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The underrated gem in the Wolves starting lineup

Amid the focus on the Rudy Gobert trade and the rise of Ant, Jaden McDaniels continues to shine.

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard moving to the basket against Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels during the first half of Tuesday night’s game.
Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard moving to the basket against Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels during the first half of Tuesday night’s game.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Join MinnPost columnist Britt Robson before the Timberwolves take on the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, March 13 for a pre-game Q&A: a virtual get-together where Britt will offer his insights and answer your questions about the team and if there’s any chance of saving this season, which began with visions of a deep playoff run. The event is free, but RSVPs are required here.

With nearly nine minutes gone in the first quarter of their Tuesday night contest against the Los Angeles Clippers, it looked like the Minnesota Timberwolves were headed for another beatdown.

Their supposedly tone-setting big man, Rudy Gobert, who the Wolves had acquired this summer for a batch of gleaming assets large enough to make Rumpelstiltskin blush, was being expertly mauled by an underrated schmoe named Ivica Zubac. Along with that surprising early mismatch, the Clippers’ eight-time All Star, Paul George, had canned four of his first five shots, and their heralded but past-his-prime new acquisition Russell Westbrook had already been marauding for five assists and three rebounds.

The Clippers were up 24-16 with three and a half minutes to play in the first quarter when their most prized player, two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, received the ball in isolation on Jaden McDaniels outside the paint on the right wing. Kawhi is commonly likened to an alien robot because he dispatches his foes with impassively ruthless efficiency, and because his stiff, yet inexorably strong movements make it seem as if his 225-pound frame is comprised of a single muscle, maybe two.

By contrast, the NBA’s official website lists McDaniels at 185 pounds. The Wolves media materials tack on the ten pounds he gained during his diligent off-season work regimen this summer, but Wolves fans who watched Kawhi treat 195-pound Andrew Wiggins like a chew toy for many years probably regard the correction as a moot point.

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With his back to McDaniels, Kawhi suddenly spun left and drove by the baseline toward the hoop, McDaniels sidling hard at arm’s length to deter the layup. Kawhi jammed his muscle to a standstill and went up with a short baseline jumper. McDaniels stilled his momentum with cat-like equilibrium, launched himself upward and blocked the shot.

The stunning defensive play was the most dramatic of many McDaniels efforts to keep his team in the game during those early minutes. He scored Minnesota’s first four points, successfully challenging the Clippers 218-pound forward Marcus Morris Sr. on a dribble-drive layup in transition, and then utilizing a high screen from Gobert to dribble into an 11-foot floater Zubac faced him and three other Clippers converged. And as the primary defender on Kawhi, he had helped hassle him into missing five of his first seven shots in that nine-minute opening. This is the same Kawhi who came into the game averaging 28.5 points per game over the past six weeks on shooting percentages of 53.6 from the field, 48.9 from three-point range, and 90.5 from the foul line.

Taskmaster, samurai, tarantula

Near the end of his rookie season back in April of 2021, I called McDaniels a samurai in sheep’s clothing for the way his nonchalant body language and sloe-eyed visage camouflaged a cut-throat competitor of burning intensity when play was initiated out on the basketball court. Three months later, his coach Chris Finch memorably compared him Scottie Pippen, an NBA Hall of Famer with phenomenal versatility at both ends of the court.

McDaniels has never stopped trying to make his advocates look smart. For two off-seasons in a row now the Washington-state native has stayed in the Twin Cities doggedly honing his game and his body. As his career has unfolded, the pros and cons of the harsh taskmaster setting the context for his self-assessment are more easily recognized. He’s never going to be brawny, or even rubbery-rugged like Kawhi. Instead, especially on defense, he aims to intimidate like a tarantula, a fearsome arsenal of appendages backed by a disposition you don’t want to contemplate.

But for that to happen, he needs to retain the discipline of a samurai, who is as alert and ruthless with his patience as with his execution. That’s a struggle. As opponents learned how he relied upon the right amount of distance in order to pounce, they got physical with him, closed the gaps, timed the pounce into greater contact, then baited his perfectionism into more obvious mistakes. McDaniels’ unique tenacity on defense has resulted in one of the unkindest collective whistles from refs in all the NBA, but there are also his more legitimate fouls borne of frustration and revenge.

The nadir of his nascent career occurred at the beginning of his second season in the fall and winter of 2021-22. He was still frequently playing out of position as an undersized power forward, making it easier for smart foes to bait and bully. Slot into the role of a catch-and-shoot outlet from the three-point corners, his inaccuracy injected loathing into his self-criticism.

In one of the many brilliant moves he made last season, Finch pulled him from the starting lineup while at the same time encouraging him to expand his offensive game both on the move away from the ball and off the bounce when he received it. Within weeks, he was back as a starter and again on track.

Universal improvement

One of the few tangible advantages of the trade for Gobert thus far has been the opportunity to move McDaniels back into a wing stopper role that rarely includes brawny power forwards—and if they are included, Gobert and Kyle Anderson provide more reliable assistance. He still gets whistled too frequently — only Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis has more personal fouls — but in the space-and-pace world of the modern NBA, he is the linchpin of the Wolves defense regardless of whether they are playing a drop coverage or a high-wall scheme.

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Despite the fact that it is his job to be on the floor when the opponents are using their best scorers, Minnesota has allowed 110.5 points per 100 possessions in the 1,868 minutes he has been on the court this season and 113 points per 100 possessions in the 1,219 minutes he has been on the sidelines. And while there is always noise in individual defensive metrics, the “defensive dashboard” stats at reveal that he is especially adept at reducing the accuracy of shooters he is specifically guarding on-ball.

