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The rise and fall and rise of Jaden McDaniels

After sky-high expectations and an inevitable first crisis of confidence, McDaniels seems to be blossoming into the player the Wolves need him to be.

Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels taking a free-throw against the Toronto Raptors during the third quarter at Target Center on Wednesday.
Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels taking a free-throw against the Toronto Raptors during the third quarter at Target Center on Wednesday.
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

Jaden McDaniels is breaking through. The six-foot, nine-inch, 21-year old forward has been a precocious presence for most of his year-and-a-half career with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But after hyped expectations dwarfed his performance and created his inevitable first crisis of confidence earlier this season, the current crystallization of his skills and temperament seems satisfyingly robust, well-rounded and sustainable.

The Toronto Raptors had just gone on a 13-1 run to lead 24-11 when McDaniels first checked into the game Wednesday night at Target Center. Almost immediately, he received a crosscourt inbounds pass from Anthony Edwards and buried a left-corner three-pointer. Less than a minute later, he squared up his defense on the Raptors OG Anunoby, who at 240 lbs. outweighs McDaniels by 55 pounds. As Anunoby drove across the lane to his left, McDaniels calibrated his contact to create pressure and presence without knocking Anunoby off stride. As Anunoby went up for a left-handed layup, McDaniels, two inches taller, still loomed, and forced a near impossible angle for a bank off the backboard. Anunoby fell down, goading for a foul that never came. 

Both the trey and the deterrence were instrumental in an 8-point answer from the Wolves over an 84-second span that re-tightened the game in the first quarter. But a series of plays by McDaniels in the second quarter provides even more clarity on how and where his game has taken a leap forward.

Around the eight-minute mark, Anunoby took a bounce pass in the paint and had momentum to confront McDaniels. But McDaniels “pulled the chair” — moved backwards as Anunoby sought to draw contact — then closed in as Anunoby regained his balance and went up for the shot, blocking it before the ball was over his head. 

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That was followed by a three-minute stint of scoring prowess that would have been unthinkable earlier this season. At 4:43, Karl-Anthony Towns whipped the ball to McDaniels in the left corner. Eschewing the catch-and-shoot, he dribbled to his right to change the angle from the oncoming defender, then cut sharply to the hoop, finishing with a 4-foot floater that started underhanded and ended with a push. 

At 3:39, Patrick Beverley was sealed off on a drive and looked around for help as he was falling out of bounds beneath the hoop. McDaniels dashed toward him from beyond the three-point arc and was already executing a spin to the left as he received the desperation pass, finished with an inverted right-handed layup from the left side. And at 2:20, KAT was flailing his way through a tangle of two defenders on the sideline when he saw McDaniels cutting from the weak side, finishing the layup while being fouled by power forward Pascal Siakam. 

A growing appreciation 

Wolves coach Chris Finch never lost faith in McDaniels during his rough start to the current season. Indeed, he adores McDaniels as a basketball player, for circumstantial as well as more well-founded reasons. 

Almost exactly a year ago, Finch was thrown to the Wolves in more ways than one when his friend and then-president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas plucked him off the Raptors bench in the middle of the 2020-21 season to replace Ryan Saunders at the nadir of the organization’s latest rebuilding scheme. Rosas was always going to eventually scapegoat Saunders when one was required to hold off the horde of disgruntled Wolves fans. But the way it happened last February 22 was desperately inelegant.

In a flurry of trades the previous season, Rosas had punted the team’s top draft pick and nudged the Wolves over the NBA salary cap in the process of razing the roster. But with his planned top tandem of Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell alternating injuries, the Wolves plunged to rock bottom among the league’s 30 teams with a record of 7-24. 

Sensing that Finch would be a hot commodity when coaching vacancies were traditionally created at the end of the season, Rosas took the extraordinary step of negotiating with the Raptors to achieve the hire while the season was in full swing. Along the way, he pointedly bypassed elevating the team’s assistant head coach at the time, David Vanterpool, on an interim if not official basis. Less than two years earlier, Rosas had wooed Vanterpool away from Portland (and another rival suitor, the Philadelphia 76ers), by explicitly promising to groom him for the top job. 

“I told him, ‘If you come here, this is the final place before you become a head coach,’” Rosas said to me two years ago, when recalling his recruitment of Vanterpool. 

But when the chips were down, the Wolves executive couldn’t even bring himself to name Vanterpool as a stopgap head coach. Vanterpool had been named the league’s top assistant coach in a survey of NBA general managers as recently as 2019. That he was a Black coach in a league dominated by Black players but woefully negligent in hiring Black decision-makers on the sidelines and in front offices made the bold manner by which Finch was chosen for the job particularly fraught. 

