this season, Conley noted that it takes time to learn how to pass to Gobert, mainly because you have to know how to throw lobs and get Gobert passes close to the basket when he’s heavily guarded.
Jaden has learned how to get Gobert the ball in his spots quicker than any other non-veteran on the team, and may only be third to Conley and Anderson facilitating Gobert’s offense. That’s great for the Wolves because when Gobert does get the ball in the right spot, it’s about as efficient of a shot as there is, because it either turns into an easy dunk or two free throws.
Jaden has also gotten better at playing off Gobert’s screens, and has begun to take advantage of the open window of space that they provide him to shoot on the perimeter. On this play against the Atlanta Hawks, De’Andre Hunter gets so caught up in the Gobert screen that McDaniels is able to casually back up to the three-point line and drain an open shot.
McDaniels has also become a smarter cutter, and better at noticing size disadvantages that will give him an easy route to the rim. In this play, Jaden sees that Trae Young is guarding him, and McDaniels has about a half-foot size advantage on him. McDaniels cuts in front of him to establish an open lane for the incoming pass, and gets an easy dunk as a result.
Finally, while McDaniels gets a tough whistle on the defensive end, he may be implementing some of the strategies that players use against him. Jaden has gotten a lot better at drawing fouls and finishing through contact. On this play, he stops short while driving to the basket to avoid Clint Capela in the paint, uses a pump fake to get Hunter (who is trailing him) in the air, then takes the contact as he drains a falling midrange jumper.
Jaden makes a ton of smart plays that veterans learn over the course of their career, and is implementing them into his game at only 22 years old. We know Jaden is a fast learner because of how quickly he picked up NBA defensive concepts and began to excel at them. Still, it’s been incredibly impressive to watch how quickly he’s putting everything together on offense too. While I can’t say for sure what he has learned from his teammates this year, the Wolves have a locker room full of sage veterans, and it appears as though he’s learning moves from all of them. Regardless, the veterans have helped get Jaden more involved in the offense, and that’s benefited both him and the team.
I’ve always believed Jaden had the potential to become a two way-star in this league, but it’s starting to feel closer to a present reality than a wishful future. His ability to score on all three levels gives the Wolves another offensive threat on the court, and makes it so opponents can’t hide defenders on anyone in the starting line-up without getting punished for it.
If Jaden can sustain this type of offense throughout the playoffs, it could make the Wolves a massive threat in the Western Conference. He already proved that he can perform under pressure in last year’s playoffs against the Grizzlies, and I think we’ll get to see some even more fun Jaden highlights this postseason.