Discover more from Basketball Poetry
How Jaden McDaniels becomes a star
I’ve written plenty about how much I love Jaden McDaniels’ defense. He’s a legitimate supernova on that end, and I put him third on my hypothetical Defensive Player of the Year ballot.
So I’m not here to talk about defense today. For better or worse, offense is what makes someone a star-star in the eyes of the public, media, and team executives (how many defense-first players get max contracts? Not as many as their offensive counterparts, to be certain). McDaniels, to this point, has been a good role player on that end. But a few tweaks in skill development and usage could turn him into a bonafide stud and a perfect fit next to ascending superstar Anthony Edwards.
McDaniels’ 2022-23 season, his third in the NBA, saw across-the-board improvement in nearly every meaningful stat. His year-end averages of 12 points, four rebounds, and two assists aren’t going to jump off the page. Still, there were clear signs that he is ready for a more significant role, and his ability to improve offensively might sneakily be the Wolves’ most important storyline next season.
For role players, everything begins and ends with the jumper. From beyond the arc, McDaniels shot 39.8% (yay!) on 3.4 attempts per game (meh). He was particularly good from the left corner, hitting 47% of his attempts.
A quarter of his total shot attempts were unassisted (though he only hit one unassisted three). McDaniels can dribble into pull-up middies with startling casualness when he chooses, but on a team with plenty of other ballhandlers, there isn’t likely to be much opportunity for him to dribble into a three-pointer himself.
He has a sharp handle and can create separation for himself inside the arc, albeit in a different way than most players. He doesn’t need lateral separation. With his height and high release point, he creates vertical room to shoot:
McDaniels is a liquid athlete, flowing around the court with a grace that belies his 6’11” frame. Despite his willowy build, McDaniels plays far stronger than he appears, and he has no problems dunking on entire teams in traffic if he can launch off two feet:
That bounce is a boon in transition, where McDaniels is equally comfortable sagging to the three-point line for a step-up triple or bounding down the lane for a slam.
McDaniels is already a well-rounded off-ball threat. Per Synergy Sports, McDaniels rated “Very Good” or “Excellent” in transition, off cuts, on put-backs, off screens, and as a roll man.
The cutting is McDaniels’ best offensive skill. He is both opportunistic and patient, with a great sense of timing. He’ll rocket to the rim in a way that avoids crowding the paint for the driver and also opens himself up for an easy deuce:
That feel for the game is evident in McDaniels’ passing, which is underappreciated and underutilized. Players who aren’t primary or secondary ballhandlers rarely have the opportunity to showcase the breadth and depth of their passing abilities, and McDaniels is no exception. Given how few on-ball chances he gets, he will always be an attacker first, and that’s fine. But unlike many role players, he reads the floor well and makes quick, instinctual decisions:
In a pinch, he can even run a savvy pick-and-roll. Look at his beautiful change of pace:
McDaniel’s biggest offensive weakness is a tendency to treat the ball as disposable — his 13.6% turnover rate is quite poor, although it improved slightly as the year went on. Specifically, he has a maddening tendency to get caught in the air with nowhere to go when driving left:
Seriously, it happens way too much:
McDaniels also is not a movement shooter. The Wolves’ offense utilizes him more often as a stationary spacer. The vast majority of his deep-ball attempts are catch-and-shoots or casual jogs in transition to the right shoulder. The Timberwolves didn’t run him off screens particularly often, perhaps for good reason. While his release isn’t lightning-quick (it must be noted that his shooting percentages plummet when there is a defender anywhere near him), it feels like a vital evolution to maximize McDaniels’ effectiveness alongside Edwards.
Finally, McDaniels is also a terrible defensive rebounder. It’s here where his lack of girth is most evident. Despite having Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Wolves have long struggled with rebounding, and McDaniels’ inattentive and ineffectual boxouts are part of the problem. Maybe this is more of a defensive concern than an offensive one, but McDaniels is more than capable of snagging a board and going coast-to-coast. Activating the glass is an easy way to jumpstart his offense.
In a related but harder-to-quantify note, there were times when it felt like McDaniels was just… floating around. The Wolves had a strange year filled with trades, health issues, and the pressure of making an all-in trade. Add in several ball-dominant teammates, and it’s both understandable and excusable. But McDaniels may benefit from a more aggressive mindset on offense.
The lowest-hanging lemon to pluck might be learning to shoot from the right corner, where McDaniels has shot 32.1%, 32.1% again, and most recently, 35.6%. That improvement in his third year is nice, but considering the vast majority of those shot attempts were wide-open, it needs to rise even further.
We’re picking nits here. McDaniels was generally a good shooter when he was open and rarely shot when he wasn’t. That’s what you want role players to do. McDaniels has also shown some dramatic improvement off the dribble. He put the ball on the floor at least once on 51% of his spot-up opportunities, per Synergy Sports, a large increase compared to his previous seasons and proof of his burgeoning catch-and-drive game. As I mentioned, McDaniels has a strong handle for his size and surprising physicality — defenders need to wear a mouthguard, because he will put a shoulder into their face. Here he is blowing by and through O.G. Anunoby, one of the league’s best defenders:
So what does this all add up to? If I sound critical, it’s because I want to see construction. As an offensive player, McDaniels is already useful. He showed some growth as last season went on, averaging 13.9 points after the All-Star break (and the team’s trade of shot-hungry D’Angelo Russell for table-setter Mike Conley) vs. just 11.4 in the games before. But his handle and latent passing ability hint at more, and there are clear — if difficult — ways for him to become an even sharper threat from downtown.
In office drone terms, the Wolves have a bit of a circular reference problem. McDaniels’ entire trajectory could change depending on what Minnesota does with Karl-Anthony Towns…which could change depending on McDaniels’ development.
Last year, Gobert’s slow start and Towns’ injury meant that Minnesota never quite got to see what they could be, but a semi-feisty first-round exit against the eventual champion Nuggets augurs something interesting. And that was without both McDaniels (he, uh, broke his hand accidentally punching a wall) and super-sub Naz Reid. The Wolves will spend the first half of this season evaluating what they have.
But if the team stalls again, the public pressure to move Towns for something else could be overwhelming. I have no idea what trade value Towns has right now, but he would assuredly be moved for a player or players with a smaller offensive footprint. That, plus a full season with Conley at point guard, means there could be more opportunity for McDaniels to grow into an offensive centerpiece. In a weird way, if the Wolves scuffle, it will likely benefit McDaniels.
Even if Minnesota keeps KAT, though, the signs are pointing up for Jaden. His defense will keep him on the floor (as long as his foul-prone ways don’t force him off it). But for the Wolves to make a deep playoff run, McDaniels may have to become a star on the offensive end, too.