Don’t blink now, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are on a winning streak, claiming four straight after a tight win over the Sacramento Kings on Monday. By nature of the Western Conference and the perpetual state of chaos that exists in the middle of the playoff and play-in races, that’s vaulted the Wolves from the fringe of the play-in to the seventh seed as of Wednesday morning.
Chris Finch’s continual tinkering of lineups has led to five player unit that’s finally finding success on both ends — across ~500 possessions, the Conley/Edwards/McDaniels/Anderson/Gobert lineup is outscoring teams by +10.5 points per 100 possessions, with above-average marks on both sides of the ball. Jaden McDaniels’ emergence as a legitimate two-way force, in particular, is a pivotal aspect to Minnesota finding a semblance of stability during a tenuous season.
The Wolves played 12 games in March. In them, McDaniels is averaging 15.5 points per game on 61.3 percent true-shooting while hitting 41.7 percent of his four three point attempts per game. He’s set and tied his career-high of 25 points in a game twice in a week’s span. And it’s not just that McDaniels is scoring that’s impressive, it’s how those buckets are coming.
All season, there have been glimpses of McDaniels’ offensive growth, but March has inarguably been the most fruitful and consistent month of his young career as a secondary scorer. Sixty percent of his shots this season are coming within 14 feet, as opposed to 52 percent last season, per Cleaning the Glass.
Finishing through and handling contact was a problem for McDaniels his first two seasons, but he’s found more ways to readily leverage his strength at present.
McDaniels is spindly, but his functional strength is unquestionable, as he regularly holds his own on an island against any and every player archetype in the book of basketball. With some added tightness in his wide and high handle, he’s finding ways to employ that same physicality in getting downhill. If he can burrow his shoulder into a defender’s chest, he has the touch to rise over via the modicum of space created to hit lofted fade-ways and craft finishes with lengthy extensions.
He’s shooting a career-high on twos (59.2 percent) while taking more of them on a per-game basis than he ever has, all of which is happening alongside an uptick in self-creation —66 percent of his made twos are assisted, compared to 71.5 percent his first two seasons. Part of this is due to playing with arguably the best spacing he ever has, but McDaniels has also taken advantage of the opportunities this has provided.
There’s a growing sense of control in his game. While McDaniels still has stumbling moments as a driver, he’s found some comfort in size-ups. He takes a half beat to soak in the possession, not in a way that halts the play, but rather to take advantage of the way he’s guarded and how a defense has reacted.
Last season, the sorts of plays in the above clip would have been offensive fouls or rushed attempts more often than not. Slowing down has allowed him to utilize his frame, play like the 6’10 forward he is, and get the most out of his footwork. He’s less choppy on his drives, and while I wouldn’t call him bursty by any stretch of the imagination, he kind of glides with his consistent body control and a sneakily shifty handle.
Every move is a counter. A hesi and stride change to off-put a rim protector and set up his guard. A spin and stride change to attack a defender’s hip. A step through to attack the opposite direction. Your own momentum is your enemy against McDaniels.
McDaniels is brandishing a career-high free throw rate, a byproduct of his guile and jerky nature. Not unlike his teammate Kyle Anderson, he has a verve that can be difficult for opponents to match.
While I still wouldn’t say that McDaniels is taking “the leap,” he’s taking a leap that’s incredibly meaningful for the Wolves and his own development. His shot has remained consistent from deep, recovering after a wayward first month, and that’s allowed him to soak up more usage than he ever has. His usage rate is up to 19.3 percent in March with minimal fluctuation (he was at 15.3 percent usage the first 4.5 months of the season, the same as his 2021-22 season).
By virtue of being consistently guarded, McDaniels has earned more opportunities as a secondary ball-handler, attacking secondary pick-and-rolls. He’s been given opportunities to dive towards the rim with designed cuts. He’s even been employed as a screener and roller of late as the Wolves toggle their lineups.
He hasn’t reached a point where he can be the offense or operate from a standstill, but rather, he’s reaching a point where he cannot be hidden. He has to be guarded given how consistent his shot has become on volume. Within that, he’s found his own offense, an essential part of becoming a higher level secondary scorer.
In recent matchups between the Timberwolves and the Hawks, Atlanta has tried to start the game by having Trae Young guard McDaniels. The third-year forward has responded with two of his best scoring outputs of the year. This clip is a glimpse of exactly what you want to see from him.
The initial drive is taken away, but then he kicks out the ball, receives it back after re-establishing himself, and goes right up with the spinning layup. It’s simple, but simple is all he needs to get an efficient look.
Like-sized defenders that can slide their feet with him and remain disciplined still give McDaniels trouble. He can be forced into contested twos away from the basket. But, that’s the next part of the equation. Defenses are getting to the point where they realize they can’t put their worst defender on him and get away with it, and that’s played a substantial part in the Wolves starting to find offensive stability with McDaniels on the court.
McDaniels is still a fairly average passer, but the decisiveness he’s playing with keeps the flow of the Wolves’ offense in stride. He’s improving as a player who can hit the dunker spot when he draws baseline help, a boon alongside Rudy Gobert. If he’s driving baseline himself, he’s seeing cutters with more regularity. Those actual lanes for cutting and passing are more available when teams have to worry about a 6’10 forward who can finish at all three levels.
He’s been a fantastic complement to Wolves star Anthony Edwards, too. Edwards’ own vision as a playmaker is proliferating, and McDaniels has reaped the benefits while providing as they’ve found greater synergy. Less is expected of the lesser scorers on the team, as an aging Mike Conley can be utilized more as an offensive catalyst and off-ball threat. How the duo fairs with Karl-Anthony Towns regularly in the mix is a notable storyline for the Wolves during the final stretch of the season — Towns, of course, is just returning from missing 51 games due to a calf injury.
Already one of the best defenders on the planet, McDaniels is making noteworthy strides that have bolstered the Timberwolves in recent weeks. The fruits have already been borne by Minnesota, and as a result, the team is playing some of its best basketball as the postseason approaches.