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The Wolves got waxed in Finch’s first five games at the helm, losing them all by an average margin of 18 points. Fortunately, the league took its annual week off for the All-Star game at that point. When he went to his home in Florida to retrieve his stuff, Finch recalled thinking, “How bad is this?” 

Earlier in that 2020-21 season, McDaniels’ performance in garbage-time situations had impressed Saunders, who wanted to increase his role and playing time in the rotation. Rosas was the dominant figure in the relationship between coach and executive, however, and Saunders was relegated to passive-aggressive means — tone of voice and facial gestures — to indicate his frustration in not being able to push McDaniels’ development more assiduously. But Finch’s relationship with Rosas had no such constraints. And three weeks after play resumed following the All Star break, Finch, perhaps even more than Saunders, began to fully appreciate what a godsend McDaniels could be for the Wolves, and for his tenure as coach.

Finch’s love of McDaniels was cinched over a glorious three game span in March of Jaden’s rookie season, when he was the primary wing stopper defending a trio of potent, playmaking All Stars: Luka Doncic, James Harden and Julius Randle. At the end of that gauntlet, Finch couldn’t contain himself. “What he’s doing at the defensive end of the floor is special. It’s as special as what we’re seeing Ant [top overall draft pick Anthony Edwards] can do on offense. It’s as special as anything you’ve seen. I can’t remember a defender, rookie, coming in and having this kind of impact.”

A turnaround toward competence

Finch’s ceiling for McDaniels went beyond defense. His favorite compliment for any ball player, “fearless,” was invested with conviction when he attached it to McDaniels. Finch felt McDaniels could handle the hype he was going to bestow. And Finch, a man eminently comfortable in his own skin, was going to ride steadfastly alongside him through any rocky interludes.

During the offseason, as he prepared for his first full and proper year as head coach, Finch was aware that there could be a pair of timelines at play. One involved relying on the max-salary tandem of KAT and D’Angelo Russell while bringing along second-year players Ant and McDaniels. The other, more drastic alternative was unloading KAT and DLo and building around the younger duo plus the bounty acquired by trading the alphas. This second scenario would unfold if the max tandem continued their career-long underperformance at the defensive end, or if, for whatever reason, the team had yet another season of meaningless basketball as other teams jockeyed for the playoffs in the spring.

As part of the process, McDaniels was made the centerpiece of the Wolves Summer League team at both ends of the floor out in Las Vegas, with the organization making no qualms that the purpose was to explore the depth and range of his playmaking abilities. Before one of the games in that Summer League schedule, Finch sat in his Vegas hotel room and set a phenomenally high bar for peak McDaniels, telling me, “I think — and this is obviously a stretch-goal for anybody — but he can be Scottie Pippen-esque.”

Through the first few months of the season, McDaniels wasn’t even Jud Buechler-esque. He’d engaged the encouragement, buffing up his physique as much as the rail-thin frame would allow at his age and spending the offseason in Vegas and Minneapolis steadily honing his game. But after a stellar opening-night performance against Houston, he looked overmatched. 

After converting 36.4% of his three-pointers as a rookie, he was clanking corner treys with discouraging monotony. Even worse, his signature defensive tenacity had been scouted into oblivion, as opponents short-circuited his cat-and-mouse approach of haunting the ball-handler before closing in for the block or contest by initiating the contact early and barreling through and past him. In response, McDaniels’ virtuous feistiness was transformed into frustrated fouling, as he too-frequently swiped at the ball for steals or eagerly enjoined the contact with a gusto that diminished his cunning and his agility and length. 

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Ten games into the season, the last six of them losses, he was removed from the starting lineup, and his replacement at the power forward slot, Jarred Vanderbilt, made the quintet hum at both ends of the court. 

The turnaround toward competence has been slow and begrudging. As recently as January 2nd, 36 games into the season, McDaniels had committed substantially more fouls (119) than he had converted field goals (103), a horrendous stat that would have consigned most any other player to the end of the bench. But McDaniels hadn’t lost his wingspan nor his tenacity, which enabled him to mitigate the damage wrought by his chronic fouling. In those 36 games, the Wolves allowed 106.7 points per 100 possessions in the 881 minutes he was on the court and 107 points per 100 possessions in the 862 minutes he didn’t play.

McDaniels also hadn’t lost the support of Finch. The coach spun his removal from the starting lineup as a way to unlock McDaniels as well as the team, claiming that the ball-centric Big 3 on the floor were relegating him to mere corner threes instead of the full range of his playmaking. He bemoaned the biased treatment McDaniels seemed to get from the officials, who were overly vigorous and vigilant in detecting his fouls relative to other players. Both of these arguments weren’t inaccurate, but conveniently underplayed the role of McDaniels ineptitude in the process. 

