Jaden McDaniels Is Taking the Next Step

Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Jaden McDaniels was on an all-time heater in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The newly minted second-team All-Defensive ace made his first four three-pointers and six of his nine attempts overall for 24 points in one of the best playoff performances of his four-year career and his third-straight game with 20 or more points. McDaniels channeled Michael Jordan’s performance from the first game of the 1992 NBA Finals, but the Minnesota Timberwolves lost Game 1 to the Dallas Mavericks. It was Minnesota’s first loss in these playoffs in a game where McDaniels has gone for 20 or more.

Through his first four years in the NBA, McDaniels has made a name for himself as one of the best defenders in the association. His offensive game shows flashes of one day developing into a secondary scoring option. However, he has yet to find any consistency in his scoring package. He led the Wolves in scoring in Game 1 and is third on the team in playoff scoring behind Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns this season. But can McDaniels sustain his newfound scoring punch touch and help Minnesota claw back against the Mavericks, helping the Timberwolves get to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history?

McDaniels has never been asked to be a high-volume scorer in college or the NBA. That’s what happens when you play second fiddle to first-team All-Pac12 selection Isaiah Stewart in your lone year in college and get drafted in the same class as Anthony Edwards in 2020. Ant averages a tick under 23 points per game in his four NBA seasons, while McDaniels is a shade under 10 points per game in 284 career games. It’s not a fair comparison. The Wolves took Edwards first overall, and he’s one of the best young players in a generation. Meanwhile, they took McDaniels 28th overall as a dart throw with long arms and three-and-D upside. The D has been spectacular, but the three still hold him back.

McDaniels has shown flashes of being an above-average three-point shooter in the NBA, but his percentages fluctuate wildly from season to season. During his rookie season, he showed much promise, shooting 36.4% from deep. Instead of building on that solid foundation in his second season, McDaniels’ jumper broke, and his three-point percentage plummeted to 31.7. Then he hit the top of the Ferris wheel in season three, putting together his best offensive season to date, averaging 12.1 points per game while shooting 39.8% from three. But he regressed again in Year 4, with his average dipping below 10 points per game and shooting just 33.7% from beyond the arc. It all adds up to an unspectacular career 35 three-point shooting percentage.

But when the lights turn on, McDaniels turns into Steph Curry. In 18 career playoff games, McDaniels is shooting 44.3% from three on 3.4 attempts per game. It’s a small sample size, but McDaniels is showing he can provide a scoring punch on nights that Ant and KAT don’t have. In his last three playoff games, McDaniels is averaging 22.7 points per game on 69/67/89 shooting splits. He shot 3-4 on corner threes and 3-5 on his above-the-break threes on Wednesday while sprinkling in three dunks to keep the Wolves’ offense afloat.

The big question is whether McDaniels can stay hot and replicate this offensive impact for the rest of the series. McDaniels’ issue has always been consistency. We know he’s capable of 25-point nights and scoring from all three levels, but the difference is he hasn’t shown he can string great games together. Before his current streak, he had only had back-to-back double-digit playoff games once in his career — in Games 3 and 4 against the Nuggets. He has never scored 20 or more points in back-to-back games in his career, regular season, or playoffs until now, so we are in uncharted territory with the 23-year-old forward.

McDaniels didn’t fare well in his four regular-season outings against Dallas, shooting just 14 percent from three. But as we heard a million times in the leadup to Game 1, the regular season doesn’t mean a thing because Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving hardly played together, and the Mavericks hadn’t traded for P.J. Washington or Daniel Gafford yet. If the Mavericks continue to leave McDaniels wide open in the corners, he can continue his best Aaron Gordon impression and stay hot for the rest of the series.

Jaden McDaniels is in the midst of the best offensive stretch of his young career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Edwards, Towns, and Mike Conley will find their shots, and McDaniels won’t have to carry the offense for the rest of the series. Still, it’s nice to know he’s there lurking in the corner, ready to become a true two-way player.

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Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

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