Expected field goal percentage on shots he defends within six feet of the hoop are 7.3% below the norm, and 4.8% less than the norm on shots within 10 feet. By contrast, the three-point percentage is higher than normal, but the eye test would indicate his added hustle to try and close out on those shooters makes him more statistically culpable than lazier defenders. Overall, all the shooters he guards score with 0.6% less accuracy than the norm—and he is guarding the best in the game.

But the more substantial growth in McDaniels’ game has come on offense. At the beginning of the season, it was supposed that even with a more refined skill set, he would mostly exist as a fifth scoring option: Ant and Karl-Anthony Towns were the alpha point-producers and the pick-and-roll between Gobert and D’Angelo Russell would provide both of them with high usage. Then KAT went down with a severe calf injury in late November (he still hasn’t returned), and the Gobert-DLo connection was too unfamiliar and thus less potent than supposed.

McDaniels was ready to step at least partway into the breach. Brandishing a more-assured handle on the dribble and a surprisingly well-cultivated mixture of force and finesse when determining the when and how of his shot selection, he has become a factor on offense that must be accounted for by opponents.

He’s still a viable catch-and-shoot outlet from long-range — his three-point percentage is a career-high 38.5, up from 31.7 last year and 36.4 as a three-point statue his rookie season. But now there is movement, flexibility, play creation. Over 30% of his shots are from within three feet of the rim, and he’s making 75.6% of them—easily career-highs in both quantity and quality. His assists are way up and growing at a faster rate than his turnovers. Consequently, the Wolves have scored 113.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s been on the court compared to 109.6 points per 100 possessions when he been off.

Cornerstone or star?

Entering the 2022-23 season, the buzz about the Timberwolves followed two specific topics: How would the ballyhooed experiment of pairing two All Star big men, KAT and Gobert work out? And would Anthony Edwards make the leap into stardom?

With less than 20 games remaining before the play-in and playoffs, the answer to the first question toggles between “no,” “not yet,” and “won’t know until KAT is healthy.” And the answer to the second is either “yes” or “he’s certainly on his way.”

The play of Jaden McDaniels was not a high-enough priority to set its own narrative. But 64 games later, it is legitimate to ask, “How many of these can McDaniels become — a crucial role player, a cornerstone of the roster, a second-tier star?”

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The role player has already been answered. In my opinion, so has the cornerstone standard. The Wolves chose to part with two extra first-round picks to Utah rather than include McDaniels in the Gobert trade, and that was before this year’s two-way growth. Nobody is untradeable in today’s NBA. But diamonds in the rough increasing their shine bring the sort of relatively unheralded value you hang on to. Flexible cornerstones can simultaneously feed the architect’s imagination and the integrity of the building.

So, what is a second-tier star? Players like Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton of Milwaukee, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart of Boston, Mikal Bridges of Brooklyn by way of Phoenix, and Jaren Jackson Jr. of Memphis—players that only make the All Star game when their teams are competing for championships. But players that people who love the game of hoops come to cherish as much as the mega-stars.

At age 22, McDaniels is on that track. When the Wolves had to have that game on Tuesday night and came out flat, he was the one who kept the deficit manageable. Throughout the game, he was the most frequent defensive matchup for Leonard and the second-most frequent matchup for Paul George. A turning point in his development occurred in mid-January, when he received a pass from Ant for a buzz-beating shot from the corner that clanked off the rim, resulting in a Wolves loss to Utah. Led by Ant, his teammates defended the decision and rallied around him, ensuring that his internal taskmaster didn’t become toxic.

Since then, like his fellow youthful cornerstone, Ant, McDaniels in the clutch has been on a scale ranging from unreliable to objectively bad. But they have also been immersive, taking their lumps. On Tuesday, when Finch made his final rotation and inserted Ant back into the game with 6:37 left to play, the Clippers had cut what was a 13-point lead earlier in the quarter down to 6. In their previous three games, the Wolves had crumbled in this situation, losing winnable games to the Wizards, Hornets and Warriors.

The ensuing performance was touch-and-go. McDaniels had a nice feed to Gobert, and Ant had a bucket and stripped the ball from Kawhi going to the hoop in transition.  But with less than four minutes to play and the team still up six, each one committed the sort of silly turnover, in succession, that has plagued this team all season.

With 3:21 remaining, Finch called time. As the coach put it after the game, “we had kind of a swing-swing (rapid passes around the horn) corner three by Jaden that we really needed at the right time.”

It wasn’t the dagger, but it was crucial breathing room that helped de-pressurize the environment en route to a 108-101 upset Wolves victory. The trey represented points 17-through-20 for McDaniels, which led the Wolves, accumulated via 8-for-12 shooting. There were also a half-dozen rebounds, two dimes (versus two turnovers), a steal and a block.

What wasn’t on the stat sheet, were a series of remarks made by Clippers coach Ty Lue at various points during the game, caught by microphones in the Clippers huddle and when he spoke to the media between the third and fourth quarters. He flat out told his team, and then a national audience, that the Wolves were playing harder than his more star-studded outfit.

A hat tip belongs to bench players like Jordan McLaughlin, Taurean Prince and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who inspired with their hustle. The latter two were among the players Finch was referring to postgame when he mentioned that “we have a lot of guys who can guard multiple positions.” A tip of the cap also to Kyle Anderson, and Gobert after that disastrous first stint, plus the steady regulator Mike Conley at the point.

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But if you want to know who deserves most of the credit for an opposing coach lamenting that his team just got outworked, check out the star who made the leap, Anthony Edwards. And check out the erstwhile fifth option on offense, the taskmaster-beset competitor who has shed the sheepskin but kept his samurai mindset on a sword’s edge. That’s Jaden McDaniels, reaching for the second tier.