Monday, October 2 2023

It wasn’t a heavyweight fight, but a clash between two men blessed with incredible reach to punish opponents. At rest, their hands hang alongside their knees. At best, their palms and lanky fingers block the sightline of shooters rising to fire. And Mikal Bridges saw plenty of Jaden McDaniels’ outstretched arms when Minnesota topped Brooklyn on Tuesday night, keeping the Timberwolves’ playoff aspirations alive and well.

McDaniels was there when Bridges caught the ball on the perimeter. He was there when Bridges careened his way into the paint. He was there for 41 minutes, almost mirroring the Nets’ standout swingman for the entirety of the evening, limiting Bridges to 9-of-24 shooting, despite Bridges’ torrid scoring pace of 30-point outings — ever since headlining Brooklyn’s return for Kevin Durant at the February trade deadline. McDaniels is still just 22, the same age as Bridges when the breakout star first entered the league.

“Defense, for me, is kinda like second nature,” McDaniels told Yahoo Sports. “I just need to watch film, for real.” He scanned footage of Bridges with Wolves assistant coach Joe Boylan just after his pregame warmup, sitting on Minnesota’s bench with a laptop, pointing out his tendencies and cramming for that imminent test. He is frequently studying tape with Boylan or Timberwolves player development staffer Chris Hines, preparing to pester each rival’s leading scorer, from interminable wings like Durant and Bridges, to smaller speedsters like Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. “You can see their frustration in people when they can’t go around you,” McDaniels said. “I like to ruin their night.”

He has weaponized his limbs. At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan, McDaniels tweaks his approach, depending on his nightly assignment. For point guards: “Knowing how tall I am. I feel like for smaller guys and faster dudes, it helps me just to be able to stride in front of them,” McDaniels said. “Or knowing that, like, they can beat me to the spot, but I can get there in two of my steps.” For larger guards: “It really just depends on the height for me. If it’s someone as tall as me, I feel like it’s easier, just because not everyone my height is as quick as I am. Just being able to stay in front and contest the person.” And for stronger forwards: “Just being physical. A bunch of threes and fours [are] a little bigger than me, but I feel like being physical really helps me.”

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels (3) and center Rudy Gobert (27) double-team Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox (5) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, March 4, 2023. The Timberwolves won 138-134. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels (3) and center Rudy Gobert (27) double-team Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox (5) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, March 4, 2023. The Timberwolves won 138-134. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels (3) smothers Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox (5) during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, California, on March 4, 2023. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)

The Wolves created a landing page for McDaniels’ All-Defensive Team push, where the cursor morphs into a black-and-white cutout of an opponent’s face, like Curry or Paul George or Jayson Tatum, and McDaniels’ own headshot quickly follows to smother the image. The site boasts that McDaniels’ matchup difficulty ranks in the 99th percentile of the league, meaning he spends the most time of any defender guarding the most difficult opponents. Each assignment is then shooting 7% worse than expected at the rim when McDaniels stands as the closest defender, the seventh-best rate in the NBA. And the Wolves’ defense is five points per 100 possessions better when McDaniels is on the floor as opposed to when he’s watching from the bench.

Before each contest, Timberwolves coaches label certain opposing players as “flush guys,” shooters dangerous enough that Minnesota needs to force them clean off the line and send spiraling down the drain toward Rudy Gobert waiting at the rim. “I treat everyone like a flush,” McDaniels said. “Make them play inside the arc. Make them make tough twos and stuff like that.” He relishes swatting shots off the backboard. He is always hunting for opportunities to poke steals.

His only deficiency on defense may be his propensity for fouling, a problem area dating back to his lone season at the University of Washington. Even amid a career year this 2022-23 campaign, McDaniels is still being whistled for four fouls per 36 minutes. He grins sheepishly when asked how to resolve the issue. “I don’t know. For real, to be honest. I feel like I’m playing good defense,” McDaniels said. “I don’t [mean] to foul. My arms are just too long. That’s all I got at this point. I just [get] tangled up.”

All this, while McDaniels has handled a higher shooting volume and greater usage rate during his third season, averaging 12.2 points per game on 51.7% shooting and 39.9% from three. “I think Jaden’s responded to more and more usage this year, whether it be just with the ball in his hands in the flow, or in actions,” Minnesota head coach Chris Finch said. “You gotta have the ball skill that’s required to make the pick-and-roll reads with it being such a heavy pick-and-roll game right now. Jaden’s always had a high basketball IQ. He has a good feel for things.”

Throughout the Timberwolves’ first-round matchup with Memphis last spring, McDaniels figured out how to time his scoring attacks, lingering on the periphery of the offense like a drummer keeping time, ready to explode with a fill when the spotlight shifts his way. “Teams put the weakest defender on me. So it’s even easier to score sometimes or even just try things, because I don’t have to go against the best defender,” McDaniels told Yahoo Sports. And sometimes, he takes that personally. “I [get] mad, like, but it is what it is. I know they can’t guard me.”

He has slowed his pace, playing fast but processing the game more methodically. He can hang in the paint and twist his wiry frame around imposing rim protectors. He is rounding into the fourth focal point Minnesota fought to keep out of their blockbuster package for Gobert. A running mate for Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns. A menace on the wing the Timberwolves need, with another play-in tournament appearance around the corner.

Source: Yahoo Sports


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