When the omicron variant swept through the roster, Finch properly installed him back as a starter among the remaining skeleton crew, playing him the second-most minutes, behind only Malik Beasley, during that interlude. He also praised those players in general, and McDaniels specifically, for demonstrating how to move without the ball, an example that did in fact motivate the starters to engage in more productive habits when they returned. 

Blossoming as a ball mover — and a mover without the ball

Most significantly, Finch put a new frame around McDaniels profile, one that treated a notorious clanker — with a true shooting percentage below 50 through those 36 games — as a dynamic, multifaceted threat on offense. 

“He was down on himself and down on his shot at times,” the coach said. “I just said to him, ‘You’re not a shooter, you’re a basketball player. So go make plays and the shots will go in. Don’t define yourself on whether you miss or make shots.’” 

At the end of the omicron disruption in early January, Finch leaned in further with encouragement. “We’ve seen a lot more of what we thought we would see earlier in the season, and again it is just mostly that he has had more opportunity,” he declared. “I really like the first handful of games where he has been committed to his shot, trying to turn the corners and get to the paint a little bit more, just being more aggressive. Defensively, he is still guarding at a high level but he has cut out a lot of the fouling that was hampering him early. So I think [the added minutes due to omicron] has been a great silver lining for sure.”

Inexorably, McDaniels began to decrease the demerits while retaining the virtues of his defensive play, and to indeed open up his overall game in a positive way on offense. 

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The game that really heralded his ascension was a 9-for-9 shooting performance against Utah to close out the team’s January slate of games. For the month, his true shooting percentage was a fairly gaudy 56.8 and he proceeded to top that with 58.8 percentage in the nine February games that occurred through last night. 

Bottom line, he has taken Finch to heart and has started to operate in a more freewheeling manner. Last season he was strictly a stationary threat, a near-specialist on catch-and-shoot three-pointers from the corner. When those failed to drop, the loss of confidence initially affected his accuracy and decision-making elsewhere on offense, but his dedication is now paying off. 

Back in January, McDaniels was already claiming that Finch “gave me the confidence to be who I am and make plays off the dribble,” but there was still a pause of uncertainty and a programmatic aspect to his aggression with the ball in his hands. Over the past two or three weeks, he has blossomed as a ball mover as well as a mover without the ball. The spin move off the cut when Beverley fed him on Wednesday is an example of the instinctual immediacy of his play that manifests even more in the way he is dishing off the drive, generating plays that often result in him having made the “hockey assist” of the pass before the pass generates the bucket. 

As for defense, the coaches have steadily worked on getting McDaniels to stop reaching in and otherwise using his hands in ways that made it easy for the refs to blow the whistle. Finch recently described it as a “pretty significant adjustment,” noting that instead of the hands, he needs to keep moving his feet and to use his body to be “physical first,” the way he had created the initial but not foul-inducing contact on the Anunoby drive on Wednesday. 

Vital to the Wolves’ playoff hopes 

As of January 2, McDaniels had that embarrassing stat of 103 made baskets and 119 fouls over 36 games. In the 23 games since then, he has made 94 baskets and fouled 62 times, one of many markers that could be used to demonstrate his in-season growth. 

Two days before Christmas, I wrote that the downgrade in McDaniels’ performance relative to expectations had been “the most sobering” aspect of the Wolves season. More recently, over the past ten games, the Wolves have scored 9.2 more points per 100 possessions than they have allowed when McDaniels is on the court, a net rating eclipsed only by Jordan McLaughlin and Jaylen Nowell, who played much less often, over that span. 

There are still holes in McDaniels’ game, most prominently due to a lack of sinew that prevents him from matching up in space with brawnier but still relatively mobile playmakers. After stubbornly calling him “the ultimate combo forward” in heady aftermath of comeback win in overtime against Charlotte on Tuesday, Finch did concede the next day that McDaniels “still needs to put strength on, add weight, all those things. But he is not backing down from anybody. He’s tough, Jaden is tough.”

When the team returns from the All Star break — where McDaniels will compete in a meaningless “Rising Stars Game” — they will compete in meaningful games to determine playoff position for one of the precious few times over the last 20 years. An improved and invigorated McDaniels will be vital to that effort.

But more importantly, McDaniels again looks like the kind of fixture in the rotation that are required of teams with serious ambitions in the postseason: a versatile role player capable of defending a variety of situations and a performer whose burgeoning offensive skills and court sense make him a player that will punish an opponent who ignores him. 

That player — a 4-to-8 year fixture — is the one in which Finch has been investing so much of his influence and goodwill. “He was outstanding at both ends of the floor,” he said after the Charlotte win. “He made timely plays, big baskets at times when we had nothing else going. He had big passes.” 

A few minutes later, he added that McDaniels “is just growing and growing every day, I’m super excited about the work he is doing. He has done a really good job of defending without fouling. He is fun to watch right now.”