NBA Breakout Player Watchlist 23-24: Jaden McDaniels (Minnesota Timberwolves)

Orlando Magic forward Franz Wagner kicked off Lineups’ Breakout Players Watchlist, and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels earns the next spot. Can he breach the All-Star game this season? Check out below for why Jaden McDaniels has the tools to disrupt the NBA.

Jaden McDaniels Defense

Voters last season absolutely snubbed Jaden McDaniels from making an All Defensive team. It’s difficult to understand this baffling decision, as McDaniels popped off the screen every game while dominating advanced metrics.

190 players logged at least 1500 minutes last season across the NBA. Per BBall Index’s metrics, McDaniels ranked fourth in Matchup Difficulty, first in Perimeter Isolation Defense, and first in Ball Screen Navigation. In other words, McDaniels constantly guarded the opponent’s top offensive option on an island at a hyper-elite level and stuck to them like glue regardless of screens. He tormented even the best of the best, as displayed by his steal against Ja Morant below.

McDaniels’ seven-foot wingspan allowed him to poke the ball away from Morant there, which is a common occurrence for ball handlers guarded by the Timberwolves forward. McDaniels’ anticipation seems to grow his wingspan by a foot too, as he’s able to disrupt passes that should be traveling cleanly. In the clip below, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl makes a beautiful cut, and Josh Giddey immediately recognizes that the defender is beaten…that is if his name wasn’t Jaden McDaniels.

How many players in the NBA could steal that ball? He’s one of the best at exploding off of one leg and propelling himself into the passing lane, which becomes even deadlier when factoring in his length. Speaking of his recovery, check out this possession against All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton. McDaniels picked him up at half-court, but Haliburton caught him off balance because he knew McDaniels expected him to utilize the screener.

He utterly vaporized Haliburton’s advantage in a flash because he’s so fluid when flipping his hips. Due to this trait, it’s difficult for ball handlers to beat him on crossovers. The clip also displays that he possesses the coordination to track and block shots with his left hand, which increases defensive versatility. Unsurprisingly, McDaniels ranked 16th in BBall Index’s Rim Protection metric and 18th in rim defensive field goal percentage versus expected. For a non-big, those are truly impressive marks.

In addition, he is superb at stopping his momentum and exploding back towards the ball handler. For example, Donovan Mitchell did everything right in the following clip. He recognized that the defender was overplaying the anticipated screen, crossed to his left and created plenty of space through a slight step-back three.

That move would have burnt almost every defender because of their momentum taking them towards the basket while trying to recover…but not McDaniels. His hip speed, change of direction, one-leg explosiveness, and length allowed him to block the shot – a feat that perhaps only a handful of defenders in the league could have accomplished.

Finally, McDaniels is a smart, patient player that approaches defense like a master strategist. He’s seemingly never out of control or taking wild risks despite the fact that his physical gifts could often let him get away with it. Essentially, McDaniels doesn’t simply play to his strengths but rather to his opponent’s weaknesses. For example, Zion Williamson is a wrecking ball on drives who initiates forceful contact to either draw free throws or push the defender backwards so that the shot is open. However, McDaniels doesn’t let Williamson play to his strengths, and the following occurs:

The moment Zion hits the free throw line and lowers his right shoulder, McDaniels steps back while remaining in striking distance. He essentially “pulls the chair” on Williamson, and forces him to switch from power to finesse while funneling him into the help defender. That’s the genius behind McDaniels’ decision here. He can block the shot if he’s simply riding Williamson’s hip because of the length difference, but he can’t if Williamson’s strength shoves him out of position. Therefore, he doesn’t allow the Pelicans power forward to dictate the terms of engagement and neutralizes his top tool: power and strength.

In summation, McDaniels resides in the top tier of NBA defenders and will continue to terrorize offenses. He’s arguably the best Swiss Army Knife defender in the league, as he can pick up Damian Lillard at half-court while also protecting the rim against massive forwards like Jayson Tatum. As a side note, DraftKings currently prices him at +1100 to earn All-Defensive First Team, which is worth considering.

Jaden McDaniels Offense & Ceiling

Although his defense is already optimal, McDaniels’ offensive game has plenty of room for growth. The Timberwolves forward averaged 12.1 points and 1.9 assists on 51/39/73 shooting splits this past season. The only other players to average at least 12.1 points, one block, and 0.9 steals on a 61.1 true shooting percentage were Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Jaren Jackson Jr, Kristaps Porzingis, Nic Claxton, Jakob Poeltl, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Firstly, off-ball impact and decent three-point shooting are essential for non-bigs to thrive on the court against playoff defenses. McDaniels obliges, as he was in the 91st percentile of cut points per possession. He also produced a 39.8 3PT% and ranked 68th of 190 players in 3PT Shot Making, a metric that adjusts efficiency with shot quality (per BBall Index, minimum 1500 minutes). It wasn’t a flukey shooting season either because his shot is repeatable and maintains quality arc.

McDaniels especially thrives when attacking off of the catch. He leverages that initial momentum in order to get the defender off balance well, and McDaniels is quickly experimenting with dribble combinations to subsequently find the right angle of attack. In the clip below, his handle isn’t quite tight enough to beat Giddey (an area McDaniels needs to improve), but he has the right idea and uses a beautiful bump to create space for the shot.

Instead of immediately shooting off the bump though, McDaniels does a quasi jump-stop in order to regain his balance before smoothly squaring his shoulders on the fadeaway. That’s an incredibly smart maneuver that reeks of a veteran scorer.

On the rare occasion that McDaniels isolated last season, he flashed intriguing potential too. Defensive ace Aaron Gordon is marking him in the clip below, but McDaniels absolutely dusts him with a hesitation crossover before finishing through contact.

A shot fake would have baited Gordon there, but McDaniels’ offensive feel will improve with more reps. For a player that hasn’t remotely scratched the surface, it’s impressive that he ranked 43rd of 190 in Self Created Shot-Making per BBall Index.

Besides a tighter handle and improved angles off the dribble, the next frontier for McDaniels is playmaking. He currently doesn’t see the court like an orchestrator, and his passes are not of a pinpoint nature. It’s the area that McDaniels is least likely to be above average in, but effective on-ball playmaking isn’t exactly a requirement for his role or position. If he never develops into a four to five assists per game player, it’s not the end of the world. His off the dribble scoring and finishing are essential if he wants to take the next step though.

Overall, McDaniels is a special defender and efficient shooter. Based on his film from last season, he has serious potential as a deadly self-created scorer and finisher. If he hits the heights that I believe are possible, he can become an exceptional two-way player and excellent third option on a championship team. Look for McDaniels to breakout offensively after another season of honring his craft and significantly bump his scoring average. He probably won’t make the All-Star game this season, but a trip is in his future.

NBA Most Improved Player Odds

Find the best odds for the NBA’s Most Improved Player (MIP) award for the 2023-24 season. McDaniels currently sits at +3500 odds.

Braxton has been covering the NBA for Lineups since the 2022 season. He's worked with multiple collegiate coaching staffs regarding analytics and scouting, which has allowed him to understand the game on a deeper level. Braxton is also a contributor at Thunderous Intentions.

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